Science and Art: Why Choose? A Biotech Entrepreneur’s Dual Life
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in small clubs, with alternating duties as a dishwasher and soda maker. That gave him a priceless opportunity to learn from his idols. Because the performers had no dressing rooms, renowned artists like Muddy Waters and Doc Watson would hang out with Brown in the kitchen between sets. Early the next morning, Brown would roll into biology class armed with a cup of coffee.
After graduating from NYU, Brown toured with headliners such as blues icon Howlin’ Wolf, folk songwriter John Prine, and country music singer Kris Kristofferson. Music was a hard way to make a living, though, so Brown decided to come back to science. He returned to NYU for a Master’s degree.
Then, the opportunity to work with 78-year-old radiation biology pioneer Anna Goldfeder “fell in my lap,” Brown says. Goldfeder had advertised for a lab technician, and Brown thinks he won the job because he had taken the time to look up her scientific articles. Goldfeder later used her considerable clout to get him into the PhD program without going through the usual application hoops. She spent hours explaining her half-century of work on cancer biology to him. “I felt the total responsibility to learn what she had learned over all those years,” Brown says. Goldfeder, a Polish immigrant who had studied violin, attended the Metropolitan Opera religiously and filled her lab with the sound of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff from her radio, Brown says. “She would rock slightly at her microscope,” he recalls.
Brown earned his PhD in 1979, based on work with chemical compounds that enhanced the cancer-killing power of radiation. As he was toiling in the lab, he also wrote music for a friend who staged an “off, off, way off-Broadway” show, and for a photographer who produced a slide show to accompany a retrospective of the modern art trailblazer Henri Matisse.
Brown’s “semi-parallel dual life” continued when he arrived at Stanford to do research as a post-doc. He began each day at 6 am to write songs. He also met a neighbor, Edward Luck, who shared Brown’s background in biology and chemistry. Luck had a second life as well. He was an accomplished painter and sculptor. Brown says they enjoyed batting ideas around.
“That was truly a great blend of different sides of the brain,” Brown says. Those conversations got Brown started on his current path as an entrepreneur. He and Luck founded Matrix Pharmaceutical, a developer of experimental cancer drugs that was acquired in 2002 by Chiron of Emeryville, CA. Brown is now chief scientific officer of two cancer therapeutics companies he co-founded, NewGen and DelMar Pharmaceuticals of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Brown doesn’t mix his scientific and artistic interests to create projects, as does University of Chicago biophysicist Josiah Zayner, who recently bioengineered oat plant proteins to generate color patterns and “music” in response to light. But Brown says he has learned organizational skills—ways of moving forward with projects efficiently—through his involvement with both science and music.
His rich exposure to so many musical influences as a youngster also carries over into a habit as a researcher to look beyond the journals his fellow lab mates routinely read, Brown says. While he studied cancer biology, he found useful leads in journals of agricultural chemistry and toxicology.
As a songwriter, Brown has recently found inspiration in poems written by the playwright Tennessee Williams, and in poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American author internationally recognized for his work in the late 1800’s.
Overstrom at the Rhode Island School of Design calls the artist’s trait of reaching out for fresh influences “divergence.”
“Artistic inquiry is unconstrained by the need to come out with one answer—you can come out with many answers,” Overstrom says. In contrast, science often delivers breakthroughs by what Overstorm calls “convergence.”
“In science there is beauty in collecting data and crafting experiments that allow us to come out with one answer,” he says. Ideally, people can master both the divergent and convergent styles of thinking, Overstrom says. “If you’re stymied, you can step back and think divergently in new ways.”
It’s worked for Dennis (and Denny) Brown. And he thinks a dual life is easier these days for many young scientists, who can reach out to mentors and tap into new worlds through a computer screen. An artist-biochemist can be inspired by the visual beauty of computer-modeled protein structures, Brown says. “If you like solving scientific problems, you could probably write a good mystery novel,” he says.