illustration by Clare Mallison

Musical Magnet

Andrey Shaw doesn’t know why students with backgrounds in music gravitate to his lab, but they do. A few years ago, he had so many that he decided to put on a recital. “People who hadn’t played instruments since junior high were dusting off their skills,” he says. “It was totally amazing.”

“We had a rule that nobody could play solo, so people would have to practice together,” he laughs. Shaw performed as well, playing a four-handed piano piece, Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, with a student.

Listen to the four hand version of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, Op. 72, B. 145, No. 10 in E minor.

He’d love to repeat the performance, but it’s hard to carve out the time from his studies of the immune system. “Science has been so all-absorbing,” says the HHMI investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.

Finding time to play music used to be easier for Shaw. As a child in Seattle, he spent four or five hours a day polishing sonatas, waltzes, and nocturnes. Through college, he was on track to become a concert pianist. After earning a degree in music from Columbia College, he began giving piano recitals in New York City. But crippling performance anxiety made him unsure about his career choice. “So I had this brilliant idea that I would go to medical school. That could be my ‘straight job,’ and I could play music on the side.”

He enrolled in medical school at Columbia University but found himself wandering over to the Manhattan School of Music to put his hands on the piano keys instead of going to class. “I flunked my first anatomy exam,” he says. With that wake-up call, he started paying more attention in school and playing piano a lot less. He earned his medical degree but realized that a career as a physician would not allow him time to pursue music as well.

He started visiting labs, casting about for something that grabbed his interest. He found it, unexpectedly, in the lab of virologist Jack Rose. “I walked into the lab and I could immediately tell that was what I wanted to be doing,” he remembers. “I don’t think I realized until that point how creative science is. It truly spoke to me.” He was struck by how “craft-like” conducting an experiment can be. He was also excited about the creative freedom to pursue his ideas wherever they took him. “Good science is about trying to think outside the box, about what no one else has thought of before,” he says. “As scientists, we have an incredible level of freedom.”

Shaw sees many parallels between playing music and conducting scientific research. “Much of what you do is tedious and repetitive. It requires a Zen-like state—you have to sit down, focus, and be in the moment,” he says. “It’s not that different from sitting at the piano to master a piece by practicing it over and over.”

He finds his greatest satisfaction working with young scientists, supporting and mentoring them, as he did when they practiced together for the lab recital. “I love finding what it is that makes people tick and getting them excited about it,” he says.