Column: Sciences

by Svetlana Didorenko

She Blinded Me With Artwork
When Joseph Terwilliger became a geneticist, he didn’t think it would lead him to a room with Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman. He actually hated science in high school and studied music performance for tuba in college. But then there was a Ph.D. program in genetics and development at Columbia University—because the degree in music would have to be paid out of pocket.

Terwilliger speaks eight languages, ranging from basic Northern Sami to Korean with “professional working proficiency.” He says that playing music keeps him sane, and working in science opens all sorts of opportunities in life. He taught human evolution to North Korean children last summer, after which he was invited to translate for Dennis Rodman on his trip to North Korea. During this adventure he also used his musical skills; Terwilliger selected Western music for a North Korean girl band (“mostly tunes Rodman likes”). “And when I sang with them,” he writes, “I sang North Korean songs like ‘The country where I live is the best’ pointing at myself when I said my country.”

Everyone knows the 15th-century Renaissance man Da Vinci, but since his time, art and science have become mostly separated, like the unintended footpaths on a rough terrain that eventually become trails. We think of the two as utilizing different sides of the brain, as if there’s no corpus callosum for connecting them.

Why is it not commonplace to see Leonardo da Vincis in droves in today’s science army? The sheer volume of the scientific knowledge and expertise available and necessary to acquire for the would-be Leonardos of today is mountains compared to what had to be acquired in the 15th century. Folks knew less then. Ask a statistical mathematics Ph.D. student how long it takes him to master the methods of his science. Then consider if it’s possible within his human lifespan to study a few more sciences.

Better understanding of the sciences leads to specialization. How could a physicist of today get anywhere in her work if she needed to spend a few years on studying quantum mechanics, then a few years on string theory, then another few on statistical mechanics, and so on? Einstein himself was critical of this specialization, saying that it “degrades the researcher to the level of a common skilled laborer.”

It is possible that with the specialization, the arts have dissociated themselves from the sciences. Few scientists today spend significant time of their life as musicians, painters, or dancers, though they do believe it’s important for the scientists to study the arts. As Terwilliger travels the nooks of the world applying his music, language, and research skills, Marcela Karpuj, a researcher from San Francisco, plays drums and paints while fighting cancer.

Karpuj’s playground is a lab bench and a podium. As a biologist, she runs experiments, examines phenomena, and analyzes data to present to her colleagues. Into the second year of studying chemistry as an undergraduate student at Hebrew University in Israel, she realized she hated it and considered quitting but decided to delay until graduation. Having done lab work—which she loved—she decided to stick with science.

In her view, science was a more practical field than music—she could support herself and could do more meaningful work through research. But now she thinks it’s not quite true. Music has the power to support her in many ways that science doesn’t. The two work in complementary ways.

Studying music and painting convinced her there’s no such concept as a late start. She became fearless and would take on anything she’s passionate and curious about. She came to study drums at 27, which is considered late at the Israeli Conservatory of Music where she inquired about the lessons. “Where’s the kid?” the administrators asked, assuming she was looking for the courses for her child.

Two years ago, she started a company BioA2Z in the San Francisco Bay Area, and with her collaborators she’s chiseling away the pieces of the cancer cure rock. When working in the lab, Karpuj listens to music. It relaxes her. Playing drums for her is collaborative. Painting is also a social activity—she enjoys painting in the studio with others. At its essence however, she thinks the act of looking for colors to paint with allows her imagination to wander.

“You have to let your mind take you somewhere,” she says. And one needs to imagine things as a researcher. New imaging technologies eventually let her see how the molecules and cells interact, but “when you’re starting a project, you have to imagine, to hypothesize a lot of things that you don’t see. What is your aim? And what are your ways to get there? There’s no one way to cure a cancer.” The possibilities demand creativity when choosing research paths to explore.

In her San Francisco apartment, Karpuj’s paintings cover most walls, proving she sees the world in color. There’s an image of two children playing. She painted them from a photograph. To her, a painting has intrinsic beauty, just like a scientific discovery.