Turning Musical Quality of Speech on its Head with Nandini Chaterjee Singh

Nandini Chaterjee Singh

Music can change the way we communicate with autistic, thanks to the groundbreaking work of neuroscientist Nandini Chaterjee Singh, Ph.D. Her work, which leverages language, literacy and music, helped create DALI, the first tool to screen and assess dyslexia in several Indian languages.

What drew you to science?

I came from a home that valued physics and literature. It was an academic atmosphere in which scientific temper was nurtured. At the same time I was always encouraged to write. I studies physics in college, and went on to earn a doctorate degree in Pune. My advisor, Neelima Gupte, Ph.D., had a big impact on me. She taught me a strong sense of integrity and ethics in science, and she encouraged me to push boundaries towards rigor, which played an important role in shaping my career in academia and in life as well.

You changed fields from physics to neuroscience: when and how did this happen?

I did my postdoc at Ohio State University, where I worked with an emeritus professor. It was a small lab, and the lack of much company drove me to attend talks, particularly those where people where applying physics to biology. Coincidentally, my daughter was born, and I had six weeks off. I got time to reflect, and decided to pursue my new interest seriously. I applied to many labs. It must have been a combination of luck and timing—many labs responded positively, and I moved to Berkeley to work on the auditory pathways of birds. I had no preconceived notions, and I always had this excuse that I came from the world of physics, so I could ask stupid questions. I learnt a lot in my time there and fell in love with neuroscience. Soon after, I got a chance to move back to India as an assistant professor at a new Institute—the National Centre for Brain Research—where I set up my first lab.

Your work spans many areas of neuroscience. What led you to work on autism?

With my physics background, I was good at Digital Signal Analysis. I started with a slightly radical idea of trying to see whether speech analysis could objectively quantify differences in different speech disorders. I remember meeting Shoba Srinath, Ph.D., from India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) and telling her that I would love to come and record some kids at NIMHANS with autism. She welcomed the idea but warned that it was going to be very difficult because many of the kids don’t speak or interact readily. I went anyway. What we didn’t know then was that kids with autism love computers. So, when I opened up the computer and asked them to speak, the kids would readily allow me to use the microphone and record. From those early recordings, we noticed a sing-song style of speaking, even among 8- to 9-years-olds. We were seeing clear pitch patterns.

Later, working with a young student of mine, Megha Shardha, Ph.D., we turned the musical quality of speech on its head. We said let’s try and see if autistic kids start responding to music. We found that singing words to them rather than speaking elicited a completely different response. And that’s what got my interest going from speech patterns into music and then led on to my work in Indian classical ragas as well.

Tell us about your work on dyslexia.

I wanted to look at language, but it turned out to be very complex. Reading seemed to be a simpler process. I realized that I can read multiple writing systems, but there’s not much written about them. When I studied children, I realized we had kids coming in who were not reading as well, and I was curious to see why. That got me into working on dyslexia. I was horrified that there were no tests in Hindi or regional languages to diagnose dyslexia. With support from the Department of Science and Technology, we built a screening and assessment tool that teachers could use. That’s how DALI or Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India was born. It works across five languages—English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu.

What do you do to relax?

I love to cook—my signature dish is mutton biriyani. I love music, and I read a lot. I’m also a people’s person, so I like to surrounding myself with friends and family.