George Ordiway didn’t just spend last year working on one senior thesis; he created two. The biology and music double major conducted research on zebrafish in Assistant Professor Roshan Jain’s lab and composed a song cycle for baritone and string quartet about the Welsh idea of hiraeth, or a homesickness and nostalgia for your homeland. And while those projects seem totally unrelated, there was actually a throughline of sound and harmonics connecting them.
Though Ordiway’s biology thesis was created via months of laboratory research and had little to do with the act of composing his own music, it was actually inspired by his musical studies and his understanding of the relationships between pitches and frequencies of sound. It was called “Evaluating Zebrafish Pitch Perception via Acoustic Startle Response.”
Though he will now concentrate on the scientific side of his interests—he is currently working as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania while applying to graduate school—he hopes to keep up with his musical passions and intends that they continue to influence his work going forward.
“I hope to pursue music however I can,” he says, “and possibly integrate it into the biology research I wish to do in the future.”
What did you learn from your biology thesis research?
My biggest takeaway from the project is that fact that I want to continue doing research. What I learned supplemented my biology learning greatly, and gave me the experience of developing my own research project over an extended period of time.
Tell us a little bit more about your song cycle, Whispers of Hiraeth, which was performed in April by a professional singer and members of the Network for New Music Ensemble?
The Welsh idea of hiraeth is tinged with grief, because that land of the past is impossible to return to. The music borrows from Welsh folk songs and hymns to establish motifs that are modified and extended depending on the mood of the text being sung. What I learned from this project was how to compose a large scale composition, and work with professional musicians to bring it to life.
What are your goals for the future?
My long term goal is to pursue auditory neuroscience, so my thesis work involving auditory stimuli was a big help in that regard, and heavily influenced my decision.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.