Neuroscience grad uses bird song to understand sensorimotor learning

The connections between Andrea Pack’s academic interests at UVM—she majored in neuroscience and minored in math and dance—might at first glance seem obscure. But doing science is a creative process, Pack says, and she draws on all three disciplines in her graduate school research, which is supported by a National Science Foundation grant announced earlier this spring.

Working at Emory University’s Laney Graduate School in Atlanta, Pack is exploring sensorimotor learning, the process of improving the performance of sensory-guided motor behavior. Her long-term goal is to leverage the research to improve outcomes for patients recovering from brain trauma including strokes. The NSF funding supports her work at the Sober Lab at Emory, which studies the singing behavior of birds as a way of understanding the relationship between neural activity, muscular activation, and performing tasks.

In the case of the Bengalese finches in Pack’s lab, that task is singing.

“We’re studying how the neurons and the muscles of the birds’ vocal areas organize themselves to learn and produce their songs. We look at the muscle coordination and degrees of freedom—how they become efficient singers,” Pack says.

She explains that birds learn to sing much the same way human babies learn to talk, moving from disorganized babbling to clear articulation. Male finches serve as “tutors” to younger birds. Neural pathways in the brain develop through mimicry and repetition until the song behavior becomes “crystalized,” a process that takes about 90 days for the finches. Pack and her colleagues use electrodes to carefully monitor every twill and vibration, creating a clearer picture of how the brain controls muscle activity to produce motor behavior.

“These concepts could apply to any animal,” Pack says. “Understanding how our brain and muscles work together can lead to new techniques in neurological rehabilitation of people who’ve had strokes. Essentially these are ways of training the body to relearn behaviors by creating new neural pathways.”

Through her natural curiosity and open nature, Pack developed a talent for finding mentors throughout her academic career.

“Paul and Clare were huge influences,” she remembers, referring to professor of dance Paul Besaw and senior dance lecturer Clare Byrne. “In Clare’s improv dance class we had to create a movement structure. Mine was based on Chaos Theory, a math class I was taking at the time. It was important to me to integrate my classes in neuroscience, math, and dance.”  

Chris Danforth, an associate professor of mathematics with expertise in computational social science, was also an important mentor for Pack at UVM.

“All three professors really helped me find what I was interested in and gave me freedom to explore it. They showed me how to think outside the box to approach questions from multiple angles, not just one side.”


Kevin C. Coburn