Texas Tech University

Led by the Arts, Texas Tech Establishes Multidisciplinary Research Lab

Amanda Castro-Crist

August 23, 2019

The lab includes researchers from the Texas Tech University System and several other institutions and was made possible by a cooperative agreement award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When it comes to cutting-edge studies and advancement in medical and perceptual studies, the arts can be overlooked as a key factor in new developments. But with the help of a $146,923 award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a multidisciplinary group of researchers at Texas Tech University is hoping to change that perception.

One of the goals of the National Endowment for the Arts is to establish a network of projects and laboratories that can work together on research through the establishment of NEA Research Labs. Noel Zahler, principal investigator of the lab and dean of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA), said over the past three years, there have been just 12 NEA Research Lab awards made nationally as part of the National Endowment for the Art's 2017-2021 five-year research agenda.

Noel Zahler
Noel Zahler

Each NEA Research Lab is based at a major research university, where an agenda and program are designed and conducted to generate new findings, data and products that contribute in a substantive manner to a wider understanding of the relationships between the arts and health, cognition and entrepreneurship.

"This grant puts us on the map as a leader in arts-related medical research and gives us the credentials to attract other funding and research partners, both in academia, as well as in the entrepreneurial world," Zahler said. "It allows us to create the Texas Tech NEA Research Lab to explore human performance in its many dimensions and over a broad spectrum. Our work in autism, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, stroke/aphasia, movement disorders and a host of other areas needs this kind of national and federal recognition to make the public aware of the contributions the arts make to the economic and educational well-being of our population."

The Texas Tech NEA Research Lab provides a structured environment that encourages further interdisciplinary activities between the arts, humanities and sciences, and the impact is expected to be wide-ranging and varied.

"Academics and educators speak regularly of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics," said Joseph A. Heppert, Texas Tech's vice president for Research & Innovation. "What the NEA's Research Lab program seeks to build on this foundation is STEAM: the inclusion of the arts as a coequal partner among STEM. NEA Research Labs, such as the one at Texas Tech, are therefore ideal intersecting points between the arts and sciences. They are designed with the specific purpose of asserting the arts' methods, techniques, perspectives and practices to some of today's most pressing contemporary issues. As the academic world moves toward better and closer integration of what were previously highly divided divisions of scholarly inquiry and activity, the need will only increase for engines of innovation that nurture and promote multidisciplinary approaches to difficult or hitherto-insoluble challenges. The NEA Research Lab is one such engine."

Research initiatives within the lab will include exploring the use of animation as a therapeutic tool; methods for increasing linguistic capacity and recovery, particularly in those affected by speech impairments after a stroke; and the cognitive benefits of musical training for older individuals afflicted by Alzheimer's disease. The lab is expected to generate more than research activity and academic discussion.

"It will lay the foundation for the creation of new, innovative products and services that hold the capacity to improve the lives of many individuals facing challenges whose solutions are best realized through the integration of the arts and science," Heppert said. "Moreover, the lab represents a new chapter in the distinguished legacy of the arts at Texas Tech University. With support from the National Endowment for the Arts and succeeding grants, the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts aspires to become a world-leading center for interdisciplinary arts research, powering not only an agenda of artistic excellence, but also one of innovative, cross-pollinated inquiry that brings many of the world's best artists and scientists together in building STEAM."

The researchers and projects

In addition to Zahler, Heppert and Andrew Martin, the executive associate dean for resources in the TCVPA who was a key collaborator on the award, there are several researchers involved from the TCVPA, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Human Sciences, the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and the College of Media & Communication (COMC) and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).

Research partners outside the Texas Tech University System include Drexel University, the University of Southern California, the University of California-San Diego, Indiana University-Bloomington, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), and the University of Southern Denmark.

The keystone project for the grant is the creation of a Visual Interactive Narrative Intervention (VINI), an application that will enable persons with stroke-induced aphasia to communicate with healthcare providers.

"Aphasia is a language-processing impairment that disrupts an individual's ability to communicate," said Stacy Elko, one of the VINI researchers. "This challenge can lead to serious adverse events, such as medication errors, hospital readmissions and poor patient satisfaction. A story-based, interactive application, the VINI will explain both stroke and aphasia symptoms in a patient-friendly manner and create a new means through which patients can communicate in an effective, self-determining manner with doctors and other healthcare providers, to the improvement of their health, clinical experiences and sense of control in both communication and life participation."

STAR Program
STAR Program

The VINI research team includes Elko, an associate professor of visual art who focuses on multimedia, interdisciplinary art-making and pedagogy in the Texas Tech School of Art; Melinda Corwin, a professor and the director of the Stroke and Aphasia Recovery (STAR) Program in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, which is housed within the School of Health Professions at TTUHSC; Justin Keene, an assistant professor of journalism and creative media industries in COMC; and John Velez, an assistant professor in the Media School at Indiana University-Bloomington and former faculty member in the COMC.

In addition to the VINI project, lab projects also include:

  • "Fitzmaurice Voicework, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Working Memory," which will examine the effects of the internationally recognized performance methodology, Fitzmaurice Voicework, on improved neurocognitive and behavioral functioning, performance anxiety reduction, improved attentional focus and improved working memory capacity. The study is led by Texas Tech's Rachel Hirshorn, from the School of Theatre & Dance, and Tyler Davis, from the Department of Psychological Sciences; and Lynn Watson, a professor in the Department of Theatre at UMBC.

  • "Measuring the Impact of 'flow' on Classical Piano Performance and Brain Activity: Possible Impacts for Pedagogy, Creativity and Beyond," which will look at how pianists' use of the body relates to their mindset in ways that they may not always be aware of and how this can influence audience perceptions. The research team includes Texas Tech's William Westney, from the School of Music; Michael O'Boyle from the College of Human Sciences; James Yang from the College of Engineering; and Cynthia M. Grund from the philosophy department at the University of Southern Denmark.

The lab and the impact

While the lab was created with the funding from the NEA Research Lab program, several other entities also contribute to research initiatives within the TCVPA.

"The CH Foundation has contributed to our Arts Initiative in Medicine the past two years," Zahler said. "We also have a seed grant for interdisciplinary research at Texas Tech, a mentorship and national cohort recommendation from an NSF Regional I-Corps coaching team and a grant from the Texas Tech Neuroimaging Institute."

The funding allows for state-of-the-art equipment used by researchers, including fMRI, techniques that measure physical changes caused by psychological states such as heart rate and changes to the skin, as well as eye-tracking technology. Arts performance impact studies will seek to quantify individuals' increased ability and performance outcomes through participation in the arts.

"Our research seeks to scientifically and quantitatively go behind the act of performance and document that work with clinical evidence that is brought to light by individuals working together who comprise inter-, trans- and multidisciplinary teams," Zahler said. "We hope our work will make a difference in the lives of patients and the general public through the insights brought about by fusing the arts, medicine and perceptual studies."