An Interview with Lisa Margulis

Interview by Mike Winters and Amruta Vidwans
Jan 30, 2017

A few words about Lisa Margulis:
Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is Professor and Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Her book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (Oxford University Press, 2013) won the Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory and the Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award from ASCAP. She’s a 2016 Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and is currently writing The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press. She has a B.M. in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Veda Kaplinsky, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University

You are a woman in a male dominated field. What made you choose music as a profession?
I grew up playing the piano.. In music, there was this open ended path where you can go as far as you want. I really enjoyed that challenge. Then I found myself as an undergraduate in a music conservatory that was associated with a university, Peabody, a part of Johns Hopkins University. s a part of being there, you could go to Hopkins and take whatever classes you wanted. But my piano teacher, like many others’ piano teachers, adviced me to focus on practicing. I rebelled by taking a class anyway at Hopkins, called “Minds, Brains and Computers”, and very early in that class I recognized that some of the models that we are using to think about language acquisition could be transferred to music. That possibility was so exciting for me. In a very teenage way, I think I was 19, I decided that this was what I was going to do, and then I did it.

So did you finish your performance degree at Peabody Conservatory of Music and switched over to psychology?
Yes, I went on to Columbia. My goal was to work with Fred Lerdahl because we had read in the class a short passage alluding to his work in collaboration with Ray Jackendoff on linguistics.

What is the favorite part of your research job?
I really enjoy the flexibility that I have.I am able to use different frameworks to think about research questions on music cognition. I can move back and forth between a more humanistic type of questions and methodologies and a more scientific types of approaches. By doing that, I have resisted some kind of brain-washing that can happen when you are set in one of these fields. Even people who are not doing work that is so fundamentally interdisciplinary can benefit from having to sit down and discuss their work with people of different background. This is helpful to frame and refine the way you are thinking about things. Some problems may be accommodated by both perspectives but it is the matter of what is the attractable way to get at that question and which framework is the most suited.

Can you tell us about one of your success stories?
I feel good about making connection between students who did not know that there was such a saying as “going to get a PhD” or like research that you could do. These students appear in the class and from their questions and responses I can tell whether this is a person who would love to do research. I will get involved and  do work with them and eventually watch them move on to PhD programs, graduating, and getting into this field. I feel that they are going to make good contributions and I happy about having made that match-up happen between them.

And the students that you are working with that are not thinking about research or PhD are musicians mostly?
Most typically the students who are not thinking about pursuing a PhD are either music major or psychology major or double major in both. However, University of Arkansas has a number of 1st generation college students who are taking this path that they did not know previously.

In your opinion, why do you think there are not more females in music technology?
I wish I knew the answer to that question. I do think that there is somethingat the systemic level, we as a society. But I noticed that here at Georgia Tech and GTCMT you are doing a lot of initiatives that have to do with outreach in schools and outreach with the young. That seems like the most effective way to tackle that problem, it is very impressive.

Tell me about your experiences as a woman in graduate environments. What was your experience with transitioning to professional practice?
I did not have a woman advisor but I had the chance to observe how they navigated and encounter them . It was just the observational experience of seeing how a woman was handling various situations that helped me a lot. I think I have not recognized until this moment that they were very important. I think probably having female faculty is an important thing.

Did you face any problems moving forward in academia, and how did you resolve them?
Everyone encounters problems. It is always challenging to figure out how to make the decision that is good for your professional and personal life of where you are going to go. I often tend to take of lot of people’s advice talking with them, and realize that there is no ultimate right answer so finally I just need to ask myself what I want to do. Sometimes by having those conversations and getting the advice I could test it out, that somebody would say one thing and I would think “No, I do not want to do that!”. T

Was there any strong mentor to you?
At the very beginning I took a class with Paul Smolensky and he did for me a little bit what I have hoped to do for some of the students which was the match-making of cognitive sciences. That was really transformative. Then, in my early years when I was working as a faculty at Northwestern, I had a colleague called Patrick Wong who was the expert in auditory neuroscience. He understood how to navigate the profession and was really generous with his collaborators,students and post-doctoral fellowsof bringing people along with him, sharing his insights and giving a great advice. Besides he was my collaborator and colleague, I think he is really important and influential.

Women face many challenges in either the technology industry or academia but they also bring many strengths. What do you think is the best part of being a woman in your field?
I think that cultural norms make it very easy for women to be open, be good listeners, and be able to work with other people really well. I think that havingcollaborations,working with colleagues and creating a good atmosphere in the lab help the students to progress and make good work. I do not think that there is something about being a woman but about the qualities that tend to be encouraged through women.

Was it difficult to stop playing piano when you were done with under-graduation or do you still play?
Yes I still play. There were a couple of years where I was not playing piano at all and you come back and you sit down where you are used to a certain thing happening and that thing does not happen. So the way that I have dealt with it is that, instead of continuing to try to play classical music worst than I could play 20 year ago, I have tried to learn other kinds of music like jazz so that at least I am not being bad at something that I used to be good at. NowI only play pieces that I really want to play.

Do you have any recommendation for the music tech community of how to go about increasing the representation of women or bringing more women into music technology?
I seems like you are doing all the right steps. I think that it is really about making that path apparent and integrating it with the other things that people care about. It sounds like you have all these kinds of outreach events at various levels where you are just making that path clear. How does a person get started with this? What do you do? And what are the cool things that a person can do in this area? I think you all are doing really really great work.

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