The Sciences

Eleven Scientists Who Survived the School of Rock--One Year Later

By Chris MooneyNov 15, 2010 8:01 AM


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This is a special feature-length post in anticipation of the coming roll-out of the new Rock Stars of Science™ campaign in GQ magazine's December "Men of the Year" issue. For more information, visit Rock S.O.S. on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Being a doctor or scientist has a high status--within the profession, at least. But that's not good enough these days, with pay-line cuts across the National Institutes of Health.  Disease by disease, scientists have woken up to the external politics that drive funding for research.

So what are they doing about it? A case study of how dire things have become is what 11 intrepid researchers--the “Founding Fathers” or, if you prefer, "Founding Lab Rats” of the Rock Stars of Science™ campaign--went through (and survived) last year in the name of branding science as "cool."

Was it an absolute requirement for them to carry on like this (see right) to make their point?

Unfortunately yes—if they were to break through to a public besotted by "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars."

“Scientists must venture outside their comfort zones to show the public how cool – and how important – their work really is,” opines Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, and one of the 2009 Rock S.O.S.™ founding fathers. “I’m thrilled to see all of these big-name musicians using their star power to shine a spotlight on science. However, it is only the beginning. I urge every scientist get into the act by telling friends, neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials about his or her research and what it means for our nation’s health. Imagine how powerful that would be.”

Rock Stars of Science™ was created and funded by the philanthropic arm of the designer menswear brand, Geoffrey Beene, which dedicates 100 % of its net profits to charitable causes. The first campaign launched in GQ magazine in the summer of 2009, and in a few short days, a new one will appear in GQ’s blockbuster “Men of the Year” issue—going beyond the 2009 all male scientist spread by including four female scientists this time around—and two Nobel Laureates.

The new set of names—8 musicians, 19 researchers—will become public soon enough. But meanwhile, for the 11 scientists who’ve already served as lab rats to the stars, a funny thing happened on the way to fame and notoriety. They weren’t shunned by their colleagues, mocked, or ostracized—if anything, they were widely embraced. And the memories they made in the process can only be called enviable.

So here, as we await more rock star news emerging later this week, let’s examine their stories.


For the Mount Sinai Medical Center neurologist and Alzheimer’s researcher Sam Gandy, participating in the 2009 Rock S.O.S.™ photo shoot is something he won’t soon live down. For the spread’s third photo in GQ, Gandy was paired with two other biomedical researchers and, the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas. They’re all wearing bowties, poised as if in a barbershop quartet—and though it’s over a year later now, someone mentions it to Gandy once every few weeks at least.

“One of the most amusing,” he relates, “was one of the Mount Sinai deans, who was relaxing on a cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska, trying to zone out, far away from Mount Sinai.” That’s when the dean picked up a copy of GQ that had been left out on the deck. “There I was glaring back at her, snapping her mind right back to work!” Gandy relates. (Actually, he wasn’t glaring in the picture. He was snapping, however--to a rhythm).

It’s just one example of how the 2009 Rock S.O.S.™ campaign has reverberated in the lives of the eleven “rock docs” who participated. And it’s a taste of what the next round of scientists can expect when the second Rock S.O.S.™ spread appears in GQ.

The “founding father” scientists say that while being photographed with rock stars and fitted by fashionistas certainly represented an extreme novelty in their research lives, their colleagues’ reactions have generally been quite positive. Granted, they’ve had to endure the occasional ribbing. David Agus, a cancer researcher at the USC Keck School of Medicine,  relates that every time he’s introduced to do a talk, somebody flashes up a PowerPoint slide of the GQ image featuring himself, Scripps Translational Science Institute researcher Eric Topol, and Seal.

“We’re not used to being shown in that limelight,” says Agus. “We’re geeks, and geeks are not usually doing photo shoots.” As it happens, Agus met fellow geek Eric Topol for the very first time at the 2009 Rock S.O.S. photo shoot--when they were both in the dressing room in their underwear, getting fitted.

“It was a strange way to meet another scientist,” Agus says.

Weirdness aside, Agus says the most memorable aspect of the whole experience came when his young kids saw the final images in GQ. They were proud and excited by it—a perfect example of how the campaign generates enthusiasm for science in the next generation.

“My kids also noticed that I’m about a foot and a half shorter than Seal, but that goes with the territory,” says Agus.

Needless to say, the fashion benefits of being a “rock doc” are also substantial. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was pictured in GQ with former NIH director Harold Varmus and Sheryl Crow. “My most vivid recollection,” he says, “besides joking around with and singing with Sheryl Crow, was the amazing talent of the tailor who fitted me perfectly with a Geoffrey Beene suit in about 15 minutes.

“It takes 10 days to have this done at a regular tailor.”

And then there’s the Harvard Alzheimer’s researcher Rudy Tanzi, pictured in the opening shot with current NIH director Francis Collins and Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry. Tanzi is himself a piano player and has been an Aerosmith fan since 8th grade; at the Rock S.O.S.™ shoot, he finally got the chance to meet one of his idols.

“When I had a chance to speak with Joe after the shoot,” says Tanzi, “I told him that I still hear his guitar riffs and solos in my head just about every day, especially when I am trying to think creatively about a scientific question. So, we started talking about the similarities of playing music and doing science.”

The conversation went on for an hour and included Francis Collins. It eventually led to the three performing together at an event on Capitol Hill (singing, among other tunes, “The Times They Are a Changin’”), and Tanzi and Perry became personal friends.

“We enjoy sharing what's going on in my lab and his bands, and often go to each other for advice,” says Tanzi. “When I was a kid I played in many different bands and probably played over a dozen different Aerosmith songs over those days. I always dreamed of playing with Joe Perry. Who knew that I had to become a scientist to finally get that opportunity!”

No doubt next group of Rock S.O.S. “rock docs” have generated a similar set of memories. (Well, maybe not that good.)

As soon as their names are unveiled--along with those of the rock stars joining them—stand by for more tales of researchers going well outside their comfort zones in the quest to explain to nonscientists why it all really matters.

Chris Mooney is co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future and a partner to the Rock Stars of Science™ campaign.

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