Senior Snapshot: Kimaya Lecamwasam Finds the Connection Between Neuroscience and Music
Before Wellesley, Kimaya Lecamwasam ’21 thought music and science were separate worlds, and that one day she’d have to choose one or the other. “I’ve been playing music all my life, as cliché as that sounds,” she said. “I taught music in high school, I worked at the front desk in a music school, I play it myself. I knew I loved it. But I had heard in high school that when I got to college, I would have to pick.” She figured she would enjoy music while she could and eventually turn her focus to science.
But everything changed the first semester of her first year, when Lecamwasam took Songs and Songwriting with Martin Brody, Catherine Mills Davis Professor Emeritus of Music, and Larry Rosenwald, Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of American Literature and professor of English. “At that point, I was still buying into the mindset where I thought I can’t do both of these things,” she said. “I thought I was taking that course as a final hurrah for music, and it was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken.”
The daughter of immigrants from Sri Lanka, Lecamwasam has family all over the world—including Rhode Island, Arizona, England, Australia—and during the pandemic, she turned to music to keep them connected. “We’re a huge music family,” she said. “We all love music, and we love being together, so during the past year it was a nice way to connect with my cousins—working on songs together, exchanging playlists.” While she is disappointed that her family can’t fly in for commencement—she’s the first person to graduate from college in her generation on her mother’s side of the family—she was glad that her relatives in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong were able to tune in to see her Ruhlman presentation. Lecamwasam never thought that could be possible, just as she never thought she could study both music and science. “The things I get to do now are beyond the wildest dreams of my parents and grandparents and grandparents’ parents,” she said.
“Music has a really beautiful way of making the lives of people I love better.”Kimaya Lecamwasam ’21
Lecamwasam was impressed by how the professors created an environment that attracted students from all different disciplines, showing how creating music is actually connected to many practices outside the arts. Music involves a lot more science than Lecamwasam had initially realized, she said—and she learned that science involves a lot of artistic expression, too. She took neuroscience classes with Sara Wasserman, Kresa Family Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, who stressed that scientists have to come up with creative ideas for studies and experiments, and imagine things that haven’t been thought of before.
“One of the best things I got out of Wellesley was realizing that I don’t have to do just science or just art, but that these things complement and inform each other,” Lecamwasam said. In the end, she majored in neuroscience, but she also continued with music—studying guitar, sitar, and piano at Wellesley. For her neuroscience thesis, Lecamwasam worked with a group at MIT that studied a patient who had a computer interface device implanted in their brain. The device is used to control a glove that simulates hand movements, as a way to give movement back to quadriplegic patients. Lecamwasam worked with researchers to help improve the way the glove works, teaching it to learn from signal changes in the patient’s brain. Lecamwasam said she is interested in studying how these types of interfaces might allow musicians who suffer from paralysis, arthritis, or tendinitis to play again.
Lecamwasam will be learning more about the connections between neuroscience and music this fall. She has received the Harriet A. Shaw Fellowship from Wellesley for graduate studies focused on music, which will support her in the master’s program at the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future—the group that has designed the software program Rock Band, created sonic pictures of urban landscapes through City Symphonies, and studied how music can help treat people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Lecamwasam feels strongly that music can be healing. “Throughout my life, I’ve relied heavily on writing and playing music as a way to process things I’ve been going through,” she said. “It’s been important to my own mental health, especially during COVID.” Lecamwasam noted that people have always turned to music during tough times, citing the popularity of Vera Lynn’s song “We’ll Meet Again” during World War II and its resurgence during the coronavirus pandemic. “We unite around songs, and we use music to cope with trauma,” she said. “I think music is going to be super-important as we all try to move on from this past year and a half, and that’s something I want to be able to help with. Music has a really beautiful way of making the lives of people I love better.”