Doctoral student in Occupational Therapy awarded Dean’s Fellowship for music therapy research

Outdoor portrait of Susan Mingils
Meet Susan Mingils, 2021-2022 Dean's Fellows for the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Susan Mingils is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Occupation and Rehabilitation Science program in Colorado State University’s Department of Occupational Therapy, and the recipient of the Dean’s Fellowship from the College of Health and Human Sciences. The Dean’s Fellowship is a $20,000 competitive grant opportunity for doctoral students in the college to further their research. (Read more about the second Dean’s Fellow, Patricia Grady-Dominguez, also an occupational therapy Ph.D. student.)

For Mingils, this means she’ll have the opportunity to conduct in-depth research into the effectiveness of an aspect of music therapy, specifically a practice known as rhythmic entrainment. Mingils is working with her mentors Patti Davies and Jaclyn Stephens, two occupational therapy faculty members.

Read the interview below to learn more about Mingils and her exploration into the exciting possibilities of rhythmic entrainment.

Tell us about your background and what inspired you to apply to become a CHHS Dean’s Fellow.

I am a Ph.D. candidate in my fourth year in the Occupation and Rehabilitation Science Program in the Department of Occupational Therapy. I am also a neuroscience-based music therapist. My primary career goal is to obtain a faculty position in academia. The CHHS Dean’s Fellowship provides me with valuable research experience which will help me be competitive for post-doctoral positions, ultimately helping me reach this goal. The fellowship also provides me additional time and resources to help me complete my dissertation and apply to additional funding opportunities in the future.

Can you describe your research project and its significance?

My research project focuses on understanding what is happening in the brain when we see people’s abilities improve through music-based interventions. For example, we know that many people with Parkinson’s Disease show improved motor abilities when they move in time to music through a process known as rhythmic entrainment. There is also some evidence that rhythmic entrainment interventions, which are designed to improve motor performance, may improve cognitive abilities as well, but we don’t yet know why.

Therefore, I am particularly interested in learning if rhythmic entrainment, a fundamental component of many music therapy interventions, influences brain function that could impact both motor and cognitive performance. If so, I also want to learn how we can optimize that. To do this, I use EEG to measure the electrical activity of the brain at the scalp while people tap their finger along to rhythmic tones. Then, I analyze this data to see if there are changes in how different areas of the brain communicate during rhythmic entrainment.

What do you hope will be the long-term impacts of your research?

In my future research, I plan to study the relationship between brain processes during rhythmic entrainment and motor and cognitive abilities. My current research is with healthy adult participants, but my long-term goal is to apply my findings to research with clinical populations, such as those with traumatic brain injury. Studying healthy individuals is a necessary first step toward ultimately developing and refining music-based interventions aimed at improving motor and cognitive performance and participation in everyday life for people of all ages and abilities.

How has your college education helped you get this far in your field?

My experiences working in neuroscience labs have improved my skills in neuroimaging and advanced data analyses. These experiences have also helped me gain experience managing a study and disseminating research findings. My courses in occupation and rehabilitation science have provided me with knowledge and new perspectives on disability and occupation, and my Ph.D. program provides many opportunities to get feedback on my research from other Ph.D. students. I have also been able to take courses outside the occupational therapy department including Music Therapy, Psychology, Biomedical Sciences, Education, and Biomedical Engineering. Through these experiences, I have gained new perspectives and expanded my view of rehabilitation and the potential far-reaching impacts of my research and service.

What inspired you to focus on this research?

My experience as a neuroscience-based music therapist was the initial driving force in pursuing a Ph.D. and conducting research related to music perception and the underlying mechanisms of music interventions. I worked in rehabilitation, mental health, assisted living, and special education settings, where I used music interventions to improve functional skills. For example, I used rhythm to improve the timing and fluidity of movements, facilitated clients in playing musical instruments to practice cognitive skills, or helped clients engage in songwriting to promote creative expression. Following an evidence-based model, I realized the need for more high-quality research to support music therapy practice. My current research builds on past work in the Brainwaves Research Lab related to rhythmic entrainment and ongoing collaborations with Music Therapy at CSU.

How have your mentors helped to guide you throughout your career so far?

Professor Patti Davies and Assistant Professor Jaclyn Stephens, both faculty in the Department of Occupational Therapy, are my co-mentors. Both have helped guide my career so far through both direct research skills training as well as collaboration on various research projects and grant applications. Dr. Davies is the director of the Brainwaves Research Lab and guides my training in EEG data collection methods and analysis. Dr. Stephens, the director the Sport Concussion and Occupation REhabilitation Lab, also provides me opportunities to gain data collection and analysis experience and consider how my research can be applied to patient populations, like adults with brain injury. Both mentors challenge me to practice problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills which I can apply as I continuously grow as a researcher at CSU and beyond.

My other mentors include Dr. Bill Gavin who shares his expertise in EEG methods, data analysis, coding, and writing. My committee member Associate Professor Karen Atler in OT helps me apply my research to the bigger picture – the “so what.” My outside committee member, Dr. Blythe LaGasse, coordinator and professor of music therapy at CSU, guides me to think critically about music therapy research. Working with OT Assistant Professor Andrew Persch in the Transition, Employment, and Technology Lab helps me learn team management and collaboration skills and gain experience in measurement development research and virtual data collection.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.