Slogging my way through a career as a scientist, somehow I always felt drawn to the world of punk rock. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, I hoped to surreptitiously bump into Bad Religion lead singer Greg Graffin, then working on his Ph.D. in zoology in the building across from my lab. In grad school, I spent my late nights and weekends in the lab doing experiments to the blaring sounds of Social Distortion and X-Ray Spex. I even included an ode to some of my favorite punk bands in my Ph.D. thesis, thanking them for the solace and wisdom that they provided me as I struggled to complete my research project. Yet I never could quite figure out how the two worlds of science and punk rock went together beyond merely being passions of mine. A few years ago, I stumbled across an article from The Scientist that talked about how punk rock and science actually share a number of common characteristics. The story also mentioned a number of punk rockers who had science backgrounds, including Graffin, along with Milo Aukerman from Descendents and Dexter Holland from The Offspring. Finally, it appeared that my worlds had collided.
More importantly, by this point I had become the public outreach coordinator for ASBMB, which essentially meant that I got paid to bring science to punk rock fans and punk rock to scientists. I conjured crazy, fantastic dreams about how I could exploit this synergy. Could I organize a concert that featured these bands at our annual meeting? How about a panel discussion about science during the Warped Tour?
The only thing tempering my imagination was my inability to put a plan into action. For years, the idea lay dormant as I tried to devise the perfect outlet for my vision. Finally, pushed by my dedicated colleague Raj Mukhopadhyay, I consented to co-author a series of articles about Aukerman, Graffin and Holland for ASBMB Today. At first, I was slightly discouraged by how the situation had resolved itself, worried that writing a few profile pieces for a bunch of scientists would have limited impact. No, I wanted the whole world to know this story and to gain a true appreciation of science and scientists.
What helped me overcome my reservations was realizing that I was going to get to play out one of my lifelong dreams: I actually was going to interview some of my musical idols! The thought of talking Bad Religion lyrics with their author or sharing stories about growing up in Southern California with Dexter motivated me to go full throttle into this project. I was not disappointed. As a music fan, the thrill of conducting these interviews was exceeded only by the incredibly thoughtful, insightful discussions we had with Milo, Greg and Dexter about their scientific passions, musical interests and career outlooks, discussions that I never wanted to end.
During the writing process, my inner punk rocker finally got to come out and meet the world. I threw in every punk reference my editor, Angela Hopp, would allow, along with some that she didn’t. (Seriously punk fans, tell me how perfect a title “What We Do Is Secret” would have been for the series?) But hey, I did manage to work a reference to The Ramones into a science story. How cool is that?
One small moment stands out from this whole process: While interviewing Milo, we got to talking about his musical interests, which surprisingly included the prog rock band Yes. Trying to demonstrate my legitimacy as a punk rock expert, I pointed to a song by the punk band Dead Kennedys titled “Short Songs” that makes a sarcastic reference to the contrast between the brevity of punk and long-windedness of progressive rock. Not only did Milo respond that he knew the song, he even sang the chorus. (We have it on tape!)
But back to my original quandary: how to bring science to the masses through an article series? Well, the articles have been shared more than 1000 times on Facebook and re-tweeted more than 200 times on Twitter. We got a boatload of comments and plaudits, from fans and scientists alike. We even set the record for most ever pageviews on ASBMB Today. I’d say that’s some pretty successful science outreach. What’s more, having now talked shop with these punk legends, my craving for acceptance as a certified punk finally has been satisfied. Gabba gabba hey.
To get insights from my co-author Raj Mukhopadhyay, check out her reflections on this whole process on her Wild Types blog.