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Paul VI senior explores the relationship between the brain and music

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Forget the conventional wisdom about science- minded individuals being “left brained” and creative people being “right brained.” Allison Nguyen, a graduating senior at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, is an accomplished pianist who hopes to become an orthodontist.

In fact, she’s so intrigued by the connection between the brain and the arts that she spent her senior year immersed in studying that relationship through Paul VI’s first-ever Salesian Academy. The program gives students an opportunity to conduct independent research on interdisciplinary topics. Nguyen’s topic was “Neuroscientific Perspective on Music Interpretation.”

“I wanted to combine my love of science and musical aspects,” said Nguyen, a Chantilly resident and a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle in Clifton.

The results made sense to Nguyen, who sometimes recognizes different patterns in science classes because of her musical training.

“I found that mental responses to music are remarkably adaptable and variable. The study of music can retune how the brain processes musical input,” she said. “The musical brain is complex and does not localize music to a specific area of the brain. Instead, music is a ‘wholebrain’ phenomenon.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite ending the school year with 11 consecutive “superior” ratings at piano recitals, Nguyen has chosen to study biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Richmond this fall. The foundation for her field of study was laid during her middle school years at St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax, where she created many science projects, including making a dental model out of an unusual material — graphene oxide — which potentially could be used to prevent rapid corrosion of dental implants.

She followed in her older sister’s footsteps by attending Paul VI, where she became a class officer, a member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish Honor Society.

Nguyen plans to volunteer this summer at Fair Oaks Hospital and at a dental clinic in Sterling for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to dental care. Though “piano has been a huge part of who I am,” she plans to take a break from Bach to focus on college. She’s most looking forward to a new field of study and meeting new people.

“It’s very bittersweet that these four years are coming to a draw,” she said, “but Paul VI has given me so many opportunities.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019