Of Mice and Musicans
Bar Harbor's Jackson Laboratory might be science's best gig.
Jackson Laboratory is an ongoing source of fascination. There are, of course, the mice: obese mice and diabetic mice, osteoporotic mice and blind mice, mice running on treadmills and mice with teeny-tiny blood pressure cuffs on their tails. Then there is the incongruity: hundreds of scientists in white coats and surgical masks running experiments in a laboratory wedged between the sea and rugged granite mountains of Acadia National Park.
Now the world-renowned genetics research laboratory is defying our expectations yet again as it emanates the soothing strains of a jazz ensemble or the sonorous recitation of a poem. Those are the sounds of the scientists and their colleagues indulging their inner artists at the Right Brain Café, which has been convening every few weeks in the laboratory’s cafeteria for the past year and a half.
What should astonish us, argues Jackson Laboratory president and CEO Edison Liu, pictured here, is not that scientists are creative people, but that cultural convention insists on drawing a giant imaginary corpus callosum through the human race — logical, analytical people on one side, imaginative and intuitive people on the other. “I think it’s a misnomer to call certain people creative and others not,” says Liu, who is an expert in the functional genomics of human cancer, as well as an accomplished jazz pianist and composer.
The cafe was formed not long after Liu arrived at the lab in January 2012. It evolved out of a chat he had with laboratory managers Jennifer Torrance and Heidi Stanton-Drew, both of whom are singers. A few days later, the three made music together, and they found the experience so rewarding that they informally spread the word to others at the lab, which employs thirteen hundred people.
These days anywhere from thirty to fifty people attend the Right Brain Café, some to play music or read stories and poems, others just to listen. Regulars, Liu says, include people like Wayne Frankel, an expert in the genetics and biology of epilepsy and a “very talented” jazz guitarist and pianist, Mike Zittle, a radiation safety officer and a drummer “who could have been a professional musician,” and Gregg TeHennepe, an information technology specialist and a master of many instruments, capable of playing “some of the most beautiful bluegrass music I’ve heard.”
Right Brain Café has no ulterior agenda, Liu says. “It’s not necessarily to enhance our efficiency at work — that’s not why we do this, spend hours practicing and performing. It’s because it really makes us feel whole, feel good, and it exercises a part of us that is very important.” — V.M.W.
Photograph: Jackson Laboratory photo/Françoise Gervais