Being a Cellist Makes Me a More Resilient Scientist

I first started playing music when I was in elementary school, when I took piano lessons in the living room of the pianist from my church. My legs were too short to reach the pedals, and I used to swing them under the piano bench as I played instead. I remember starting with just one hand, then the other, alternating until I could put them together and line up the notes, little harmonies filling her living room. This is where I first fell in love with music: sitting on a creaky piano bench next to a floral couch, my teacher’s dog occasionally barking at the mailman. I don’t really remember myself before these moments and before I played music; it’s so completely part of my identity now, I’m not sure who I would be without it. 

As I grew older, I started playing more instruments, starting with clarinet in middle school band. In the summer before I started high school, I found a dusty cello in my neighbor’s attic and started working my way through Bach’s cello preludes with the help of a local cello teacher. Cello was different from the other instruments I’d played. I mainly loved—and still love—how unconstrained it was. There was rarely a right or wrong in cello; there were only different ways to play. I also loved the challenge: getting to that point where what I could express what I wanted to express with a line or a piece often took hours and hours of practicing. I remember blocking off sections of Bach in my sheet music, putting brackets around two measures each week to practice. Sixteen notes. I probably played them hundreds of times. It was grueling and frustrating at times, but it was also immensely rewarding and beautiful. 

At the same time that I was learning cello, I was also working my way through science classes at my high school. I started to love science for an entirely different reason from music: science was facts, or so I thought at the time. It was fixed. It made sense. I could learn information from lectures and understand why biology or chemistry or physics worked the way it did. In freshman year biology, I wrote my first lab reports and do my first experiments. We studied caloric consumption and energy by lighting Cheeto puffs on fire and used food dye to investigate diffusion. In third hour calculus, I derived velocity from acceleration then in fourth hour physics we made bottle rockets and used those equations to calculate their trajectory over the high school football field. Everything that we learned was governed by an equation or a theorem, and I memorized these and wrote them neatly on my assignments. It seemed like everything fit together so neatly, like little pieces of a puzzle. 

All through high school, these two fields—music and science—formed a dichotomy for me. Music was organic, original, and creative. It was whatever I wanted it to be, and it was always different. Science, on the other hand, was factual, unchanging, and technical. It obeyed laws, and these stayed constant. There was little room for interpretation—at least back then. 

In college, I studied both music and neuroscience, juggling orchestra rehearsal and science labs. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I met a professor who ran a speech perception and music cognition lab on campus. I’d never heard of anyone combining science and music in this way before, and when I visited the lab one of the graduate students showed me how she was designing experiments to probe how brain cells fire in time with rhythms in the environment. I was fascinated with her project and quickly joined the lab. There, I learned how to design my own experiments to test hypotheses and analyze data to see if it matched my predictions. A lot of time in the lab was spent troubleshooting equipment, finding bugs in code, and figuring out whether the results I found matched the predictions I made. I also learned how to think critically about the experiments I designed: did they test what I thought they were testing? Did I control for everything I needed to? How should I interpret the results? 

This was a new side of science that my high school courses hadn’t shown. Here, I didn’t know the facts; rather, I had to design ways to figure out what they might be. Even then, the results weren’t as concrete as the words in my textbooks made them seem, but instead had to be interpreted using previous literature and discussions with my professors and lab mates. The classes I took before also didn’t show that behind every experiment that worked well, there were hundreds of mistakes that had been made and overcome in order to get there, but this was something I was figuring out myself in the lab. 

As I became more involved in research, I realized that I was familiar with this process—learning, testing, experimenting, interpreting, and trying again—because I’d been doing it for years in the practice rooms with my cello. In high school, I practiced for hours—starting, stopping, taking notes, figuring out what went wrong, and trying again. I had to use my resources, listen to how other people used different techniques, and ask my teacher questions. I had to be dedicated, working through day after day of failures before I was able to play something I was happy with. Importantly, both music and science required me to show up each day, even during the times where I wasn’t sure that I was smart enough or talented enough to succeed.

I was so completely overwhelmed—but it was a familiar feeling. It was the same feeling I got when I started a new concerto, struggling to hit the right pitches or even play in the right key.

After I graduated from Michigan State, I matriculated into a Neuroscience PhD program at the University of Michigan. I’d fallen in love with research during undergrad, and I wanted to continue to push the boundaries of new knowledge during my doctorate. After arriving, I quickly realized I was in completely over my head. My previous research had focused on psychological processes and how people perceived music: here, researchers studied signaling pathways and neurotransmitters. The research here was done in mice, but I’d never even held one or worked with one in a lab. My peers talked about running Western Blots and immunohistochemistry and optogenetic experiments. I had no idea what those words even meant. My research project my first semester involved recording neuron activity from mouse brains while presenting different sounds to them. I was so completely overwhelmed—but it was partially a familiar feeling. It was the same feeling that I got when I started a new concerto: I’d barely make it through maybe a few notes in during the first week, struggling to even hit the right pitches or play in the right key. 

So I did the same thing I’d been doing in the practice room for years: I took it a few days at a time. I asked other people how they did things. I listened to feedback. I tried different approaches. I asked for help—a lot of help. I woke up every day and gave it my best shot, even on the days when I felt so unqualified I was convinced that I’d been admitted to the program by some administrative fluke. 

Right now, I’m finishing up the second year of my PhD program. I passed my preliminary exams last summer, and I had my first committee meeting in January. I can record data from mouse neurons like I set out to do during my first year project, and I’ve done a bit of optogenetics—things that seemed almost impossible when I was a first year graduate student. And I still play a lot of cello in my free time, learning new music and playing along with my Spotify playlists to unwind after long days in the lab.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a graduate student panel and one of the students asked me what my advice would be for incoming graduate students. I told them that it takes hard work—so much hard work. So much trying and failing and trying again and failing again. It takes a lot of believing in yourself, even when you don’t feel like it, and asking questions, even when you don’t want to. I told them that I felt lucky, because these were things that I had already learned before coming here: I’d learned them from music.  

Audrey Drotos is a second-year graduate student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program where she studies auditory circuitry and how complex sounds are encoded in the brain. She is passionate about gender equity in STEM and serves on the executive board for the Girls Who Code and FEMMES organizations. In addition to playing the cello in her free time, she also enjoys backpacking and reading. You can find her on Twitter @audreydrotos

Edited by CDG.


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