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A professor worried no one would read an algae study. So she had it put to music

An anthropology professor at the University of South Florida recently published a paper she knew barely anyone would read. At least, not outside her field.

The paper,co-authored with three other professors, had to do with the impact of algae blooms and depletion of coral reefs on the region's tourism industry. The work was glum, says Heather O'Leary. It involved tracking visitors' reactions to the environment on social media.

"Part of the data for months was just reading tweets: dead fish, dead fish, dead fish," she recalls. "We were really thinking every day about the Gulf of Mexico and the waters that surround us, especially in St. Pete as a peninsula, about those risks, and the risks to our coastal economy."

But attending concerts at USF's School of Music inspired and gladdened her. So she reached out to its director of bands, Matthew McCutchen.

"I'm studying climate change and what's going down at the coral reefs," he remembers her saying. "And I've got all this data and I'd like to know if there's any way that we can turn it into music."

Indeed there was. Composition professor Paul Reller worked with students to map pitch, rhythm and duration to the data. It came alive, O'Leary says, in ways it simply does not on a spreadsheet.

Matthew McCutchen, Heather O'Leary and Hunter Pomeroy at the University of South Florida Symphonic Band & Wind Ensemble show at USF Concert Hall.
Aiden Michael McKahan / University of South Florida
University of South Florida
Matthew McCutchen, Heather O'Leary and Hunter Pomeroy at the University of South Florida Symphonic Band & Wind Ensemble show at USF Concert Hall.

"My students were really excited to start thinking about how the other students, the music students, heard patterns that we did not see in some of the repetitions," she says. With music, she added, "you can start to sense with different parts of your mind and your body that there are patterns happening and that they're important."

In this case, she says, the patterns revealed the economic impact of pollution on coastal Florida communities. The complex challenge is a symptom of other, bigger problems. "The world is going to see more and more of these purportedly 'wicked problems,' the ones that take multiple people with different types of training and background to solve," O'Leary says.

The University of South Florida is excited about this composition. Other departments are getting involved, including communications, education and library science. Now, a group of faculty and students are working to bring together music and the environment in related projects, such as an augmented reality experience based on this composition. The group, which calls itself CRESCENDO(Communicating Research Expansively through Sonification and Community-Engaged Neuroaesthetic Data-literacy Opportunities) wants to spread awareness about the algae blooms, data literacy and democratizing science.

Edited for radio and the web by Rose Friedman. Produced for the web by Beth Novey. Produced for the radio by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.