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Science and Art: Why Choose? A Biotech Entrepreneur’s Dual Life

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Science and the arts are often pictured as polar opposites: Scientists methodically pursue facts and truth, while artists soar over the landscape of everyday detail to imagine their own worlds. But there are actually great similarities. Scientists and artists both challenge the current maxims of their fields. And many young people have struggled to choose between a career in science and a calling in art or music.

Dennis Brown didn’t have to make that choice. He’s done both. A PhD in cancer biology, inventor, and serial biotech entrepreneur based in Menlo Park, CA, Brown also stayed true to his teenage identity as a blues-rock guitarist. During his university years, he performed in Greenwich Village clubs and toured with musical icons such as Bonnie Raitt. He now shepherds young biotech companies, including NewGen Therapeutics in Menlo Park, CA, while also recording albums as his alter ego, indie songwriter Denny Brown, and selling them on iTunes.

The two-track life wasn’t always easy, Brown says. But he says he was always sure he could spend his life doing what mattered to him. “I felt I was lucky enough not to be discouraged,” he says.

And far from feeling split between two worlds, Brown sees crossover benefits—including kick-starts to progress in innovation.

“You can only stare at certain problems for a while,” says Brown. So he switches between music and science when he feels stuck in either one. “Meanwhile, you’re still working on the other problem subconsciously,” he says. The arts maintain mental balance, and may even support creative thinking in science, Brown says.

Brown was a pioneer back in the 1970s combining art and science. But now, the science and arts communities are increasingly seeing synergies between their two disciplines. So they are setting up institutional efforts to mine those connections—benefiting a new generation of people. For example, the National Science Foundation is supporting programs at the Rhode Island School of Design (familiarly known as RISD, pronounced Riz-Dee by students) that bring scientists and art students together to explore problems such as the impact of climate change on ecosystems. Students and instructors at the Providence, RI college have transformed scientific data on phenomena like oyster gene expression into compelling visual maps and sound compositions. In addition, RISD is spearheading a drive to incorporate art and design into nationwide teaching of the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The school calls it STEAM (STEM + Arts).

“Both science and art are grounded in deep observation,” explains Neal Overstrom, director of RISD’s Nature Lab. “Piece by piece, our scientific colleagues get a different sense, of maybe there are other ways of looking at this, of seeing patterns.”

The artists’ visualizations are more than just striking images, or better ways to portray data. In some cases, they may help break new scientific ground. For example, scientists from far-flung locations started calling RISD filmmaking professor Dennis Hlynsky after they saw one of his YouTube postings, Overstrom says. Hlynsky had made stunning time-lapse videos of birds landing on urban telephone poles, which seem to become festooned with garlands of winged creatures. The scientists saw Hlynsky’s multiple-exposure animation technique as a powerful research tool that might be used to understand bird flight—or something entirely different, like blood cells, Overstrom says.

The new efforts build on RISD’s long history of including scientific observation in the study of art. Its Nature Lab, a vast collection of animal and plant specimens that students use as visual inspiration, was founded in 1937 by long-time professor Edna Lawrence. Alongside the deer heads and raccoons preserved by taxidermy are live turtles and fish, human skeletons, molecular models, and microscopes and scanners to capture still and video images.

Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, Dennis Brown didn’t have the benefit of a Nature Lab or other formal program to blend science and the arts. But he did get a similar double exposure because of Detroit’s unique status as both a mecca for advanced engineering in the automobile industry and a hotspot for blues guitar players moving up from Southern states such as Mississippi.

“I was sort of feeding both parts of my head with all that,” Brown recalls.

He started playing guitar by the age of six. At 16, he performed at Detroit’s Chessmate club when influential Mississippi blues guitarist John Lee Hooker was the headliner. Meanwhile, Brown had also been absorbing scientific lore from his father, a chemist and inventor who told him what would happen if he combined corrosive sulfuric acid with highly caustic sodium hydroxide (lye). “You mix two horribly dangerous things and you make table salt,” Brown says. Such stories gave him confidence that he could make it through chemistry class, and influenced him to become a science major.

Brown headed to New York University in the 1970s to study biology—but equally, to learn from seminal American musicians, including folk-blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and the Rev. Gary Davis, who impressed other musicians by figuring out how to play Scott Joplin piano rags on the guitar.

“It was like reverse-engineering a genomics structure,” Brown says.

Brown would play guitar as an opening act 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.

 Photo of Dennis Brown by Todd Weinstein

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