Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Sure, I knew this was where the bulk of the atomic bomb was created back in the ‘40s. I knew the sprawling campus housed a plethora of brilliant scientific minds from around the globe. I knew there were enough PhDs onsite to literally sink a ship.I’m not quite sure what I expected as I drove through the first security portal at
I was also keenly aware of my own personal struggles in the areas of science and math. And yet, here I was, about to interview six accomplished scientists. Me! The person for whom S.T.E.M. has always, and will always, simply mean the stalk of a plant. So why, you might ask, was I even allowed into ORNL? Why had these scientists agreed to speak with me? And what could we possibly have in common? Violin, that’s what. You see, my scientists had volunteered to discuss their personal connections between playing a string instrument and their field of scientific study. And I was set to listen and learn.
My preconceived ideas about the way a top-secret lab would look were instantly shattered after I passed through the second security portal. Instead of a James-Bond-esque maze of shiny metal and glass, the labs had the welcoming feel of a small liberal arts college. Instead of quiet halls filled exclusively with gray-haired men in white lab coats, the buildings teemed with women and men of all ages and backgrounds. Most were dressed casually; all seemed to have figured out that comfortable shoes and a big mug of coffee were key to a successful day. (And not a pocket protector in sight!)
I had not expected things to be quite so “ordinary” in this truly extraordinary setting. And the same was true of the people I met… we’ll reverentially call them “Les Six”: Jerry, Melissa, David, Lauryn, Travis, and Kate. Six truly extraordinary ordinary people.
Jerry is a Research & Development Staff Scientist in the Center for Molecular Biophysics. (Yes, he’s scary smart.) Jerry has three degrees in Chemistry, including a PhD, and describes himself as a computational chemist/biophysicist. He fits the mold pretty well — thoughtful, analytical, somewhat reserved — until you ask him about his six-year-old daughter. Then you see the real Jerry — a frustrated father completely baffled by his daughter’s resistance to practicing the violin. (Well, actually he can relate.) Jerry started violin himself at age 6 with the Suzuki method and worked his way through Book 5. Now he helps his daughter between her Suzuki lessons. So when Jerry’s not determining how mercury is converted from one form to another, or grappling with antibiotic resistance, he’s playing “Waltz” with his little girl.
As for his day job, Jerry says he wants to do high-quality science “that is impactful and makes a difference.” He’s currently collaborating with one of the leading antibiotic researchers in the country, an opportunity he says allows him to address “important science questions that match ORNL’s capabilities.”
As for the violin, he believes there’s a technical aspect to music that translates well to science. “There’s an incredible sense of accomplishment when solving a technical issue on the violin, just as when we have a scientific breakthrough. People tend to give up when something gets hard — but that’s not an option in music nor science. I’ve told my daughter that anyone who is good at something has inevitably worked very hard at it. When it gets difficult, that’s when your brain starts making connections and things become easier.” Like many of us, Jerry wishes he had more time to learn challenging pieces. “Growing up with the rigor of Suzuki, I was always motivated by people who could do more than I could.”
Melissa is a Research Scientist in Environmental Engineering in an area dramatically titled Climate Change Impacts on Critical Infrastructure. She uses computational and analytical tools to discover vulnerabilities to extreme weather and climate in the nation’s critical infrastructure. (Whew!) And she knows her way around the violin. Full disclosure: Melissa plays first violin to my second in our string quartet dubbed the “Jewel Tones.” We attended the same university in Colorado, albeit a decade apart (I’m older), and then both ended up living in the south. She is the person responsible for bringing me out of violin exile.
Melissa started lessons at age 9 and never stopped playing or performing. She was awarded a violin scholarship at her college and went on to teach and perform in the following decades. Her repertoire included the mainstays — Bach sonatas and partitas, the concertos of Bruch, Kreisler, Lalo, Saint Saens, and Mendelssohn — to name a few. Then, in her mid-forties, Melissa took a career detour and earned degrees in both Environmental Engineering and Energy Science & Engineering (PhD).
As she began studies in her new field, Melissa wasn’t sure her musical training conferred any advantage at all, but she began to see a connection as she was learning the required math. “When I made the switch from music to engineering, there was a lot of math to make up, and solutions to problems were not always readily apparent. Little by little I realized I could break apart a math equation into smaller solvable units in the same way I could break apart a tough musical passage.” Melissa also believes her experience playing in ensembles helped her become a more valuable team member. “Sometimes you have the solo and sometimes you don’t. You need to know when to take the lead and when to follow. That’s critical to any job that involves teamwork. You have to play your role with the right intensity.”
David, a summer intern with Consolidated Nuclear Services, is simply an inspiration. David is an electrical engineer. But, in truth, he is first and foremost a cellist. There was a time when David played up to 12 hours a day while working toward his cello performance degree at Oberlin Conservatory. Now he conducts research to test a new model of remotely monitoring liquid levels and creates computer coding for controlling a laser profilometer, an instrument used to measure the earth’s profiles. (Yes, I looked it up.) Interesting work, no doubt, but a far cry from Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach.
David started violin in 4th grade and switched to cello in 8th. At Oberlin he got involved in “new music” and some interesting connections with science began. He joined the Contemporary Music Ensemble, which involved performing electronic music, building new instruments, and even inventing certain types of musical notation. He dreamt of becoming a cello professor with a specialty in contemporary music. Then the hand pain began.
