For many scientists and clinicians, an appreciation for art, music or dance is more than a hobby—it's a passion that sustains and feeds them, helping them push the bounds of their research. Here, five Children's Hospital Boston researchers share how their artistic interests have influenced them.
Kimberly Stegmaier, MD, is an attending physician in Hematology/Oncology and a principal investigator at Children's and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Her research focuses on pediatric and other malignancies not well addressed by industry, such as acute myeloblastic leukemia. Her laboratory has developed new chemical genomic approaches to the discovery of modulators of cancer, serving as leads for drug discovery and for further understanding oncogenesis. She is a former gymnast and a classically trained ballerina who has performed with the New York Dance Theater and the Jose Mateo/Ballet Theatre of Boston.
The journey of a physician-scientist, though incredibly rewarding, is wrought with challenges. I have always thought it essential to hold sacred at least one personal interest outside of career and family. For me, this sacred place is the ballet studio.
It is difficult even to put into words the experience of dance. It is truly spiritual: the music, the movement, the meeting of the two. There is such a joy in the creation of a new work. I am always excited to see how it will evolve, where it will go. I particularly enjoy pas de deux (dance for two), where it is only in the anticipation of another that the art is truly created. In research, there is the parallel of the discovery—the wonderment that drives the next experiment, the unveiling of the data, the possibility that this discovery will be a critical revelation. And whether in the dance studio, clinic or laboratory, I always enjoy the most success through collaboration. With the introduction of genomic approaches to research, the importance of collaborative science has finally been recognized more formally.
Pediatric oncology has the duality of many great successes but also some heart-wrenching losses. Ballet sustains me on many levels. It provides an emotional outlet—a place to dance through the extremes of the medical work—the loss, the sadness, the joy. There is inspiration in the sheer physicality of the movement and comfort in the rituals. Dance also fosters sensitivity to the human body—its incredible strength and its limitations.
It teaches focus, a strong work ethic, discipline and perseverance, while it nurtures creative energy and passion. These are all important in the practice of clinical medicine and research.
Jennifer Zuk is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Mind, Brain and Education. In the laboratory of Nadine Gaab, PhD, Zuk is exploring the connection between music and language processing in the brain, and how musical study affects brain wiring, auditory processing skills and reading ability. In addition to being a music educator, she is an actively performing flautist and soprano singer.
Music has an effect on everyone, whether it's feeling soothed by listening to a favorite song, reminiscing on an event in the past associated with a song, or gaining confidence and discipline through musical study. There is something special about the impact music has, and this is what makes research on music such a fascinating field. Research suggests that elements of musical study directly enhance cognitive skills that are essential for academic success.
Performing musicians themselves face cognitive demands—the coordination skills necessary to play an instrument, advanced auditory processing to appreciate intonation and textural details within an ensemble, and the ability to take musical notation from paper and translate it into a meaningful, moving work. Wondering how these actions are possible is what originally sparked my interest in cognitive neuroscience research.
Music and research are considered by many to be mutually exclusive fields, but I have found their demands to be quite similar. Experts in either field must be creative and able to process and deal with multiple concepts at once, display their skills to the greater population and alleviate errors in their work. Most importantly, they often strive toward a common goal: to make a difference in the lives of others. In our research at the Gaab Laboratory, we aim to help struggling readers by understanding more about reading development and reading disabilities. As a music educator, I also aim to improve the lives of children by introducing them to the world of music.
My particular joy comes in recognizing what music and research have to offer to each other. Research demonstrating that music enhances academic achievement supports music education programs, while music educators' anecdotal stories on how musical study has made a difference to students can inform the scientific research. In my work with Dr. Gaab, we aim to explore the bridge between cognitive neuroscience research and music education further.
Tom Kirchhausen, PhD, a cell biologist and investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the Immune Disease Institute, studies "membrane trafficking," a way by which cells move hormones, growth factors and viruses in and out of the cell. He is well known for the movies he produces in collaboration with animators, illustrating how cells work at the molecular level. His laboratory was one of the first to capture the entry of a virus into cells using real-time imaging.
Originally from Peru, my family has always been involved in the arts: one sister is in theater and the other is a play writer; a niece is in theater and my nephew recently finished training as a movie director. My mother migrated from Europe to Peru, and when she came painted batiks on cloth to sell to tourists.
Before I was 16, I painted, did photography and some music, and produced several movies. One movie had a script, actors and music and was a story about friendship. In another, I managed to convince a doctor to let me use his X-ray machine linked to a 16-mm film camera, normally used to follow catheter probes in patients, to image a boa constrictor in real time as it was feeding. As I grew older, my artistic interests shifted towards graphic representations connected to science and nature.
Most of my research is done in three dimensions. Cells are utterly complex, and good 3D representations are essential to help me explain how cellular processes operate, study them and understand how they function and behave under normal conditions, under stress and when exposed to medicines or drugs. I communicate with the graphic designers who help build 3D models for us and with my scientific colleagues in the same way: I often start by sketching a concept, and we then work together to evolve a more mature idea. I always encourage their inventiveness and creativity.
