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Graduate student integrates music, neuroscience in research

Don Vaughn, a neuroscience graduate student, drummer and part-time DJ, will speak at TEDxUCLA Saturday. Vaughn will discuss his research into using the brain’s plasticity and sensory substitution to solve neural problems. (Keila Mayberry/Daily Bruin)

By Mila Abushmaies

May 27, 2015 12:13 a.m.

After working an eight-hour day at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, Don Vaughn changed out of his lab coat and drove to Los Angeles International Airport last week to catch his flight to New York, where he performed the next day.

Vaughn, a graduate student in neuroscience and part-time drummer and DJ, will speak at TEDxUCLA on Saturday about his research on brain elasticity. He will discuss how sensory substitution can be used to rewire the brains of those with neural problems.

“I want the audience to take away an appreciation for the incredible flexibility of our brain to rewire itself,” Vaughn said.

Pam Douglas, an assistant neurology professor at UCLA, said she will help Vaughn demonstrate his research with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine after his presentation.

Vaughn recently assisted Dr. Mark Cohen, a neurology professor at UCLA, and Victoria Vesna, director of UCLA Art|Sci Center, with a live experiment that examined how brain waves react to music and color, Cohen said.

“Don is as excited about science as he is about his music, and I think that’s really rare,” Douglas said. “He brings a level of positivity to the learning environment that isn’t always present because scientists tend to be very skeptical.”

Vaughn, a San Diego native, began playing the drums at age 13 because a girl told him she thought drumming was cute. He continued to play at local shows with his high school band, Forensik.

Vaughn released an album and a single in September 2014. Since then, he has collaborated with various DJs and producers, and performed at music venues across the country.

“I am really into high-energy, high-intensity drumming and music,” Vaughn said. “I really want concerts to be an immersive and communal experience.”

Kathryn Vaughn, his mother, said Vaughn showed an interest in science and music at a young age.

“Don used to play with the circuitry on the Christmas lights and try to figure out how things fit together,” Kathryn Vaughn said. “Before we bought him his first drum kit, he would bang on everything around the house.”

Vaughn graduated from Stanford University in 2008 and pursued neuroscience research at the Baylor College of Medicine under the guidance of neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman.

Eagleman and Vaughn developed an iPhone app called eyeFi in 2011 that allows users to sense the world through auditory feedback. Users can monitor their surroundings using aural cues rather than eyesight, Vaughn said.

The pair created an extension of the application Friday, called ChatterBaby. Vaughn said he hopes the app will allow hearing-impaired parents to communicate with their children.

Vaughn said he came to UCLA for an opportunity to learn from new people.

In 2013, he enrolled in the NeuroImaging Training Program at UCLA, a grant program that allows pre-doctoral students to learn the fundamentals and tools of neuroscience in a two-year graduate program.

Vaughn said he plans to complete his degree and further integrate his neuroscience research with music. He will deliver his TED talk Saturday in Carnesale Commons.

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