Music has been part of Amy Belfi's life for as long as she can remember. Now, she's using her other passion—for science—to explore the neurological basis of humans' deep connection with music. And, she's hoping that enough people will share her excitement to actually help finance her research.
Belfi, a fourth-year graduate student in the University of Iowa Neuroscience Graduate Program, is using crowdfunding to help support her investigation of the link between music and autobiographical memory. She has set a goal of $1,500 to be raised by Oct. 18, which she plans to use to compensate her study participants and defray their costs for traveling to Iowa City to participate in the research.
"People really love music and lots of people can relate to the experience of hearing a song and having it take them back to a memory," Belfi says. "I thought, 'People can really get behind this research,' and then I just went from there."
As budgets tighten at the traditional science funding federal agencies and scientific organizations, researchers are recognizing the need to cast a wider net when seeking financial support for their work. The decrease in traditional funding opportunities coincides with the rise of social media and online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, meaning the opportunity for ordinary people to support creative projects they're passionate about has never been easier.
"I feel like everyone I know has donated to some sort of Kickstarter project," says Belfi, who grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and Omaha, Neb.
Still, the idea that crowdfunding might be an option for her own funding needs was something of a revelation.
"I literally Googled 'crowdsourcing for science,' and this website popped up," she says.
The website is microryza.com, a science-specific crowdfunding site that hosts researchers' personal campaigns to raise funds for their projects. Belfi may be among the early adopters of this approach – hers is one of about 100 projects posted on microryza.com and there do not appear to be other UI students or faculty currently using this approach – but crowdfunding for science seems to be a growing trend nationally.
This niche area of crowdfunding offers scientists a way to test early-stage ideas and gather data for projects that don't yet fit all the requirements for federal funding. The funding goals are generally small, however, and it's unlikely that crowdfunding would ever replace the grants that fund much of the research conducted at universities and research institutes. In addition, university-based scientists using crowdfunding still need to adhere to rules regarding compliance and intellectual property rights.
Belfi's study will investigate the link between music and autobiographical memory, focusing on the idea that music evokes strong autobiographical memories because of the emotional connection people have to music. Find Belfi’s project here.
If she achieves her crowdfunding target, her project's backers will have access to updates from her, allowing them to follow the research as it progresses. This insider's view represents a very direct way to engage with the public that's somewhat different from the stereotype of the scientist as an "ivory tower academic."
"I am a big advocate for engaging the public with science," Belfi says. "Being able to explain your research to everyone is a skill that is emphasized in the UI Neuroscience program."
Despite being new to the idea of crowdfunding, Belfi's doctoral supervisor, Daniel Tranel, UI professor of neurology and psychology and a musician himself, was equally enthusiastic about her novel approach to obtaining funding for her project.
In her study, participants will listen to musical clips and report any autobiographical memories evoked by the music. Each participant will hear songs from the Billboard Top 100 pop charts from the years when they were 15 to 30 years old—a period in our lives that's know to contain the greatest number of autobiographical memories. As a control task, participants also will view images taken from that same time period and respond with any evoked memories.
Using the Iowa Neurological Patient registry, a resource that's unique to the UI, Belfi will test patients who have damage to different parts of their brains that might disrupt either the emotional connection to music or the memory connection.
"If I can show that music can help autobiographical memory in patients who have memory problems, that might suggest that music therapy could be useful in helping these patients recover or retain their memories," she says.
Other microryza projects cover a wide range of scientific areas from medicine to ecology to economics. Each campaign includes information about the scientist and their study's goals and methods. The projects specify a fundraising target and a deadline for achieving that goal. People can back projects with a specific dollar donation. However, it's an "all or nothing" situation, and if the target is not reached within the deadline, the researcher gets no funding. Conversely, a project can continue to receive funds beyond the original goal.
So far, Belfi is 85 percent of the way to her $1,500 goal. She also has the option to set second "stretch goal" if she chooses.
She notes that both the outreach and the grant-writing components of her crowdfunding experience will be invaluable to her as her scientific career progresses.
"Getting the money from the crowdsourcing is important, but so is the fact that I can spread the word about my research," she says.