Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Inaugural SciMuse Interview!

I'm pleased to present the subject of the first Scientist-Musician series of interviews, Toaster Sunshine, who is a self-described immunologist, hacker, and musician. This guy is doing so many amazing things that it's hard to not be inspired by his creativity in multiple areas. I'm honored to have him as the first interviewee.

First of all, where did you go to school and sort of research are you doing?

I did my undergrad at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor in Cell and Molecular Biology with an unpragmatic minor in German. I am still working on getting into grad school and am still awaiting word on many of my applications out in this current cycle. I now do research in adaptive immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School. Specifically, I am studying the dynamics of T- and B-cell proliferation in non-lymphatic organs in response to infection. This means I grind up a lot of organs and run them through a flow cytometer.

What got you interested in both science and music?

I was interested in music before I realized I was interested in science as more of a career than as school classes. In fact, at one point in high school while I was in both the school's jazz band (upright bass) and a death metal band (bass guitar) I viewed college as a fallback career if the music I did after getting my degree didn't work out. Heh.

I also played chamber music (and some industrial jazz) through college on cello, but have had to lay the cello aside due to how technically demanding it is to focus on science and making stuff. I also make computer music with Reason 4 and have amassed several hours of finished music. Some of it smashed classical instrumentation together with hip-hop/industrial beats while other bits are more like dubstep.

Do you have any additional projects outside the lab?

When I'm not in the lab, I'm usually working at the hackerspace I am helping to found in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We're called All Hands Active and we maintain a common pool of tools and parts where anyone can build anything they want to. I hope it also becomes a start-up incubator.

In this space, I have built a 2-string slide electric guitar out of a glass bottle, wooden plank, copper wire, and drywall screws and am currently trying to build some flex sensors to be the variable resistors in an Atari Punk Circuit. This latter is a prototype for the suit of flex sensors I intend to build to feed through MIDI to make music based upon my movement.

Lots of the other hackers at All Hands Active make musical stuff as well. One of them recently made a tonal drum out of a propane tank (link to a video of it here!), others are building carbon fiber instruments, and there's one guy who likes to tape piezos to old speakers and route it through an amp, then modulate the resulting feedback by tearing holes in the speaker cone with chopsticks.

Where do you see your multiple interests taking you career-wise? Is science still more of a "fall-back" career for you? Or do you plan to create a career out of a combination of all your interests?

You've asked a good question that I'm wrestling with right now. The biological engineering programs I applied to for this coming fall don't seem to have worked out, so I'm currently trying to suss out the flaws in my plans and records. I really like immunology, it's complex and chaotic and runs all over the place like pancake batter through a sieve. But at the same time, I really like mathematics and computers and building robots and things that go "blwtaga;gb!". I want to merge all of these things together into 1 career of awesomeness, but as of yet I haven't found a viable way forward that encompasses all of these things. Computational immunology seems like a possibility, but then again at the same time I'm currently trying to figure out if I'd rather go for founding a start-up company or whether to continue polishing myself on paper to get into grad school and then worry about possible entrepreneurship afterwards.

Thanks again to Toaster Sunshine for volunteering for the first interview of the Sci-Muse interview series. For more of his creative undertakings, you can check out his blog, Mad Scientist Jr. here. All Hands Active was recently featured on the Make Zine Blog, so check that out too!

If you'd like to participate in this interview series too, please don't hesitate to drop me a line!

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