Water Music

We walk, pace moderate but with intent, along the river with a vague notion of expectation. Yes we both indicated we were going on the Facebook event and there were multiple posts from the performance organizers on what exactly was happening but I did not read them in detail. Did I choose not to? Was I too busy? Was I just not interested enough? Regardless, there was a nice contrast in walking to something without a fully-fleshed out picture of what was happening; there is so little in our world left to mystery.

We hear the instruments before we see anything, a murmuring of low brass and percussion floating over the esplanade, over the lagoons, over the groups of runners and walkers, over the evening picnickers and the dog walkers, floating over us as well, carrying on from what was in front of us to what was behind us. The music wasn’t for us, it didn’t stop once it hit our ear drums, we were there for it. Perhaps we can try to have fewer things be there for us and have us be there for more things.

We arrive. Fifty musicians spread out along the Esplanade, spaced out to allow the audience to move among and about them. We are wary at first, so we walk along the sidewalk where the majority of the audience is standing static, listening to only the musicians that were close to the spot where they chose to stand. As we near the end of the length of the field, we walk around the edge to the back corner of the performance. We gather up the courage and begin to work our way back, not along the sidewalk with the rest of the audience, but among the musicians, experiencing the performance as it was designed to be experienced.

And it is stunning.

Walking behind some of the performers I see that each is running a synchronized clock while the sheet music is divided into repeating motifs marked to be played for a certain amount of time. For a given section of the piece, time is still as the performers repeat a simple motif, but for us, as we wander and weave our way through, it is the moving through space that provides the dimension of time: as we near a trombonist, their low notes crescendo as the soprano saxophonist we move away from diminuendos. Dynamics and layers of the piece become not decisions of the performers but our decisions, our movement as much a part of the composition as their playing.

As we walk with just a handful of other audience members who are experiencing the piece as it was meant to be experienced, I look to the shore of the river, to the sidewalk where the majority of the audience stands static, unmoving. I can only think of how limited, how narrow their experience is because they have chosen to stand. Not only can they only hear the eight or nine parts closest to them, but they are also missing out on the dynamics of moving closer to and further from different performers. I look at the mass of people and their limited perspectives, their bubble, and think about how I spend the majority of my time surrounded by people who are also pursuing graduate degrees in bioengineering.

As we are walking among the performers, among the ethereal and ritualistic composition, the sun sets over MIT and the music intensifies. Right next to us, a kettle drum starts beating out an aggressive rhythm. We jump. The vocal part ahead of us starts to decay into dissonance as the trumpets blare ominously. We are in the middle of so much change, so much is happening all around, it is overwhelming, disorienting, but we keep walking. As we move, the music decays back into ethereal tones and the piece ends harmoniously. When the percussion suddenly entered on the next piece, we were at the edge of the field and could only hear a few parts, we were not in the middle of it all, but we turn and walk towards it.

As the last piece nears its conclusion, the percussionists pick up rocks and start to click them together. The low brass holds out a few notes as the performers begin methodically walking towards the river, all staring at the horizon. The piece ends as the percussionists toss their rocks in the river, letting the Charles have the last say of the night.

I went to this performance last week, just a few days before my qualifying exam. Could I have spent the night continuing to frantically study and stress? Absolutely. But balance can be hard to come by in graduate school. And that’s okay. I am beginning to see the some of the beauty and joy in removing many distractions from your life and focusing solely on a captivating research problem, and there will be plenty of times like that in the coming years. But I also have a strong belief in balance of time and balance of ways of thinking and thinking artistically is something I certainly don’t do enough of, so I like to jump on the opportunities when I can. There’s a world inside the lab but there is also a world outside the lab; one thing I am continuing to figure out is strategically choosing when and for how long to live in each.

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Pros and Cons of Life in the Hub

One day last week I started the day by quickly running into my lab at BU before I hopped over to Harvard for day one of the Boston Bacterial Meeting and ended the day by taking the red line down to Kendall Square to attend the Swissnex biotech pitch contest. I joked with my friends that this was “just another average day in the life of a Boston life science grad student” (when of course in reality my life is a constant trek down Comm Ave between my apartment and lab), but under that joke was real recognition and appreciation of living in a city where it is possible to work, go to a conference, and attend a startup event all centered around my industry and all within just a few miles of each other.

One of the main reasons I committed to BU for grad school was the fact it would place me in the middle of the biotech hub that is Boston. This is something I also would tell the program recruits when they were here earlier in the spring as one of the selling points of BU. Interestingly, one of them asked me “well, how often do you actually take advantage of the high density of other grad students, academics, and industry connections in the city?” This question made me pause because I certainly do not take advantage on a daily basis but every now and again there is a day like the one where I went to three events near three universities all about biotech and all in one day.

And then there is the matter of the conference I was at: the Boston Bacterial Meeting. What other city could host a conference that is focused on a subfield, albeit a large subfield, of a scientific discipline and have over 600 people register and attend? Over the two days, I saw presentations and posters from Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts, and BC, along with some (arguably) less Boston schools like UMass Medical, Dartmouth Medical, and one poster from UW Madison (?). I hold that Boston is truly special in its density and quality of life science and medical research and I don’t see this reputation going away anytime soon (despite threats from New York or Silicon Valley).

So yeah, here I am, just another bioengineering grad student infatuated with Boston and not being able to shut up about it because of how great the research is, how many biotech companies there are, the strength of the professional network, and the availability of venture funding.

To avoid the total cliché, I do sometimes think about the potential downsides of being in the biotech hub. From limited observation of my first year in grad school, I have seen a certain bias within the Boston academic community. BU interviewed a number of new faculty members this spring and the majority of them were currently post-docs in Boston-area labs. If this is a general pattern, it would mean that the Boston academic community is slightly “inbred” and we are not getting the full range of intellectual diversity aspiring faculty from around the country and around the world have to offer. Of course, this was one year of recruitment in one department at one university, but it was something I noticed nonetheless.

I also wonder about the effects of supply and demand of so many qualified researchers and entrepreneurs in biotech. Interestingly, Boston physicians have some of the lowest salaries in the country. On the other hand, Boston biotech job demand is scheduled to outpace supply within the coming years. This means that Boston needs to continue to draw in talent from outside the city and the population will continue to grow and shift towards the biotech industry. This potential shift makes me think about the shift in Silicon Valley during the dotcom boom and continued growth of the tech industry in the region and of course, how the infrastructure of the region did not grow to meet the demand, leaving swaths of suburbia as some of the most expensive real estate in the country and San Francisco with one of the highest costs of living in the country. Of course, Boston already has one of the highest costs of living in the country and I’m sure that the continued influx of highly-trained technical specialists will only continue to drive that up. Silicon Valley continues to struggle with how to maintain reasonable costs of living for its residents outside of the high-paying tech industry and I think Boston will continue down a similar trend in future years.

All things considered, I am sure that the biotech boom in Boston has done more to benefit the city, its economy, and its culture than harm, but I do wonder what lessons we can learn from other stories of rapid expansion in history to better manage the city and all of its inhabitants as we go forward. I wouldn’t trade living in the hub for anything but I am curious to see ideas and plans for how to effectively manage the growth of the city going forward.