Melanie Brady ’12 is about to embark on an impressive, innovative journey—she will write the first non-laboratory, creative thesis ever attempted in the University’s Neuroscience department.
The Argus: So what’s the idea behind your thesis?
Melanie Brady: I was granted the approval to write the very first library thesis for neuroscience, which means it’s a non-laboratory thesis. I’m a neuroscience, psychology, and MB&B triple major, but also a Writing Certificate candidate. So I’m attempting to produce an interdisciplinary mosaic of art and science by fusing solid scientific research with a creative narrative. I’m trying to develop an interdisciplinary framework by which science and writing are conjoined to bring insight to a medical condition that otherwise would not be able to be properly understood in its entirety if either discipline were individually discussed.
A: What’s your thesis topic?
MB: My topic is about vision, visual deficits, and how they relate to the brain. I will be exploring vision’s dependency on the brain, and how many visual deficits stem from problems from the brain. I’ll be looking at a bunch of different deficits, but I’ll be focusing primarily on coloboma, which is a very rare birth defect that impairs vision. It can come in several different forms. It can cause a lazy eye, or affect the way the pupil appears in the eye, or it could, in rare cases, cause blindness. I will be researching and exploring how that could have occurred from something going wrong in the development of the brain. I will also explore the compensatory mechanisms by which the brain is able to rework itself after the deficit occurs and allow the person to live a rather normal life despite the deficit the person is experiencing. I will be working with a subject who has coloboma.
A: How did you find the subject?
MB: I’m good friends with the subject, and as long as the subject remains unidentified, the person doesn’t mind if I interview [him/her].
A: That’s great that you can have a working relationship like that.
MB: As long as it’s not intrusive. I’m not trying to point fingers, or show anything at all negative. I’m only trying to explore something that personally fascinates me.
A: How long have you known this person?
MB: All my life. So I’ve had this condition in mind for a long time.
A: How will you structure your thesis?
MB: In the creative portion, it will be subjective, in the sense that I will be explaining how the subject is able to perceive the world differently. How living in a three-dimensional world and perceiving that is possible without being physically equipped to do so. That creative narrative—which will be in the first person, from the subject’s point of view, from the subject’s exact words—will be interspersed throughout scientific research on the deficit itself. I’ll do the research on my own, and I will also discuss this kind of deficit with researchers around the nation who are actually studying coloboma now in their own labs. In addition, I will be interviewing different optometrists and ophthalmologists who have come in contact with patients who have this deficit, as well as this subject’s doctors, who had no idea at the time what to expect of somebody with that kind of deficit. So I’ll be trying to bring kind of a worldly view of this—not only from the subject’s point of view but also other people’s points of view. Then, to take it even further creatively speaking, I am also going to include possibly fictional pieces that play around with this abstract idea of darkness without light. Though deceptively terrifying, the darkness can quite possibly answer more questions than the light can.
A: So the fictional pieces are trying to get at what it’s like to have that condition, to have that perspective on the world?
MB: Exactly. The creative portion is going to be in a more abstract, metaphorical style. It will be about how every other sense is magnified, how their sensory experience is intensified to an extent impossible to comprehend just because of light that is gone. Because that actually does happen. You’ll see different cases of people who are blind where they lost their vision, but their hearing gets better. They can hear other things that people with vision can’t hear, or they can smell something. Some senses intensify because their sight is gone.
A: How did you feel about reading out loud in one of your writing courses the piece you included with this article?
MB: I thought that was phenomenal. Because even for a second, some of the stigma can be relieved because you can see some of the coolness in it. That’s not really what I’m trying to convey in my writing, but it’s an interesting side effect, to see that it can be—as somebody described the mood of the piece last night [Sep. 20]—exhilarating to feel that way, even though you can’t see. Have you ever been in a crowded room with the lights off? How do things around you change? How does your perception change? Everything kind of alters because your vision is gone. So imagine being like that for the rest of your life. I think, personally, that it’s kind of fascinating, and I’m really excited to start working on this.
A: Could you explain a little bit of the science behind that?
MB: There are basically some inputs that are silences when you have all your senses working, but they are no longer silenced when something is missing. So when your vision is missing, inputs actually become more strongly activated, almost as if giving a gift after the loss. Once one input is muted, the other one becomes more present. That was not scientifically conveyed, but it was accessible [laughs]. I will be taking that and expressing it more creatively through the writing.
A: What did it take to get your thesis approved?
MB: It was a long process. I found the department to be, from the beginning, very accepting, and very intrigued by my idea, which I truly appreciated. It’s nice to know—even though I like the challenge of adversity—that they made it sound like it was possible. It was one of the most exhilarating moments. You know when you say something out loud, and you think it’s great in your head but it just comes out wrong? I didn’t want that to be one of those moments, especially because it was something I was passionate about. So to bring it to several different members of the department, and have them look at me wide-eyed and say, “Wow, this could actually be a great thesis, I think you should do this. We should get this done,” was an incredible feeling.
A: Why do you think they were so receptive?
MB: There’s not a lab on campus that is directly related to what I want to do, so getting in a lab would not benefit me for this topic. It would be different if I was trying to do stem cell research, for example, by myself when Professor of Biology, and Neuroscience and Behavior Janice] Naegele has a stem cell lab on campus. That would be weird if I tried to do that. I think it was more the idea that you have the exception, and then you have the rule. And I think, in this case, I was the exception. I think my idea is so collaborative in all the fields that it is trying to bring together, and I feel like it’s doing that in a beneficial way to science in general. Like I said, it’s a feat that the science departments are trying to conquer right now by joining the writing and science fields. So I think this was an opportunity for them, a decision that could have potential benefits for science in general, to see if merging those fields will actually work.
A: So you hope your thesis can lead the way for more like it?
MB: Yes. I’m solely an experimental case right now, so it’s a trial basis. Library theses are not accepted throughout the department, they’re just taking a chance on me. And I’m going to try my hardest to not let anyone dow. It was a long process to get it approved, but each step of the way was encouraging. I didn’t see any negative responses from anybody I talked with.
A: What’s your goal for your thesis?
MB: My goal is to have anybody and everybody be able to read this body of work and understand it, from any aspect that I present it. I know that research papers can be so dense, and so hard to understand, and I’m a science major! So imagine somebody reading that paper—how are they really going to understand that? So I want to make this as personable and relatable as I can, and allow people from any fields—students, professors, and anybody who wants to read it—to understand something about the condition I am focusing on.