I dream about doing art recreationally but I don't think I have the attention span or time. I do find that art infiltrates itself into my research, and I'd say the way I express myself is through my work. I did design my office space, as I've also helped design Web sites, brochures and t-shirts for our program. I would love to someday design a building or a public space.
Loren Walensky, MD, PhD is an attending physician in Hematology/Oncology and Medical Director of the Dana-Farber Program in Cancer Chemical Biology. His laboratory, which focuses on the chemical biology of signaling pathways in cancer, recently discovered a switch on a naturally occurring cellular "death protein" that can be activated to trick cancer cells into committing suicide. He received the Society for Pediatrics Research Young Investigator Award in May.
At the age of four, when all I knew about medicine was that my pediatrician's prescription made me better, I began to study what became a lifelong passion: performance at the piano. I never needed reminding to practice, but instead ventured down to the basement on my own and played for hours on end.
It was during my early classical training that I also developed a love for science. So instead of applying to Juilliard or Manhattan School of Music for college, I chose the liberal arts route. Throughout college at Princeton and then medical school at Johns Hopkins, I continued to practice and perform classical piano, but ultimately my intensity, discipline and passion became redirected toward becoming a physician-scientist. Although I continued to play for relaxation throughout residency training, the daily rigor required to compete and perform was no longer feasible. Instead, I gradually rediscovered daily performance for a different audience: my three sons and my patients. Although Liszt and Chopin have been replaced by the "children's top 20," the audience is engaged and wildly appreciative. When I play with a child on each knee, I realize how fortunate I am to have this fulfilling musical outlet. Accompanied by my physician-flutist wife, the piano performance continues in playrooms, grade-school functions, and in our home during daily "piano time." I have no doubt that the focus and passionate commitment that I have developed for my current work as a physician-scientist in pediatric oncology has benefited from those early days of study at the piano. The discipline, persistence, and dedication I first discovered at the piano bench continue to shape my approach to scientific challenges at the lab bench.
There are remarkable parallels between conducting research and mastering music. In many ways, the approach to learning a new piano concerto is similar to designing and executing a research project: it is often a process that begins in quiet solitude, without distraction and with intense focus. When learning a new piece of music, you're in it for the long haul; much like any research project, it may take months or even years to perfect. You have to stay in shape, build endurance, retain focus, exercise patience, and remain driven by your passion. As in research, the goal is to transform the piece into something electric, innovative, and reflective of a personal influence that distinguishes your performance from others'.
In addition to providing the space for individuality and introspection, music and research both offer the tremendous fulfillment that comes from working as a team in synchrony to amplify the power of music and ingenuity of research. Since becoming a principal investigator of my own laboratory in 2006, I've seen how conducting a scientific investigation with other researchers is remarkably similar to performing in a quintet or a symphony. Efforts are intricately coordinated, the spotlight is shared, strengths and weaknesses of the individual are balanced by those of the group, and the melodies or discoveries of the whole exceed the sum of the parts.
Hiep Nguyen, MD, a pediatric urologist and surgeon at Children's, is a pioneer in developing, testing and implementing robotics techniques to improve minimally invasive surgery. He co-directs the Center for Robotic Surgery, directs research and training in robotic surgery, and is chair of Innovative Urological Technology. Off-hours, Nguyen is also a painter, potter and photographer.
My research and my artistic outlets are expressions of the same drives that are in me. I think of something, and have this vague idea that this is going to be something that's nice, something that's going to be helpful, something that's going to add to the world. But I really don't know how I'm going to get at that concept—whether it be a pot or a painting or a picture, or a new surgery I'm developing, or a new technique for visualizing an organ. None of it is worked out. Then begins the process, and that's where I think art and research are blended as one. They both require you to utilize the tools you've learned and worked with to develop a concept into something that's real. If you're doing pottery, it's your tools, your hands; if you're painting it's your brush. With research it's the scientific method, learning to ask the questions, learning how to do the appropriate experiments. And using those tools we slowly develop this ...thing. And the beautiful part is, it's never what you started out with. My pots never end up being what I thought they were going to be. In research, I have an idea of an outcome that's going happen, but during the time I'm doing the research, it may be changing.
Some scientists would say, "I don't like that, I need it to come out like this." They try to shape and do the research so that it comes out a certain way. But the more successful scientists are the ones that allow their brain to be free of constraints and say, "Hey, this isn't what I initially thought, but maybe it's just as good, maybe I'll just see where this goes." When we sit down and go over the results of a project, I'm always surprised by the fact that by letting the process happen by itself, I get more meaningful data. Data that are really going to impact patient care.
I think the art part of me really lives for that. And it teaches me the discipline so that I can apply it in research—to try to open up my mind to new ideas, new concepts, to think outside of the box. To not be constrained by my tools, my teaching, my training, but to let my imagination go. And to give up control of it—which is hard for doctors to do—and see the beauty in what I'm trying to figure out. Whether that be developing a new surgical technique or making a nice bowl.