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4/17/13 - Historian awarded first NSF grant to MSU in humanities

A member of the Mississippi State history faculty is receiving the first major National Science Foundation grant ever awarded to a humanities department at the university.

Assistant history professor Alexandra E. Hui recently was selected for a year-long $155,000 grant to study how the perception of sound has changed over time.

"It is the first NSF grant awarded to this department in the history of Mississippi State University and the first major senior scholar grant from NSF to an MSU humanities professor," said history department head Alan Marcus.

"It is an indication that the department is emerging among the national leaders in the history of science," the professor added.

With an interest in the role culture plays in the practice and perpetuation of science, Hui studies how musical tastes influenced German scientists' experiments on sound sensation. Her research also involves physics, physiology and psychology of the 19th century.

Hui said the idea for her grant proposal stemmed from a discussion with colleagues about Muzak, source of the background tunes that often permeated high-rise elevators, hotel lobbies, shopping malls, and similar public locales.

"The topic lends itself to an interesting way to talk about American culture and the way over the course of the century, new technology has changed the way we engage the space around us," Hui said.

She brings to the research project a somewhat unique background: fluent in English, French and German; a bachelor's degree in astrophysics; and internships with NASA and the Smithsonian Institution. After receiving master's and doctoral degrees in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, she came to MSU in 2009 to teach and research the history of science.

"I'm going to be studying the history of this new type of listening that develops when you have the technology and culture of background music," she said of the NSF grant.

As it happens, Muzak recently ceased to exist as a brand name. In early February, the New York Times reported how it was being retired "as part of a reorganization by its owner, Mood Media." The Times report also noted that Ontario, Canada-based Mood would be consolidating its services "under a single brand, Mood, thus eliminating the Muzak name."

Whatever the service now is called, Hui said her research project will cover much of the 20th century--and into 2001, when Apple Inc. released the iPod and gave people a convenient technology to again begin personalizing musical selections.

She plans to spend the year traveling, visiting archive collections and interviewing people to gather information for her final report.

Margaret Kovar | University Relations

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