Does music unlock memory?

“Listening to nostalgic music not only elicits the traditional memory networks of the brain, but it also involves the reward, narrative and self-processing systems of the brain,” says USC researcher Assal Habibi, who directs the USC Dornsife Center for Music, Brain and Society. (Illustrations/Livia Falcaru)

“Listening to nostalgic music not only elicits the traditional memory networks of the brain, but it also involves the reward, narrative and self-processing systems of the brain,” says USC researcher Assal Habibi, who directs the USC Dornsife Center for Music, Brain and Society. (Illustrations/Livia Falcaru)

Health

Does music unlock memory?

USC faculty are getting closer to understanding what happens in your brain when you hear a familiar song — which could affect those struggling with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

May 14, 2024

By Paul McQuiston

Go put on one of your all-time favorite songs, one that you’ve been listening to your whole life. What thoughts go through your head? Memories of home? The first time you saw the love of your life?

Nostalgic music — music that we tie strongly to a point in our lives — can evoke deep emotions across the age span. The root of this phenomenon has remained a mystery, but studies have shown that music can generate strong emotional responses — both to calm and invigorate.

A team of USC scientists is getting closer to understanding what happens in your brain when you hear a favorite song — and the results might have profound effects on those struggling with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Listening to nostalgic music not only elicits the traditional memory networks of the brain, but it also involves the reward, narrative and self-processing systems of the brain,” says USC researcher Assal Habibi, who directs the USC Dornsife Center for Music, Brain and Society. “These are the mechanisms in the brain by which we think you can listen to 10 seconds of nostalgic music, and it can take you back to something vivid, like your high school prom. We could then use that music as a way of really helping individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.”

Music, movement and learning

Understanding how music affects cognition and the brain as an organ are the twin interests underlying Habibi’s work. An associate research professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Habibi uses various tools, including neuroimaging and psychometric testing, to measure what environmental factors such as music do to our brains.

As founder of the center, Habibi sought to bring together experts from USC Dornsife, the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the USC Thornton School of Music and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to study music and the impact it has on our emotions, movement and learning. Founded in 2023, the center is currently pursuing three lines of research.

One project explores how learning how to play a musical instrument helps foster better cognitive and language skills in the developing child’s brain. The research, done in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s youth orchestra program and Heart of Los Angeles and funded by the L.A. Philharmonic and GROW at Annenberg Foundation, has also led to new insights into the connection between music and emotional regulation.

But it’s the project on triggering emotions that gets at the heart of why music resonates with us so strongly.

“Our hope is that by understanding how music evokes nostalgia and autobiographical memory in healthy younger and older adults, we’ll be able to apply these findings to older adults with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias,” Habibi says.

By understanding how music evokes nostalgia and autobiographical memory in healthy younger and older adults, we’ll be able to apply these findings to older adults with neurodegenerative diseases.

— Assal Habibi

Unveiling lost memories

To investigate how nostalgic music could assist people in recalling memories, Habibi and doctoral candidate Sarah Hennessy tapped experts in machine learning, MRI and psychology to pinpoint what happens in the brain when music unveils a lost memory. To grade how well a participant could recall a memory, the researchers assigned a value to its “vividness,” Habibi says. She describes it as a formula psychologists use to measure how “detailed your perception and sensation of experience are in your description.”

“Vividness measures the amount of detail that goes into your description of a memory,” Habibi says. “If I just ramble on like, ‘I went to the grocery, then did this and that,’ that’s not really remembering your memory, but just the state of it. But if you have details like remembering that the room was dark, that is a more vivid memory.”

The idea has borne two parallel studies from Habibi and Hennessy.

The first had two groups of people, 30 younger and 30 older, who gave the researchers a playlist of songs that evoked powerful memories and emotions. The researchers then used an algorithm developed by Hennessy and colleagues at Viterbi School of engineering to find songs very similar to the ones on the self-selected playlist to serve as a control.

The participants then entered an MRI scanner to scan their brains as they listened to the nostalgic songs, the control songs, and then completely unfamiliar music. Afterward, the participants were asked to describe memories tied to the nostalgic music and the researchers assigned a vividness score. Hennessy says the neuroimaging results were “amazing.”

“When you hear nostalgic music, there’s activity all over your brain, but most notably in the default mode network, which is normally active when we’re daydreaming,” she says. “It is also active when we’re thinking about our own narrative. We also have activity in some visual areas that normally process what you see in front of you. But all these participants had their eyes closed. So, what might be happening is that participants are is visualizing what was in front of them during the memory the song evoked.”

Enhancing quality of life

researchers hope that understanding how music evokes nostalgia and autobiographical memory in healthy young and older adults will allow future research to investigate how these findings could be applied to older adults with neurodegenerative diseases.
USC researchers hope that understanding how music evokes nostalgia and autobiographical memory in healthy young and older adults will allow future research to investigate how these findings could be applied to older adults with neurodegenerative diseases.

