It’s not every day that a grad student has to turn down a Killam Award. Of course, when that student is Sabrina Chang and her interdisciplinary research is strong enough to attract multiple scholarship offers, she is faced with the kind of choice most students dream of.

Sabrina, a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program and a Green College Resident, was recently selected for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canada Graduate Scholarship and the UBC Killam Doctoral Scholarship to help fund her ethnographic study of musicians and the relationship between improvisational playing and cognition.

A classically trained pianist and piano teacher, Sabrina’s curiosity about cognition and performing music was piqued when she began learning to play improvisational piano with Alan Matheson, a UBC pianist, trumpeter and composer. Sabrina found improvisational music even more challenging than the rigorous demands of classical piano. “How do people do this?” she asked throwing up her hands.

The answer lies somewhere in our cognitive abilities to spontaneously create and interpret. “Attention is one of the core aspects of cognition,” Sabrina explains. “Improv is very much like spontaneous conversation.” She hopes that the real world applications of her research will help inform music therapy, which is used to treat a range of mental and physical disabilities.

These scholarships will afford Sabrina not only the financial freedom to focus on her research, but have also given her external exposure and increased confidence in her work. “I was super excited when I found out,” Sabrina says with a wide smile. “I’m really honoured.”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canada Graduate Scholarship is given to students who demonstrate a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies. It is valued at $35,000 per year and will support Sabrina’s work for the next three years.

The Killam Doctoral Scholarships are provided annually from the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Fund for Advanced Studies. These are the most prestigious graduate awards available at UBC, and are awarded to the top doctoral candidates in the annual Tri-Agency / Affiliated Fellowships competition. The scholarships include a stipend of up to $30,000 per annum for two years and a $2,000 allowance for research-related travel during the 24 months of the scholarship.

Although Sabrina was unable to accept the Killam due to previously accepting the CGS, she is able to take advantage of the Killam travel allowance and was immediately welcomed into the Killam family by Green College Principal Mark Vessey who originally came to UBC in 1989 as a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow.

The far-reaching interdisciplinary community of Green College helped foster Sabrina’s research across vastly different areas of academic discipline. “I learned a lot from attending talks or even simply being surrounded by all these inspiring people,”

For the next three years Sabrina plans to focus on her research and return to teaching piano by re-opening her studio in Point Grey. A research trip to New York, which is home to a wealth of musicians, may also be in her near future. One of her favourite musicians is Dave Brubeck and the band Phish. “Maybe I’ll get to interview rock stars,” she says laughing out-loud, only half-joking.