Florida students combine music and data to raise awareness about the environment Professors and students at the University of South Florida mapped pitch, rhythm and duration to data about algae blooms and depletion of coral reefs to create an original composition.

A professor worried no one would read an algae study. So she had it put to music

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This year an anthropology professor published a paper she knew no one would read, outside her field anyway. It was about coastal algae blooms and how they recently cost Florida more than $2 billion in lost tourism. So the professor took the research somewhere surprising. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Heather O'Leary co-wrote this paper with other academics at the University of South Florida. Their research was so depressing.

HEATHER O'LEARY: Part of the data for months was just reading tweets - dead fish, dead fish, dead fish.

ULABY: They were tracking the effects of red tide blooms through what tourists posted on social media. To cheer herself up, O'Leary went to concerts at the university music department. She got to know the director of bands. His name is Matthew McCutchen, and she told him what she was working on.

MATTHEW MCCUTCHEN: I'm studying climate change and what's going on down in the coral reefs.

ULABY: Here's how he remembers it.

MCCUTCHEN: And I've got all this data, and I'd like to know if there's any way that we can turn it into music.

ULABY: There was. A composition professor worked with students to map pitch, rhythm and duration to the data.

O'LEARY: So my students were really excited to start thinking about how the other students, the music students, heard patterns that we did not see in some of the repetitions.

ULABY: The data came alive, she says, in ways it does not on a spreadsheet.

O'LEARY: You can start to sense, with different parts of your mind and your body, that there are patterns happening and that they're important.

ULABY: In this case, the patterns revealed the economic impact of pollution on coastal Florida communities.


O'LEARY: And essentially making them louder so that everyone can pay attention and hear it in a new way.


ULABY: The University of South Florida is excited about this composition. Other departments are getting involved. Students in communications, education and library science plan to make it a music video to spread awareness about the algae blooms, data literacy and science. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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