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A musician amongst the scientists

Julie Saiki in her lab - 560

I remember the anxiety I felt during my first college chemistry course. The other students seemed so prepared and confident while I worried about asking an obviously stupid question.

I wonder how much scarier it would have been if I hadn’t taken a full load of science classes in high school? Or if instead of being surrounded by incoming freshman, my classmates included biology, chemistry and engineering graduate students?

This was the situation that Julie Saiki faced when she enrolled in a Stanford’s chemical and systems biology course in drug design and development several years ago. Saiki, a musicology PhD student, had spent her high-school years practicing and performing the violin and viola. After college she lived in Austria for a year, researching 19th and 20th century Austrian chamber music on a Fulbright scholarship. But her career trajectory took a turn. As I wrote in a recent profile article:

Saiki’s plans for a doctorate in musicology were knocked off course after she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a disabling inflammation of the colon. It wasn’t the disease but the cure that sent her in a new academic direction. An herbal remedy put her symptoms into remission, and she went looking for a way to make it available to others. Despite having no science background, she enrolled in a course on drug development; successfully pitched her idea to SPARK, Stanford’s drug development training program; and received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin a clinical trial. Each step brought her cure closer to patients, but the experience, and her success, caused her to re-evaluate her career.

I also describe in the piece the initial thoughts of Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, director of SPARK:

Saiki, Mochly-Rosen observed, was a quiet student but whenever she was directly questioned about her group’s progress or approach, her answers were clear and confident. Saiki admits that initially the science lectures were over her head, but her group’s project — a probiotic treatment for Clostridium difficile infections — included market research and how to satisfy regulatory requirements, things Saiki found she could contribute to. She set about to master the individual parts of the process, similar to how she would approach a new piece of music. “You pick things up once you start putting the pieces together,” she said.

Another aspect about Saiki that impressed her mentors at SPARK were her presentation skills. When I talked to her undergraduate violin instructor, Colgate University professor Laura Klugherz, she commented that part of a musician’s training is learning to calm their nerves to the point that they are capable of taking the stage to perform their music beautifully and flawlessly.

I suspect that after playing solo recitals, a room full of scientists isn’t quite so intimidating.

Kim Smuga-Otto is a student in UC Santa Cruz’s science communication program and a former writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: SPARK program helps researchers cross the “valley of death” between drug discovery and development, Ask Stanford Med: Pediatric gastroenterologist taking questions on inflammatory bowel diseases and Stanford Medicine Music Network brings together healers, musicians and music lovers
Photo of Julie Saiki by Norbert von der Groeben

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