In the second study, a separate group of 150 people of color — were played different types of music over 12 weeks. Some weeks, they heard nostalgic music. Other weeks, they listened to familiar music that was not nostalgic. The participants were then asked to describe an autobiographical memory tied to the song or music. Again, the researchers assigned a vividness score to the participants’ responses.

The study’s results, which will form the basis of an upcoming paper, will help reveal whether nostalgic music evokes a more vivid memory. Habibi says understanding why music provokes a response in reward and narrative systems of the brain could be used “as a way of therapeutic interventions for individuals with dementia.”

“This specific pattern of encoding and retrieval of nostalgic music seems to be unique, and the ability of the music to retrieve autobiographical memories is personalized and relative to your story and narrative,” Habibi says. “If nostalgic music can help dementia patients access some memories that are typically not accessible to them, it can enhance the quality of life, even if it’s temporary.

“If a patient is with their children, and they can remember a birthday party associated with a song and details of it, it can bring back the richness and emotional connection of that memory,” she adds.

Nostalgic music allows us to connect to our sense of self.

— Sarah Hennessy

Connecting to a sense of self

Habibi and Hennessy continue to investigate the mind-music connection. Habibi, with researchers from USC Thornton and the Alzheimer Disease Research Center, recently received a National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab grant to investigate the “effects of music engagement on hearing, communication, and psychosocial well-being in individuals with, or at risk for, Alzheimer’s disease, as well as their caregivers.”

Hennessy is scheduled to earn her doctoral degree this May, and presented findings from the MRI study at the NeuroMusic Conference held at McMaster University in Canada in November 2023. The analysis for the study investigating dementia in people of color continues and will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication in the coming months.

Currently, Habibi, Hennessy and doctoral candidate Ellen Herschel are conducting a clinical trial for a music intervention app for individuals experiencing dementia. Habibi says that for many dementia patients, the struggle of not remembering causes a lot of agitation. The app will play music for them that’s not necessarily nostalgic but will help support their emotional regulation when they struggle with not recalling a memory.

Hennessy says the researchers hope that understanding how music evokes nostalgia and autobiographical memory in healthy young and older adults will allow future research to investigate how these findings could be applied to older adults with neurodegenerative diseases. “Investigating the mechanism of how music evokes these powerful emotions and memories in the brain can help us understand how music-evoked memories remain relatively spared in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” Hennessy says.

“Nostalgic music allows us to connect to our sense of self,” she adds. “Because this sense of self is often diminished with neurodegenerative disease, the hope is that this type of tailored music intervention might be able to help patients — even if just for the duration of the song — experience a temporary ‘return to self’ by engaging in these self-referential and autobiographical areas in the brain activated by music.”

 

Using art for medical healing

Illustrated man in a wheelchair painting a rainbow

(Illustrations by Paul Blow)

Arts

Using art for medical healing

A vibrant collection of USC programs infuses arts activities into health care to soften the hospital setting, support patients’ recovery and lift their spirits.

April 12, 2024

By Rachel B. Levin

In the USC-Verdugo Hills Hospital (USC-VHH) Breast Healthcare Center, an exhibit of oil paintings adorns the walls next to the 3D mammography machine. Each artwork depicts a stunning natural scene: Wildflower-studded cliffs framing an azure sea. A footbridge arching over a tranquil pond. Glass vases brimming with irises and sunflowers.

A cancer screening room may seem an unlikely venue for a gallery display. But the artist, Marijane Hebert, sought the opportunity to show her work here. A two-time breast cancer survivor and patient of the USC-VHH Breast Healthcare Center, Hebert knows firsthand how nerve-racking it can be to undergo breast cancer screening — and how art can be a refuge during diagnosis and treatment.

“When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it’s very frightening,” says Hebert, 85, a La Cañada Flintridge resident who has exhibited in galleries in the United States and Europe. “I just thought that art would be fabulous to have in the Breast Healthcare Center to help create a calming atmosphere.”

Hebert’s exhibit was made possible by the USC-VHH Healing Arts Program, which mounts permanent and rotating exhibits by local artists in the hospital’s hallways and treatment spaces. Supported by the Sue and Steve Wilder Healing Arts Endowment, the program also allows hospitalized patients to select a work of their choice from a roving “Art Cart” to keep in their room during their stay and to take home.

“We focus on fine art reflecting positive images of nature and familiar scenery,” says Julie Shadpa, an art therapist by training who is co-chair of the Healing Arts Program and director of donor programs and strategic outreach for the USC-VHH Foundation. “Research has indicated that such imagery lowers stress and distracts from pain. … It gives people a sense of place and connection in the hospital environment, which can be stressful and unfamiliar.”

Art has been used as an adjunct to medical treatment since ancient times. But in the past few decades, a growing body of research has confirmed that viewing and creating art can benefit patients’ physical and mental well-being. The Healing Arts Program is among a robust collection of USC programs that combines the arts with medicine in creative and evidence-based ways to comfort patients and support their healing.

