A little over a year ago when I decided to start interviewing scientists who also played music on Science with Moxie, I stumbled across the blog Musicians and Scientists, written by Eva Amsen. She was already doing the same thing, and doing it rather well with video and voice interviews. I was thrilled to discover someone doing the same thing for the same reason: she also held dual citizenship as scientist and musician. After corresponding with each other, we decided that it would be a great idea for us to interview each other about our mutual roles as scientists, musicians, bloggers, and interviewers. Last summer, she interviewed me. It's a shame that it's taken me over a full year to get her interview up, but hopefully she will forgive me. Check it out below.
What first got you interested in science? In music?
I used to read a kids magazine when I was about 6 or 7. It was called Bamse, and was all about a bunch of anthropomorphic animals. (it's a Swedish kids' magazine, and I read the Dutch translation.) It had a huge impact on my life back then: all my pets were named after characters in the comics. I also vividly remember there being a one-page feature about DNA, showing the characters opening a huuuuge filing cabinet that contained all the information of our bodies, and strands of DNA flying out of the cabinet's drawers. That was probably my first exposure to Biochemistry, and it just stuck with me.
Music came a little later. I liked listening to it, and played around with some home-made music instruments, but I didn't seriously consider the idea of myself making music until I took my first after school music lessons at age ten. I started violin lessons the year after that.
Can you describe these homemade instruments? What instruments do you play today? Do you still play violin in a professional (or semi-professional) context today?
I vaguely remember, as a little kid, trying to make "guitars" out of cardboard boxes and rubber bands. No, they did not work. The instrument these kids made is very much like the toy instruments I used to make, but much bigger, and theirs is actually tuned and well thought out…
I mainly play violin these days, and currently play with the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra here in the UK. Before that I was in various other regional amateur and student orchestras in Canada and Holland. Classical orchestras are everywhere where science is done, so wherever I moved to I was able to bring my instrument along and find a place to play. Violin is the only instrument I play well, but I can also still play recorder if needed, and I've taught myself a tiny bit of piano and guitar. (I know where the notes are, I can find some basic chords, and work my way through simple pieces, but nothing more than that on those last two instruments!)
What role do science and music each play in your life?
I think science and music are two separate things to me. During my PhD, I absolutely could not live without my weekly orchestra rehearsals: I needed those few hours completely away from the bench, counting beats rather than cells. If there is a common ground, for me, it would be that both offer both short term and long term goals that I could work at to reach: getting data from an experiment, playing one piece well at a concert, working on my thesis, working on improving skills on violin. In the end, I didn't like scientific research enough to make a career out of it, but I do still like to play violin, so I'm not sure what to make of that!
What type of research did you do for your Ph.D. project and how does that affect what you do today (scientifically, musically, life-affirmingly, etc.)?
I did my PhD in Biochemistry, but the project drifted more toward cell biology. I studied proteins that were involved in pigmentation pathways in mouse skin cells, and looked at how they affected cell shape, expression of other proteins, or the actual amount of pigment the cells produced. The project was incredibly frustrating because pigmentation is such a robust process that detecting any changes is extremely difficult. But that did make me more certain that I didn't want to continue working in the lab and focus more on connecting scientists and communicating science.
Musically, my violin-playing improved a lot during the years I did my PhD, because that was something I had more control over. I could spend weeks troubleshooting experiments until finding the one parameter I had to change to get results, and often even that was completely serendipitous, like getting an exceptionally strong batch of antibody from the supplier by chance and suddenly seeing clear differences in protein levels that weren't visible before. But practicing violin was more reliable: I could practice more, and improve! In the lab, on the other hand, I could go weeks without progress even though I worked super-hard.
You said you didn't want to make a career out of science research, but now you blog about it. What do you do for a career now?
I'm Online Editor for the journal Development, and Community Manager for the Node, which is a website where developmental biologists can share news. It's set up as a blog, but we invite any developmental biologist to join and write for it. I do a lot of the writing there myself as well. Before that I spent some time as freelance science writer, both during and after my PhD, and I'm really interested in the concept of "the scientific community" - how people interact with each other, both online and offline, and how the whole system works (or doesn't...)
How'd you get into blogging?
In 2000 I did a four-month internship in Quebec City, and I hand-coded a website to update my friends and family back home. I made it so that each entry linked to the one before and after it, and there was a page with a list of all the entries, and a guestbook to respond. A few months after I returned from that trip, I discovered blog software, and just *had* to play around with this system that was exactly what I needed half a year earlier! Between then and now, I must have had about 5 or 6 different blogs. My first science-only blog lasted for about five years, from 2005 to 2010 (I consider it pretty much dead now), and I still have a blog at Nature Network since 2007, and then the Scientists and Musicians blog which I started specifically to keep track of my interviews with scientists and musicians. Oh, and I blog for work as well. That takes up most of my blogging energy these days...
Edit from Eva in the comments: The only thing that changed [from last year] is that I don’t do as much blogging for work anymore because we’ve attracted a lot of other talented writers for the Node in the mean time.
Thanks so much to Eva for doing this interview. You can also follow her on Twitter @easternblot. If you are involved in both science and music and want to be featured in my SciMuses series of interviews, shoot me an email!