David had surgery and stopped playing for a semester. While his hand healed, he explored music that didn’t involve the technical rigors of classical cello. He experimented with improvising and composing, and spent “more time listening and less time playing — so my ears got better.” Unfortunately, the hand pain came back. David faced the harsh reality that he wouldn't be a professional cellist. Instead of bemoaning his fate, he tapped into the connections he saw between music and electrical engineering. “I wanted to use my listening and ear training skills, along with my math aptitude.”
Ultimately, David envisions a future working with synthesizers, music software, and coding. His dream job is at a conservatory, building and maintaining electronic musical equipment and software, and teaching classes on digital music theory and acoustics. In the meantime, he’ll continue his work as an electrical engineer, play cello at weddings and church concerts, and maybe even perform at “Big Ears,” one of the most prestigious new music festivals in the U.S. (which happens to be in his own backyard of Knoxville, TN). He appeared at Big Ears last year and I think it’s safe to assume there will be a repeat performance.
Lauryn, a vivacious Research Assistant in Geographic Information Science, holds a degree in Anthropology. She analyzes imagery and conducts research on population density outside the U.S. Lauryn was given a violin at age 4 and started lessons the following year. Although violin has not been a constant in her life, it made a lasting impression upon her. In fact, she’s decided it’s time to get the violin back out and start with some online lessons.
Lauryn’s job at ORNL involves researching various cultures to find out how they live and operate together. She feels a connection between her work and her early musical training. “To me, it’s no different than the construct of an orchestra. Everyone must be in sync to make music. It’s the same with two societies that are in conflict.”
As someone with an anthropology bent, Lauryn wants to know who the people are that she’s analyzing, where they’re going, what is happening in their culture, and why they follow their traditions. “I want to know why there is conflict and why there is harmony. It’s absolutely no different with music. I want those same questions answered.” Lauryn’s father is an accomplished violinist and Lauryn hopes to perform with him in the future — a dream she will no doubt make a reality.
Travis is a post-doctoral researcher in Nature Inspired Machine Learning with a PhD in Math. He works in Artificial Intelligence, writing code that mimics the way a brain works, recognizing features a human would look for in a visual image. Travis started piano at age 5 and added violin at 13. He played in school orchestras and ultimately worked through Suzuki Book 5. In college he continued to play and joined a community orchestra. (He claims he’ll play in any orchestra where he doesn’t have to audition.) He keeps up with the keyboard as well, playing piano and organ at his church.
Travis sees a strong connection between the challenges of science and music. “I taught math in graduate school and noticed that many students would see something hard and say, ‘I don’t want to try.’ In music, you look at a piece and know it’s hard, but you don’t give up. You break it down into small manageable pieces you can tackle. And that’s what science involves: Systematically breaking down something difficult into small workable tasks.” Travis feels that music also instills long-range planning skills. “You hear a great concerto and realize mastering it is years down the road. But that’s an exciting prospect.”
Travis also sees something wonderful that most “non-scientists” would certainly miss: A parallel between computer code and musical notation. “Computer programming involves hard and fast rules. If you miss a required semi-colon, well, watch out! Same is true with music. If there are four beats in a measure, you can’t wedge in a fifth. Rules don’t limit what you can do in code or what a composer can do in music… you work within the framework.” Travis speaks with quiet reverence about his work. “I don’t want to say code is beautiful, but there is an aesthetic visual appeal to it. For me, music manuscript has the same feel.”
At the end of the day, Travis believe music is a stress reliever after “crunching too many numbers.” He says it’s been important to keep music in his life. “When you invest a lot of time in something, you don’t want to let it disappear.”
Kate is Group Leader of the Computational Earth Sciences Group and studies how well models simulate Earth, in particular large scale atmospheric dynamics and the fate of the Greenland ice sheet during climate change. (Whew, again!) With degrees in Physics and Atmospheric Science (PhD), she manages scientific staff and programs — a huge job which she approaches with enthusiasm and energy.
Kate started violin at age 5 and continued through high school, where she recalls she “languished in the back of the seconds.” A move to the viola section reinvigorated Kate and she continues with both instruments to this day. Kate finds it fascinating that while she ultimately became more accomplished on the viola, she has retained more violin knowledge — probably because violin was started so young and “ingrained into my soul.”
It’s ironic that Kate’s mother, a professional musician, wanted to pursue astronomy and science, but back in the day was told, “No, dear, it will tire your eyes.” She pursued music instead. It must make Kate’s mom proud to see her daughter’s incredible scientific accomplishments.
Kate has personally experienced a strong connection between music and science. “Music trains you to think and listen. Musicians who are part of an orchestra learn how to be part of something, contribute to it, and sometimes lead it. The same is true of working on a scientific team.” Kate is another member of Les Six who sees music as a stress-reliever. “When I have a bad day at work, I will doodle and make up songs. I love composing. What a powerful thing to be able to make music. And, in a perfect world, I would have the time to practice.”
A Common Theme
While each scientist I spoke with had a different story to tell, one common theme emerged: Stringed instruments are extremely difficult to play, yet there is great satisfaction in breaking through each incremental barrier along the way. Scientists must also break things down to their most basic level first. Science holds incredible challenges and progress is made only through the day-to-day drudgery of whittling away at issues.
Built into the pursuit of music is the reality that you must start at the most rudimentary level in order to achieve anything close to greatness. And you must often revisit the rudiments to make significant progress. Les Six placed a premium on the importance of music in terms of understanding how to tackle tough technical issues one step at a time.
Perseverance, persistence, and the desire to move to the next level were noted as attributes that connect music and science. A fairly ordinary connection — one with extraordinarily powerful results.Tweet
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