Fighting cancer with creativity

At the Institute for Arts in Medicine (I_AM) at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, a wide range of expressive arts programming aims to improve clinical outcomes for patients.

In the Creative Corner, a cheerful arts studio in the hospital, patients can try their hand at fun projects like painting rocks with inspirational sayings or personalizing a hospital wristband. On Zoom, they can join poetry-writing workshops. From their hospital rooms, they can write, sing and record an original song with the help of a songwriter. In the Rare Book Room at the USC Norris Medical Library, they can plan a body painting session with artist-in-residence Savannah Mohacsi, who draws inspiration from archaic medical illustrations. She later turns the region of the body that is ailing the patient into a creative canvas.

“Creative interventions such as music, poetry and painting can significantly decrease anxiety, depression and a lot of the negative psychological aspects associated with cancer and its treatment,” says Jacek Pinski, associate professor of medicine in the divcarolynmeltzer.comision of medical oncology at USC Norris and executive clinical director of I_AM. “The immune system, which plays a critical role in fighting cancer, gets boosted by these interventions,” he adds.

We call ourselves ‘I_AM’ for a reason: We believe that creative expression brings people closer to their true identities.

— Genevieve “Viva” Nelson

Patients can also don virtual reality (VR) goggles to engage with artistic renderings of natural settings like waterfalls and beaches. Pinski and the I_AM team are currently conducting a clinical trial evaluating the impact of these VR experiences on pain and anxiety during painful bone marrow biopsies.

Yet data doesn’t easily capture some of the most impactful aspects of I_AM’s arts programming. The activities allow patients to reflect on their experiences with illness, integrate them into their larger life journeys and glean wisdom that fortifies them through ongoing challenges.

“We call ourselves ‘I_AM’ for a reason: We believe that creative expression brings people closer to their true identities,” says Genevieve “Viva” Nelson ’18 (SCA), the creative director and co-founder of I_AM. “Engaging with the arts and engaging with our team allows patients to recognize their importance and their value and connect to their extraordinary capacity to be creative.”

Clowning around

Twice a week, children at Los Angeles General Medical Center receive a visit from specially trained USC staff. These visitors aren’t wearing white lab coats or surgical scrubs — they’re sporting red noses and ridiculous costumes. They play ukuleles, blow bubbles, juggle scarves and devise silly scenarios.

They’re medical clowns from USC Comic+Care, a program at the USC School of Dramatic Arts that employs comedic arts to support children grappling with illness.

Both disease symptoms and the hospital environment itself can dim children’s natural propensity for creative play. “You are given a [hospital] gown and put into a room that is completely unfamiliar to you and rather sterile,” says Zachary Steel, assistant professor of theater practice at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and director of USC Comic+Care. “We are trying to reframe the hospital visit into something with the potential for joy and play.”

The laughter that the clowns spark is medicine of its own. Research has shown that laughter can do everything from boosting immune and endocrine responses to decreasing blood pressure and feelings of despair. USC Comic+Care is currently partnering with the hospital’s pediatric oncology and hematology clinic to conduct a study on the effect of clowning on children’s pain perception and levels of stress and anxiety during blood draws.

Steel is also training the next generation of medical clowns. He teaches introductory and advanced medical clowning, the latter offering USC undergraduates the opportunity to do some clowning of their own with the children at Los Angeles General Medical Center.

“It’s beautiful when you hear the children’s laughter,” Steel says. “It’s a recognition of, ‘I still have the capacity for joy. I can still play. I’m still a kid.’”

Waltzing toward better health

Older adults, too, can benefit from the lightheartedness that arts activities inspire. Dance is one example: The art of movement offers neurological, social and emotional benefits to those struggling with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

“Dance can trick our brains into working better,” says Patrick Corbin, associate professor of practice at the USC Kaufman School of Dance. Research has shown that Parkinson’s patients who participate in dance have improved speech, fewer tremors, better balance, decreased rigidity and slower disease progression compared to those who do not.

Creative interventions such as music, poetry and painting can significantly decrease anxiety, depression and a lot of the negative psychological aspects associated with cancer and its treatment.

— Jacek Pinski

Corbin teaches “Dance and Health: Dance and Parkinson’s,” an undergraduate course that combines movement instruction with guest lectures from experts in a variety of health science disciplines, including the Department of Neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, and the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

Illustration of a female doctor standing with miniature people underneath

Students put that knowledge into action through fieldwork in the community. They observe and participate in dance classes for Parkinson’s patients taught at Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, Calif., a partner of the Keck School of Medicine. For their final exam, students teach a segment of the Lineage class on their own.

