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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.