Before he turned his attention to enzymes and nucleotides, James Stivers of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences dealt in sharps and flats:
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to do scientific research?
STIVERS: No. In fact, I started out as a musician. I played guitar and trombone and attended the Berklee College of Music. For most of my twenties I worked as a composer and a music arranger. I was a staff music arranger for the U.S. Air Force Band. Then I did a lot of writing and studio work for local music ensembles in Seattle.
But I couldn’t see myself doing that forever. It was just too hard to make a living.
So at age 27, I enrolled as an undergrad at the University of Washington. I had not taken any college science or math courses until then. I took a few courses in chemistry and did well and really liked it. That led to graduate school in physical organic chemistry and to my career in science.
Do you find any similarities between research and music?
STIVERS: Yes, there are similarities throughout the whole process. Both endeavors require creativity, commitment and hard work. In science, creativity comes at the conception and execution of a new idea. In music, especially jazz, it is manifested as the conception and execution of a series of notes.
In addition, I feel I’m exercising the same mental muscles when I write a musical composition or prepare a scientific manuscript. And both involve a tremendous amount of editing.
Finally, other people use the product of your labors. Musicians play your compositions, and scientists refer to and build upon the research reported in your scientific manuscripts.
Have you thought about returning to music? Is music still an important part of your life?
STIVERS: I dropped guitar when I was in graduate school. There was no way I could afford the time. Then I took it up again at age 50. Now I practice every day and I play with a local jazz group, the Chalice Jazz Messengers.
Has your music inspired your science? Or vice versa?
STIVERS: Ironically, after many years of doing this, I now feel that my creativity and individual limitations are manifested in exactly the same way in my science endeavors as they were previously when I was arranging, composing and/or playing music. I have eclectic influences and therefore my style has always been a little hard to pin down. This is a strength and a weakness, and also a perfect example that what we do reflects who we are, and there is no escaping it.
--Interviewed by Melissa Hendricks