The “Dance and Health: Dance and Parkinson’s” class is part of a series of adaptive dance classes that Corbin conceived and developed with the support of Arts in Action, part of USC Visions and Voices. In fall 2023, his class focused on Down syndrome and brought dancers from Free 2 Be Me Dance — an organization that serves people with Down Syndrome — to USC Kaufman for instruction. Another course for children with autism spectrum disorders is in the works. Corbin praises his collaborators in USC’s health sciences schools who are helping him illuminate the power of dance to influence the well-being of marginalized communities.

“These wonderful doctors are really seeing the scientific value of the connection between the arts and sciences,” Corbin says. “I think we’re just at the beginning of creating a world where better lives are accessible to people who may have been overlooked before.”

Healthier together

Building new partnerships between USC’s health sciences and arts schools is a priority for Josh Kun, vice provost for the arts. In March, he and Michele Kipke, associate vice president for strategic health alliances at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, led a daylong retreat for deans and faculty to spark new research collaborations between the arts and health sciences. Their efforts reflect USC President Carol Folt’s “moonshot” on transforming health sciences, which seeks to expand health sciences work across the university.

Kun notes that among their many benefits, USC’s varied arts in medicine programs provide patients an antidote to the isolation of illness.

“When we hear a song, when we watch a dance performance, when we watch a film, when we look at a painting or a sculpture, one of the things that can happen is you realize you are not alone,” Kun says. “Somebody else’s experience touches your own life.”

Hebert — who, in addition to her permanent exhibit in the USC-VHH Breast Healthcare Center, has an exhibit on display in the main USC-VHH building through June — echoes his sentiments.

“When we go through illness, we have to give back and share with others, so they can know that you do get through these things,” she says. “Life does move forward.”

Meet some of the doctors healing USC’s athletes

Travis Dye being removed from the field from an injury on top of a small vehicle

Dr. Alex Weber (center) assists player Travis Dye during a football game in 2022. (Photo/Katie Chin)

Athletics

Meet some of the doctors healing USC’s athletes

How the orthopedic specialists at Keck Medicine of USC and USC Student Health keep Trojan athletes — and the L.A. Kings — moving.

April 12, 2024

By Grayson Schmidt

Charles Mills hoped for a different start to his career on the USC water polo team. In an exhibition match last September against Golden West College, an opposing player’s arm smashed down onto Mills’ wrist as he defended a shot. Initially, Mills says the pain wasn’t too severe. But on his way home that night, the first-year goalie fell off his bike onto that same wrist. The pain kept him up for much of the night.

“That next morning, I knew something was up,” Mills says.

He immediately visited the USC athletic trainers, who directed him to an orthopedic specialist at Keck Medicine of USC. Seth Gamradt gave him the news: Mills had broken the scaphoid bone in his left wrist.

Less than a month into his freshman campaign, just like that, his season was over.

“I was in complete denial,” Mills says. “I thought I had just jammed my wrist really hard — I didn’t think I’d broken it, let alone that I’d be out two months.”

Although Mills says it was a tough pill to swallow, Gamradt and his team immediately shifted the discussion to recovery.

“Dr. Gamradt and his team comforted me and told me I was going to get through this, which helped me not freak out too much,” Mills says. “I was still completely crushed, but I had complete trust in them.”

A surgery, two months in a cast and some physical therapy later, Mills made a full recovery. He credits it to the care he received from the athletic trainers and health care team in the athletic medicine program at USC Student Health, along with his surgeon Luke Nicholson and the orthopedic team at Keck Medicine of USC. In a sport rife with shoulder and hip injuries and the occasional broken wrist, access to top-notch care is crucial.

The care here, at USC, is completely unmatched. Everything was super organized, and there was full transparency.

— Charles Mill

Fortunately for Mills, his teammates and the roughly 700 other Trojan student-athletes, the athletic specialists from Keck Medicine of USC provide some of the best care in the region.

“The care here, at USC, is completely unmatched,” Mills says. “Everything was super organized, and there was full transparency — I trusted the process, and it worked out 100% well for me.”

His teammate Max Miller — a first-team all-American 2-meter — agrees. He credits the doctors as part of the reason Trojans can continue playing after an injury. “It’s a very comforting feeling to be able to just do my thing in my sport, and then if something ends up happening, I know they’ll find a way to fix it,” he says.

A dream team of sports doctors

Max Miller and Dr. Seth Gamradt director of orthopedic medicine for USC athletics, right, at the USC aquatics center
Water polo athlete Max Miller (left) at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center with Seth Gamradt. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

When it comes to athletics injuries, few have seen more than Gamradt and Alex Weber. As orthopedic surgeons and team doctors, they’ve been on the sidelines for championship games and witnessed some of the greatest athletes compete at the highest level.

Gamradt — lead physician for Trojan football for the past 11 years — also worked at the professional level with the NFL’s New York Giants before coming to the West Coast. He is an orthopedic surgeon with Keck Medicine of USC and director of Athletic Medicine, a department in USC Student Health that oversees health care for student-athletes.

