Connecting the Globe Through Music: New USC Viterbi Schwarzman Scholar

| December 7, 2020

Ben Ma wins prestigious scholarship for all-expenses paid master’s program in China

Ben Ma DJ'ing at an event for his high school. Photo/Ben Ma.

Ben Ma DJ’ing at an event for his high school. Photo/Ben Ma.

Ben Ma first realized the power of music to connect people as a volunteer DJ.

“I used to DJ at retirement homes, at food kitchens, at rehabilitation centers,” he says. “As a 15-year-old, I couldn’t really relate to a 70-year-old in a retirement home. But I did some research and listened to requests and realized that playing music that we both enjoy is something that creates the seed of a personal connection. And we can expand on that.”

As Ma grew up in San Jose, California he was simultaneously discovering his love for technology. After joining coding summer camps in the hopes of being able to make video games, he discovered the multitude of uses of programming languages and enrolled in computer science classes in high school.

Upon his admission to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Ma hoped to combine his passion for music with his interest in technology. While simultaneously pursuing a B.S. and M.S. degree in computer science, he has contributed to two published papers under the mentorship of Shrikanth Narayanan, University Professor, Niki and C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science.

In the laboratory, Ma assisted with creating algorithms to analyze the body’s physiological responses to hearing music. Data obtained in this way can have incredible applications in understanding exactly how music manipulates our emotions, and how it can be used to bring people together.

USC Viterbi researchers in the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL) compared heart rate, galvanic skin response, brain activity to subjective feelings of happiness and sadness in a group of volunteers as they listened to unfamiliar music. (From top right, clockwise): Tim Greer, Professor Shrikanth Narayanan and Ben Ma. Photo/Haotian Mai.

His achievements have been recognized by the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. On December 3, 2020, the university officially named Ma a Schwarzman Scholar, offering him a spot in their Global Affairs master’s class of 2022, with tuition and expenses fully covered. 

Schwarzman Scholars are chosen for their exceptional ability to connect China to the rest of the world. The cohort of around 140 students participates in a rigorous course-load that involves extensive study of China’s role in the global economy and global affairs, as well as significant experiential learning throughout the country.

For Ma, the scholarship is an excellent opportunity to get in touch with his heritage.

“I’m half Chinese, but growing up in California, I didn’t get exposed to much of my Chinese half. I missed out on the culture and the language, as well as personally meeting many of my relatives who were born or spent significant time in China. So I personally want to go to China to enhance and develop that connection.”

 

He also believes that being an emissary between the two countries is extremely important during chaotic political times.

“The potential for conflict between the United States and China is one of the biggest threats to the geopolitical stability of the entire world. An escalating conflict between them would also involve everyone in their spheres of influence.”

Can music help de-escalate conflict and help people put aside their differences?

“People can use what I’ve learned about universal music emotions to better foster international music sharing,” says Ma. “There’s parallel tracks between what Chinese and American research labs and companies are doing in machine learning, and this is a good way to bring together both research communities.”

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