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They Go Together

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Len’s profile.

Medicine and music are linked. It’s partly due to the wiring of our brains: both fields are mathematical, relational, and conceptual. It also comes down to how we use our brains. Medicine, like music, is an art, a large knowledge base upon which we draw and build with each new patient we meet. Medicine depends on teamwork: treatments are developed and refined in consultation with colleagues, much like a theme is passed and adapted among instruments in an orchestra.

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Because of these shared characteristics, it’s not surprising that you’ll find many doctors and scientists harboring musical talents. Come see a performance of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston—my musical outlet since 1984—to hear this firsthand. While there was a brief period of time when I considered becoming a professional musician, my heart was always in science and medicine, and it made more sense to me to make music my hobby.

They Go Together-young_len_on_the_horn.jpg
Portrait of the young scientist as a trumpet player

I played trumpet all through high school—first seat in the orchestra and band in a pretty big school—but my trumpet-playing peak came during the last year of college. I had applied to medical school early decision and essentially was able to do what I wanted during my senior year of college, so I played music: three orchestras, two bands, a brass quintet, with a choir, at a church. I was playing about seven hours a day, and I got pretty good. It was a wonderful year. A lot of people asked me why I wasn’t going into music. That year, I interacted with many people who were going into music, and I was impressed by how talented everybody was, so I knew the competition would be immense to actually make it as a trumpet player (probably a hundred times harder than making it as a doctor). I felt like I had a good shot at medicine and should lead with my strengths. Besides, the moment I was born, my mother said, “You’re going to be a doctor.” Maybe it was a bit predestined.

It wasn’t until medical school that I realized the great opportunities in research; before then, I had seen my future in community medicine, pediatrics, my own practice, something like that. Now, I devote my time to stem cell research and find my musical outlet in the Longwood Symphony.

For musical doctors and scientists, the two worlds are never entirely separate. On a personal level, one of my favorite stories is when I was playing a Mass at a church and I had a solo with the organist. During a break in my solo, an usher asked me to assist someone who had fainted in Pew 53. The person had a pulse and began to recover a bit, so while someone called for EMTs, I was able to go back and come into the song at just the right time. On a larger scale, the mission of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra involves supporting health-related non-profits. And other medical community-based musical groups across the country have similar goals.

I think that in some ways, the genetics are hardwired. A lot of us have a love of the arts and music, and it’s just fantastic having the opportunity to nourish our sense of creativity both inside and outside of the lab.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.