“It was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down,” Gamradt says. “It’s an incredible institution, and the Trojan Family is real — anytime I’m wearing USC gear when I’m out and about, I’ll always get a ‘Fight On!’”

For the past eight years, Weber has served as a team physician for USC Athletics as part of USC Student Health and Keck Medicine of USC, while also serving as chief of the USC Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine at Keck Medicine of USC. In addition, he is the medical director and head team physician of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.

Joseph Liu and Cara Hall have been at Keck Medicine of USC for three years. Both work with the L.A. Kings, and all four physicians provide orthopedic care to all 21 Trojan athletic programs.

“Sometimes it’s an 81-year-old, and sometimes it’s an 8-year-old, sometimes it’s a high school athlete hoping to be a collegiate athlete,” Weber says. “Then sometimes it’s a collegiate athlete trying to be a professional athlete, and sometimes it’s a professional athlete trying to get back to his livelihood. Ultimately, all of those scenarios fall into the same bucket of someone high-functioning losing that function, and getting them back to doing what they love.”

Team mentality

Dr. Cara Hall holding and putting pressure on the knee of an athlete
Cara Hall (left) says treating athletes at USC has put a spotlight on her chosen profession, which she hopes will inspire the next generation of sports physicians. (Photo/Chris Shinn)

The sports medicine team helps make those moments possible, whether that’s Gamradt working the sidelines of Trojan football games, Weber sitting courtside at men’s basketball games, Hall tending to the Women of Troy in a packed Galen Center or Liu treating the members of the men’s volleyball team.

“Working with the women’s basketball team has really been the best part of the job for me,” Hall says. “It’s such a small team, and we have come leaps and bounds from where we were a few years ago. Seeing them excel at what they do and traveling on the road with them and seeing them make it to March Madness last year — it’s rewarding for everyone involved.”

The team of orthopedic surgery specialists at Keck Medicine of USC are some of the most highly regarded physicians in L.A., so much so that the Kings, a $2 billion NHL team, wanted to partner with them to take care of their athletes.

“One great thing about taking care of the hockey guys is that there’s a culture in hockey that the guys want to play,” Weber says. “We do that within safe parameters — we don’t let people go back when it’s unsafe to be on the ice — but I think the culture in hockey is get fixed up so you can get back out there and play hard for your teammates.”

Sports medicine in the age of social media

As the team of physicians looks toward the future of their profession, they note that social media has had a significant impact on sports medicine, both good and bad.

“There are a lot of what we call ‘Twitter doctors’ who are out there speculating on the injury and how long this athlete’s going to be out. Social media has become the biggest influence on the scrutiny of athletic injuries,” Gamradt says.

For Hall, the increased attention has spotlighted her chosen profession, which she hopes will inspire the next generation of sports physicians.

“The number of students that have reached out to me just from finding my name on the [Keck Medicine] website — medical students or even undergrad students who are interested — has exceeded what I was expecting,” Hall says. “Anyone interested in physiology or kinetics and movement from a science or physical therapy perspective, I think there’s probably a growing interest compared to what it used to be, which is great to see.”

Caring for all

While these doctors have treated their fair share of all-stars and all-Americans, they’ve also treated plenty of weekend warriors. Aside from dealing with agents and the financial implications of a top-level athlete’s injury and recovery, they all say that the mission for treating their patients is the same.

“It’s so hard to pick my favorite part of the job because it’s so multifaceted,” Gamradt says. “I get to teach residents, medical students and fellows how to do surgery. I get to care for patients of all ages and make them better with or without surgical treatment, and then I have the added bonus of being the team physician.”

That type of attitude influences the athletes in return. Whether on the field or off, it’s nice to know everyone’s on the same team.

“I still see Dr. Gamradt and the other trainers around campus, and even my full recovery, they’re always asking me how I’m doing and if I need anything — so, it’s not just a one-and-done deal,” Mills says. “I know that they always have my back.”

Art in medicine helps doctors, too

fine art photography by Carolyn Meltzer

“The Bump” is a photograph taken by Carolyn Meltzer, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. (Photo/Courtesy Carolyn Meltzer)

Health

Art in medicine helps doctors, too

At USC, weaving art into medical practice benefits doctors and patients.

April 11, 2024

By Rachel B. Levin

Carolyn Meltzer, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, is a leading scholar in neuroradiology. But on her website, carolynmeltzer.com, you won’t find any information about her extensive research in brain imaging. Instead, you’ll find her portfolio of fine art photography.

Meltzer, whose art has been featured in more than 50 solo and group exhibits in the United States and Europe, believes that the visuospatial skills she has cultivated through photography strongly inform her work in radiological imaging. “Having this artistic outlet makes me a more effective colleague and leader on the medicine and scientific side,” she says.

Meltzer’s experience is one example of how the arts can be a vital resource for medical practitioners. Artistic endeavors can sharpen diagnostic skills, help physicians tend to their own wellness and deepen understanding of the human condition.

