Musician Presents Research at International Computer Science Conference
September 25, 2018
Southwestern senior Isabel Tweraser is a busy woman. She’s double-majoring in music and computer science while working at both the Center for Career and Professional Development and the Office of Student Life. She’s a professional cellist, regularly performing in ensembles and as a member of the Austin Civic Orchestra, and she’s just returned from presenting research on evolutionary algorithms at a scholarly convention in Kyoto, Japan. Did I mention she’s busy?
A musician to the core
When Tweraser first arrived at Southwestern, she considered a number of majors, including biology, environmental science, physics, and math. But she quickly realized that she didn’t enjoy lab work and that music was her calling, so she auditioned toward the end of her first semester. Having been actively involved in musical performance since the age of 10, she spends much of her time outside of class practicing or playing in quartets and orchestras. “Cello is my core,” she says. “[Music] is my whole life: it’s where my friends come from, [and] my extracurriculars and my jobs have all related to music. It’s a really enriching part of my life.” As part of the music major at SU, she also participates in singing training and plays the piano. You can tell she’s devoted: she sits forward a little more in her chair, her eyes glinting, when she starts talking about the power of rhythm, melody, and harmony.
But performance isn’t Tweraser’s only interest; she’s fascinated by the processes and principles of music as well. One of her favorite courses has been Solfège/Ear Training, the historical practice of learning pitch by listening to chords played on a piano and identifying them. The course traditionally helps students improve their music composition, sight singing, and improvisation skills. Tweraser credits SU faculty for mentoring her through that class as well as her other favorites, the various sections of Music Theory. “Dr. Hoogerhyde has had a big impact on me and has helped me out a lot,” she says. “He taught me solfège in the past, and I did an independent study with him.” But as with most experiences at Southwestern, that independent study was student led: Tweraser approached Hoogerhyde with the idea of doing an independent study, and he told her to come up with the idea for it. What topic did she choose? True to her instrument, “We researched the use of exoticism in David Popper’s cello pieces. It was really cool because I hadn’t gotten a chance to write a research paper like that.”
Tweraser further expressed her interest in Popper, a prolific composer and cello virtuoso, last year when she won the SU Concerto Contest, hosted by the Sarofim School of Fine Arts’ Music Department. She was rewarded by the opportunity to be a guest soloist with the Austin Civic Orchestra (ACO), playing Popper’s technically difficult Hungarian Rhapsody for Cello as part of their An American in Paris concert. Tweraser has performed with the ACO for the past several years, but this particular opportunity allowed her to perform in the spotlight. It was one of the most surprising experiences she’s had during her college career. “Winning the concerto competition—I never envisioned that, and I don’t think it could have happened at another university. It was kind of intimidating because I usually sit in the back of the section, and now I was the soloist,” she recalls modestly. But being able to play a piece that she’s played for years was also a highlight of her career: “You have this bucket-list repertoire that you want to be able to play one day. That was really amazing.”
Paideia moments: A musician and a computer scientist
Tweraser may have declared her music major early in her undergraduate career, but during her sophomore year, she decided to take an introduction to computer science course. She enrolled knowing nothing about the subject, but she quickly fell in love with the logic puzzles and other projects they were doing in the class. She knew she had found her second major. After only two computer science courses, she participated in a SCOPE project, delving into full-time research with only rudimentary knowledge. “It’s not something that comes naturally to me,” she says. “Music comes more naturally to me, so I have to work a lot harder to understand these technical topics. But I feel that there is a lot of overlap between the structures of music and the concepts of computer science. For a lot of it, I’m using the same parts of my brain.”
The requisite courses for music and computer science don’t overlap, of course, so the choice of this particular pair of majors wasn’t an easy one, and she had to take on a few semesters of credit overload. But Tweraser says she’s glad she’s at Southwestern because the flexibility of the curriculum allows her to fulfill the rigorous requirements for both majors: “I wouldn’t be able to double major with music elsewhere.”
Beyond the classroom and SCOPE, Tweraser has pursued her interest in computer science by traveling to Japan this past summer to present at the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference in Kyoto with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jacob Schrum and Lauren Gillespie ’19. There, she presented their coauthored and peer-reviewed paper, “Querying Across Time to Interactively Evolve Animations.” She was also awarded a scholarship from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Women in Computing (ACM-W) to support her travel to the conference.
Tweraser credits Schrum with inspiring her interest in computer science and shepherding the paper. “Dr. Schrum is an excellent teacher, and it was great to have him as a teacher and then go into research with him,” she says. “Writing the paper was unlike anything I’ve done at SU, I think because the paper was so technical. … But Dr. Schrum was so helpful along the way. He really helped me and the team edit it well. It wasn’t like I was doing it alone.” Based on research initiated by Gillespie and Schrum and continued by Tweraser, the paper itself represents an interdisciplinary focus. The team examined the collaborative art applications Picbreeder and EndlessForms, which enable Internet users to “breed” and adapt 2D and 3D images in a way that emulates the process of biological evolution. They added a time input to the algorithms to generate dynamic animations and then conducted a study to test which outputs users preferred.
For Tweraser, the Kyoto conference was a change of pace from previous professional meetings. She’s participated in the annual conventions of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA), an annual event attracting nearly 30,000 attendees from around the world to engage in professional-development workshops and clinics and listen to inspiring performances. But the Kyoto conference had only about 700 participants, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors who were all specialists in evolutionary computation. “It was a lot of information that was completely new to me. It was very technical and hard to understand. But it was a learning experience, and … it was exciting to be there as an undergrad. There were very few undergrads there.”
The conference was also her first opportunity to travel abroad by herself, and Tweraser reveled in the experience, even though she had to confront the language barrier. “Google Translate still has some kinks to work out,” she says laughingly.
Taking risks and enjoying every moment
Given her own Southwestern Experience, Tweraser recommends that incoming Pirates similarly take advantage of the various academic options SU affords. “Don’t be afraid to take classes that you’re interested in because you’re worried they will conflict with other coursework,” she suggests. “You don’t have to stick with what’s in your major. That’s the beauty of being at Southwestern: There are so many different great classes and professors. … I just tried computer science on a whim, and it ended up being interesting and fulfilling and totally different from this other major I was doing.”
Tweraser has already proven a successful model for being open to new experiences and taking chances. As she embarks on her senior year at Southwestern, she’s looking forward to participating in traditions such as signing the tower. She’ll continue her active involvement in Delta Omicron, the music service fraternity on campus, which she counts as one of her most valuable experiences at Southwestern: “I’ve made most of my closest friends there and have learned so much about leadership,” she remarks affectionately. And she’ll be applying to graduate programs in music theory but also to tech-related jobs in the Austin area, weighing her options and seeing what happens. Although the future offers Tweraser several possible paths, she’s certain about at least one thing: playing the cello will continue to be her passion. “I think as long as I’m involved in music in some capacity, I’ll be happy. No matter where I go, I’ll make that happen, whether I’m playing in a community orchestra, playing on my own, or immersing myself in music in a graduate program.”
In the meantime, however, Tweraser will be making the most of her time at Southwestern. “It’s always the best year because you know it’s the end, so you’re really savoring your time with your friends,” she says. “I’m just looking forward to enjoying every moment.”