Student Spotlight: Kristina Mahagamage

person lifting goggles away from their face

In this episode of Confluence, we hear from Bertha Morton winner Kristina Mahagamage about using virtual reality to help those who struggle with communication, collaborating across campus, and how Ireland may be her next stop.

Story Transcript

MICHAEL MUSICK: I was really supportive of Tina for this award because of the work she’s doing that kind of is at this interface or overlap between the true art and creative area as well as saying, well I want to be taking these skills I’m learning as an artist and applying them to other fields so that we’re helping people in the larger world. Not to mention, she brings kind of this hard-working, collaborative nature that makes it really easy for people who want to work with her and for her to create a successful experience for researchers and artists alike.  

ASHBY KINCH: You just heard the voice of Dr. Michael Musick, professor of media arts, talking about his student, Kristina Mahagamage, one of the Bertha Morton graduate student scholarship winners for 2021-22. Welcome to Confluence where great ideas flow together – the podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. I'm Ashby Kinch, associate dean of the graduate school. This episode of Confluence is part of a series recognizing the achievements of some of our outstanding graduate students. Named for a great Montanan who dedicated her life to public service, the Bertha Morton award was endowed to support graduate education by recognizing the distinctive contributions our graduate students make in research, creative activity, and public service. As an artist interested in combining creativity, technical rigor, and design-based research, Tina embodies many of the characteristics Bertha Morton sought to encourage through her namesake scholarship. Tina’s defining work at UM, The Aphasia Project, is a collaborative, design-based virtual reality endeavor, which explores how virtual reality can help solve problems of accessibility. The project also touches on potential virtual reality applications within the medical field. We're proud to share her graduate story with listeners. Enjoy the float! 

KINCH: Thanks for joining us, Tina.   

MAHAGAMAGE: Thank you so much.  

KINCH: Well, first of all, congratulations. The Bertha Morton award is such a nice honor for a graduate student to be sort of acknowledged as one of our outstanding graduate students on campus. Tell us what you're going to do with your Bertha Morton award. 

MAHAGAMAGE: I'm so grateful to receive the Bertha Morton award. What I plan to do is continue my research on how to use virtual technologies in collaboration with the speech, language, hearing, and occupational sciences… 

KINCH: That one's a mouthful. Yeah.  

MAHAGAMAGE: In collaboration with professor Jenna Griffin who is a speech clinician over there. And we've been working together on better ways to use virtual reality to create simulated environments and real-world experiences for patients who are struggling with communication. 

KINCH: Fantastic. And I love that, that an artist, a sound artist in media arts is involved in this project. Kind of how did that come to be? And how did you kind of grow to be interested in this? 

MAHAGAMAGE: I've always been interested in virtual reality. I did my undergrad in Los Angeles, and my focus in undergrad was on CG environment modeling and virtual reality development. Through my time here at the university, I've grown more interested in this idea of interactivity and how to apply interactivity. And I think virtual reality is a great platform to explore those sorts of avenues. And what's so beneficial is how do we incorporate the sort of use of interactivity and help people who struggle with real-world situations and sort of train them to be more comfortable in an actual real-world scenario. 

KINCH: Yeah. Great. And it's such an exciting kind of cross campus collaborative project, which is, I think, you know, for the graduate school perspective we love to hear about these kind of connections that get made across campus. And your advisor, Dr. Michael Musick, is kind of famous for this kind of thinking. Tell me more about your relationship with him. What's he been like as an advisor, and how has he kind of supported you?  

MAHAGAMAGE: Oh, pretty much everyone at the media arts college has been very supportive. All the faculty are super great. Dr. Michael Musick especially, who is my advisor on my thesis here at the University of Montana, is brilliant and is so supportive and pushes me in directions and avenues that I've never thought of before. So, it's really interesting to be able to work with him, especially since he's a sonic artist and I'm very much in the visual side. 

KINCH: Yeah. That's really interesting to me that you've come from this visual background, but now you're kind of developing an interest in the sound landscape part of the project. And it's pretty important to an aphasia project. So that's kind of a new area for you.  

MAHAGAMAGE: I'm not really working on the sound avenue. It's more about visual development and interactivity. He does focus a lot on sound and interactivity, and that's kind of where we sort of see eye to eye is this idea of interactivity and different ways to use interactivity. 

KINCH: Well, and you mentioned your LA background. You've got kind of an interesting Montana story with sort of some family connections here, but then a background growing up in LA. Could you tell us a little bit how you kind of came to be at UM?  

MAHAGAMAGE: I'm originally from Los Angeles, California, and I did my undergrad at Otis College of Art and Design in digital media with a focus in virtual reality development and CG design. And I thought I was going to go into like a game studio or something, but I ended up deciding I wanted to pursue grad school and to continue my educational journey and eventually get my Ph.D. – work towards a Ph.D. And so, I decided to look at some graduate schools and I have a lot of family up here. So, my parents they both came to Montana first and they got married here and then they moved out to California for work. And then I came back and all my family members are still here, so I kind of feel grounded just cause I'm not alone, I've got all my cousins and all of my family members and I spent a lot of summers here. So, I felt right at home, right away.  

KINCH: That's a great story. And we hear some kind of version of that story of the full circle kind of Missoulians or Montanans returning or coming home or rejoining family.  

MAHAGAMAGE: Yeah. It's really, it's really lovely. And so, it gave me an opportunity for me to kind of appreciate nature, as you know, LA’s very much an urban jungle and I wanted to see a different type of jungle, I suppose. And so, my grandparents had a farm out in Florence, and I was living there for a while, which was really fun. 

KINCH: Yeah, and so you imagine kind of, when you're done with the master’s going on and, and pursuing further. So, you have another year in the master's program and then you're kind of looking down the line potentially at pursuing a Ph.D.  

MAHAGAMAGE: Yes, absolutely. I've been looking at other Ph.D. programs. My mentor from undergrad has really pushed me towards this idea. And Dr. Musick has been supportive of this idea as well to pursue this idea of virtual technologies, augmented reality, other interactive media as part of research. As part of ongoing research, I should say.  

KINCH: Yeah. And so, what kinds of Ph.D. programs are out there to kind of cultivate this interest? Are you going to kind of have to stitch it together yourself? 

MAHAGAMAGE: I'm still doing research. I have a year. I’m looking into it. One program in particular that I'm really interested in is in Ireland at the University of Dublin. They have a Ph.D. program in innovative technology and creativity, which is totally right up my alley. So, I'm really interested in making those types of connections, and I'm really interested in seeing what the rest of the world is doing with this sort of technology. So, I prefer to move abroad and see what else, what else the world is doing.  

KINCH: Thank you so much for joining us, Tina.  

MAHAGAMAGE: Thank you. I really appreciate you inviting me here today. 

KINCH: If you enjoyed this episode of Confluence, subscribe to our podcast feed at Apple, Google, Spotify, or Stitcher. Make sure to rate and review to support our enterprise of bringing you the voices of graduate education at the University of Montana! See you on the next float.