“I don’t think you can be a fully compassionate doctor without having some of the skills that can only be learned in humanistic and artistic pursuits,” says Pamela Schaff, professor of clinical medical education, and family medicine, and pediatrics (educational scholar).

As part of Keck School of Medicine’s Humanities, Ethics, Art, and Law (HEAL) Program, photographer Safi Alia Shabaik (center) discusses her series “Portraits of My Father Who Suffered from Advanced Stages of Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia and Sundowners Syndrome” with Giselle Petzinger (left), associate professor of neurology, and Keck School of Medicine Artist-in-Residence Ted Meyer in August 2023. (Photo/Courtesy of the Keck School of Medicine of USC)

Schaff is the director of Keck School of Medicine’s Humanities, Ethics, Art, and Law (HEAL) Program, which has been weaving the arts into the core curriculum for medical students since its founding in 1985. The multipronged program includes art exhibits by — and discussions with — artist-patients whose artwork explores the experience of living with diseases that students learn about in their classes. “When you’re just reading a textbook, or just even interviewing a patient, you don’t understand diseases in as fully realized a way as when you’re also seeing the artwork that has been born out of the experience,” Schaff says.

Fourth-year medical student Tejal Gala has enjoyed immersing herself in the artist-patients’ exhibits in the medical school’s Hoyt Gallery and participating in the discussions. “It’ s a wonderful reminder that patients are more than a constellation of symptoms,” she says. “When we really pay attention to their emotions and how they’re feeling, we’re tapping into the art of medicine just as much as the science.”

The HEAL Program also offers medical students the opportunity to participate in the arts through creative writing workshops and music lessons. Gala herself is a photography enthusiast who recently published Keck in Bloom, a coffee table book of photos of the varied plant life on USC’s Health Sciences Campus. She found that exploring nature with her camera was a powerful stress reliever.

“Having time to engage the arts is an important part of … taking care of ourselves, so we can be there for our patients,” Meltzer says.

The dean hopes to bring USC’s many well-established arts in medicine programs under a more cohesive umbrella. She also envisions launching new interdisciplinary ventures between the Keck School of Medicine and USC’s arts schools. In February, the Department of Radiology debuted the Center for Advanced Visual Technologies in Medicine, which adapts novel applications of digital and 3D visualization techniques to patient care, education and research. The center connects creative technologies across multiple units and schools, including the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Arts collaboration “is a strategic priority for the Keck School of Medicine because it creates unity and supports our practitioners and our patients,” Meltzer says.

11 USC researchers named National Academy of Inventors senior members

Photo illustration: Think outside the box

The National Academy of Inventors is a nonprofit member organization that encourages inventors in higher education. (Photo/iStock)

Science/Technology

11 USC researchers named National Academy of Inventors senior members

The honor recognizes innovation that has a real impact on the welfare of society.

February 27, 2024

By USC staff

Eleven USC researchers on Tuesday were named senior members of the National Academy of Inventors, a nonprofit member organization that encourages inventors in higher education.

Election as an NAI senior member recognizes remarkable innovation producing technologies that have brought, or aspire to bring, real impact on the welfare of society. The honor also represents growing success in patents, licensing and commercialization, while educating and mentoring the next generation of inventors.

The USC members of the NAI Class of 2024 are Peter A. Beerel, Yang Chai, Denis Evseenko, Qiang Huang, Justin Ichida, Bart Kosko, Peter Kuhn, Daniel A. Lidar, J. Andrew MacKay, Wei-Min Shen and Travis Williams.

“Today’s announcement reflects the amazing innovation that takes place at USC every day,” USC President Carol Folt said. “These 11 outstanding faculty members — the most NAI inductees from USC in any one year — showcase our unique multidisciplinary, multischool approach. Their work crosses fields of dentistry, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and more to create a future of possibility and opportunity. We salute these inductees for their well-earned recognition.”

The 11 Trojans join 20 current and emeritus USC faculty members in the NAI ranks. They will officially be recognized on June 17 during NAI’s annual meeting.

“This year’s cohort of 11 USC inductees as senior members of the National Academy of Inventors is a huge honor,” said Ishwar K. Puri, USC senior vice president of research and innovation. “The breadth of expertise recognized in this year’s cohort testifies to the wide array of world-leading inventors, engineers, scientists and clinicians at USC. Their innovations have invented tomorrow’s solutions, which improve human lives and fuel economic growth.”

Peter A. Beerel

Professor of electrical and computer engineering, USC Viterbi School of Engineering

Peter A. Beerel
Peter A. Beerel (Photo/Brian Morri)

Beerel has a history of innovation in the area of Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI), the process of designing semiconductor chips with millions of transistors. His more recent significant contributions are in the areas of hardware security, superconducting electronics and machine learning.

