SNP Student Spotlight: Leeman's Leading Edge

Julia in her chorale outfit

This week's student spotlight star is Julia Leeman, a neuroscience and music major who hails from Charlotte, North Carolina.  Leeman enjoys the connections between music and neuroscience and has held such interest since high school. 

“I chose Duke University because of its devotion to interdisciplinary studies” grinned Leeman. “I knew that I wanted to study neuroscience and music, and the University has so many resources that allow me to do so. This made me view the University as the perfect place to explore both passions and combine them.” Leeman's decision to double-major in these areas has allowed her the opportunity to maximize her experience here at the University, both academically and culturally.

Leeman was excited to receive acceptance into the 2022 Summer Neuroscience Program (SNP) because she wanted to conduct one-on-one research that would establish a relationship with a mentor and lead to a thesis. “I was also intrigued to learn from my peers – especially since most are rising seniors and can offer insight and comradery” Leeman noted. During her time in SNP Leeman studied how language is processed in the brain.

The junior's research experience expands past SNP. She works in The O-Lab and started to do so after she took Professor Tobias Overath’s class, “Music and the Brain”. After speaking with Dr. Overath about her interests and experience with studying human language, he was able to match her with a project that explored the processing of speech and language in the brainstem. During her summer in the O-Lab, she learned a new technique to collect the frequency following response, an electrical signal thought to originate from the brainstem that mimics the frequency of the sound heard by the research participant. She also analyzed behavioral data from participants categorizing mandarin syllable-tone combinations as words or non-words, which included both native Mandarin speakers and those who are not native Mandarin speakers. She compared the behavioral and neural data to determine whether knowledge of a language affects the way speech and language stimuli are processed in the brainstem. 

Leeman's current project with the O-Lab studies auditory imagery of speech and non-speech stimuli. She previously studied how language is processed in the brain at the Andrews Lab with Dr. Edna Andrews and was a Huang Fellow. “The Focus Program with Dr. Edna Andrews sparked my interest in the brain and language” Leeman shared. 

Musically inclined Leeman enjoys writing music, which she can be seen doing when she is not studying for class. She is a member of The Chorale and The Opera Theatre here at the University; and also plays the guitar and piano. She wants to continue to study the connection between music and neuroscience; particularly memory and emotion. Leeman shared that music has been suggested to benefit people with dementia and that music may even have the power to enhance emotion and serve as emotional therapy.

Leeman plans to continue to stand in front of others and lead in academia. “I will attend graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and become a professor with a focus on how music is processed in the brain. I enjoy teaching and research, so I feel that it would be the perfect career."