Beerel joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1994, and he’s currently a full professor and associate chair of the computer engineering division. He’s also a research director and distinguished principal scientist at USC Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute. Previously, he was the faculty director of innovation studies at the USC Stevens Center for Innovation from 2006 to 2008 and co-founded TimeLess Design Automation in 2008.

Yang Chai

University Professor, George and Mary Lou Boone Chair in Craniofacial Molecular Biology and associate dean of research at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC; University Professor of Biomedical Sciences, Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, and Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC

Yang Chai
Yang Chai (Photo/Chris Shinn)

Chai has invented a system meant to regenerate skull bone to address deformities, comprising a 3D-printed scaffold seeded with stem cells. The technology comes out of discoveries from his laboratory about the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind congenital birth defects.

Chai recently launched early interactions with the Food and Drug Administration, on the path to phase 1 trials of the scaffolds in patients. In addition, he continues work toward an innovative tissue regeneration system for patients with cleft palate, a condition that is the major focus of his work. His research is motivated by his own experience as a clinician interacting with parents of children born with deformities to the face and head.

“The surgery was always successful, but I didn’t have any answers about why the birth defect happened, whether a future child in the family may also have one or how it could be prevented,” he said. “We tried to understand the basic mechanisms, then shifted our efforts to use some of the knowledge we gained. We aim to provide a biological solution for a biological problem, instead of using a titanium plate to repair the skull defects.”

An extended version of this profile of Chai appears on Keck School of Medicine website.

Denis Evseenko

J. Harold and Edna La Briola Chair in Genetic Orthopaedic Research, vice chair for research, director of skeletal regeneration and professor of orthopedic surgery, stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC

Denis Evseenko
Denis Evseenko (Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

Evseenko has created a series of treatment technologies that address injury and illness of the joints.

One is an injection designed to calm inflammation in osteoarthritis and potentially supplant joint replacement surgery. (Phase 1 clinical trials are imminent.) Another is a surgical implant that delivers stem cell-derived cartilage to replace damaged tissue from sports injuries and prevent degenerative joint disease, with first-in-human trials likely to begin this year. Most recently, Evseenko and his team have invented a drug to moderate a mechanism of the immune system that misfires and attacks aging cells, with potential application for inflammation affecting multiple body systems.

For Evseenko, election to the NAI validates the time and effort he has devoted to driving his discoveries from the lab to application.

“It’s meaningful to know that all the small steps we took, day after day, to move us forward toward our goals were leading in a fruitful direction,” he said. “I had to make some difficult decisions along the way, and this recognition tells me that they were the right ones.”

An extended version of this profile of Evseenko appears on the Keck School of Medicine website.

Qiang Huang

Professor of industrial and systems engineering, and chemical engineering and materials science, USC Viterbi

Qiang Huang
Qiang Huang (Photo/Will Taylor)

Huang is an expert in the field of smart manufacturing.

Huang’s research focuses on how machine learning can be harnessed for additive manufacturing (3D printing). His work also covers quality control theory and methods for personalized manufacturing, domain-informed machine learning methods for smart manufacturing, and nanomanufacturing analytics. Huang holds five U.S. patents on 3D printing accuracy control. The Huang Lab has been developing fabrication-aware machine learning algorithms and computation-driven quality control tools to make 3D printing smarter.

Justin Ichida

John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Endowed Professor in Regenerative Medicine, associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, Keck School of Medicine

Justin Ichida
Justin Ichida (Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

Ichida centers his research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare, deadly neurodegenerative disorder that occurs during middle age and disrupts the ability to control muscle movement. He has developed a technology that can turn cells from ALS patients’ blood samples into nerve cells.

The invention is one of the first successful attempts to drive the development of adult cells backward to the stem cell stage and then coax them to grow into a different type of cell. From the Petri dish, he and his team can then delve into the mechanisms behind the illness — which are yet poorly understood — and test potential treatments.

“ALS has a huge unmet need,” Ichida said. “It’s hard to study by traditional methods because we don’t know what the genetic causes are for most patients. Our technology allows us to unlock insights that we couldn’t otherwise.”

An extended version of this profile of Ichida appears on the Keck School of Medicine website.

Bart Kosko

Professor of electrical and computer engineering, USC Viterbi; professor, USC Gould School of Law

Bart Kosko
Bart Kosko (Photo/Steven Burns)

Kosko has enjoyed an eclectic career at the university. He came to USC from Kansas on a scholarship for music composition, then earned bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and mathematical economics, inspiring his neural work. The university hired him in 1987 to join the then-new Neural, Informational and Behavioral Sciences program. He has also published several textbooks, trade books (including, in 1993, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic) and novels.

Last year, Kosko received the prestigious Donald O. Hebb Award from the International Neural Network Society for his careerlong contributions to the field of neural learning.

Peter Kuhn

Dean’s Professor of Biological Sciences, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; professor of medicine and urology, Keck School of Medicine; professor of biomedical engineering and of aerospace and mechanical engineering, USC Viterbi; director, Convergent Science Institute in Cancer, USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience

Peter Kuhn
Peter Kuhn (Photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)

After early success in drug development for cancer, Kuhn turned his sights to leading the charge in advancing liquid biopsies, a type of blood test that detects and characterizes circulating tumor cells. Although he focuses on breast cancer, a disease his mother faced, his inventions have been applied for treating prostate cancer as well. His technology has been in use for oncology care since 2016.

A personal highlight was when others started using his invention and the thrill derived from seeing that success: A colleague published a clinical study showing that one of his inventions was effective in differentiating between which patients would benefit from one treatment over another in fighting cancer.

“That was the best day of my life, and I didn’t even know about the study before it came out,” Kuhn said with a smile. “It wasn’t just seeing this striking result. It was knowing that they could do it without me. There are a lot of hurdles, and it’s an incredible feeling when something makes it through — and makes a difference for patients.”

Extended versions of this profile of Kuhn appear on the USC Dornsife website and the Keck School of Medicine website.

Daniel A. Lidar

Professor of electrical and computer engineering, chemistry, and physics and astronomy, USC Viterbi

Daniel A. Lidar
Daniel A. Lidar (Photo/Will Taylor)

Daniel A. Lidar was recognized for his inventions in the area of quantum computing, which have led to six issued patents. These patents cover areas such as quantum teleportation, error correction, and optimization.

Lidar joined USC in 2005, and he is the holder of the Viterbi Professorship of Engineering. He has joint appointments in electrical and computer engineering as well as chemistry and physics. He’s also the director of the USC Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology and the co-director of the USC-Lockheed Martin Center for Quantum Computing.

Andrew MacKay

Gavin S. Herbert Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences

Andrew MacKay
Andrew MacKay (Photo/Isaac Mora)

MacKay’s lab is focused on engineering protein-polymer tools that hold the potential to transform the development of precision, multifunctional drug carriers.

“Drug delivery in the eye and cancer is often limited by access to and retention at the target site,” explained MacKay, who has six issued U.S. patents, with four focusing on ocular applications of his technology. “Our strategy is to repackage drugs and functional peptides into protein-polymers that control release and reduce toxicity.”

“Our group has recently made significant breakthroughs by assembling polypeptide ‘microdomains’ on the surface of and inside living cells,” added MacKay, who holds secondary appointments in biomedical engineering and ophthalmology and serves as executive editor for the journal Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews. He also serves as a panel reviewer for the U.S. National Institutes of Health, primarily as a member of a nanomedicine-focused study section. “When decorated with functional proteins, these polypeptides are helping us to precisely modulate cellular biology and design new therapies.”

Wei-Min Shen

Associate professor of computer science practice and a research associate professor in computer science, director of the Polymorphic Robotics Laboratory, USC Viterbi; associate director of the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at USC

Wei-Min Shen
Wei-Min Shen (Photo/Caitlin Dawson)

Shen’s research interests include self-reconfigurable and metamorphic systems, autonomous robots, machine learning and artificial intelligence. He is the author of Autonomous Learning from Environment, a book that explores how machines learn from their environment based on “surprises.”

He has served as chair and committee member for international conferences and workshops in robotics, machine learning and data mining, and as editorial board members for scientific books and research journals. His research activities have been reported by leading scientific journals such as Science and Nature, and in media outlets including CNN, PBS and Discovery.

Travis Williams

Professor of chemistry, USC Dornsife

Travis Williams
Travis Williams (Photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)

Williams, who holds 10 patents and numerous awards recognizing the inventive value of his work, said being named an NAI senior member is a result of USC’s visionary support of innovators like himself.

“NAI recognition falls out of the university’s deliberate decisions to invest in patenting bizarre things from my lab, tenuring someone who quit working on what he was hired to do, and stoking innovation through the Wrigley Prize and the [National Science Foundation’s] I-Corps hub,” he said. “While I’ve been an enthusiastic product of my environment, USC Dornsife and the university engineered this through a generations-old commitment to innovation and public impact.”

Williams’ research has borne considerable fruit, including Closed Composites, which aims to recycle carbon fiber materials from old aircraft parts, and Catapower Inc., converting used oil from deep fryers into biodiesel and environmentally sound antimicrobial agents. Williams has even co-developed a method to turn plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into compounds to make pharmaceuticals and other useful products.

An extended version of this profile of Williams appears on the USC Dornsife website.

About the National Academy of Inventors

The NAI was founded to recognize and encourage inventors with U.S. patents, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and create wider public understanding of how its members’ inventions benefit society. The academy now comprises 4,600 individual members at more than 300 universities, governmental agencies and nonprofit research institutes worldwide.


USC’s Caitlin Dawson, Landon Hall, Greta Harrison, John Hobbs, Darrin Joy, Laura LeBlanc, Michele Keller, Paul McQuiston and David Medzerian contributed to this report.