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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

Scientific Singers

Nerds in Harmony Still Going Strong

A group photo of the Nerds in Harmony at an event at the Maryland Zoo

Nerds in Harmony recently sang at the Maryland ZooLights event in Baltimore.

A screenshot of a YouTube featuring nine Nerds in Harmony singing over Zoom

The pandemic forced the group to collaborate from a distance.

A flyer that says "Join the #NerdsInHarmony for our #MusicAtTheMetro Concert Series above a photo of the group outside the Medical Center Metro Station

A flyer for their ‘Music at the Metro’ series

“CRISPR Cas-9, bring me a gene …”

NIH’s resident acapella group, Nerds in Harmony, recently sang their own version of the Chordettes’s Mr. Sandman in front of a large Christmas tree outside of the Anthropologie in Bethesda. CRISPR Cas-9 wasn’t a typical Christmas carol, but it brought smiles and laughter from the crowd. 

Nerds in Harmony is a musical ensemble with a unique challenge: the only instruments they use are their own voices. It was formed in 2004 by a group of Intramural Research Training Award fellows. The group first went by “IRTApella,” then “The Cytochromatics.” Nerds in Harmony became the official group name in 2010.

“It’s a really nice community, especially when you’re new to the area,” said Barbara Benowitz, a second year postbac at NCCIH who also manages the group’s social media. “We share [a love of] science, but we also share a love of music.” She is also a founding member of the Post-Bachs, another music ensemble for NIH employees, and is one of several NIH’ers who belong to both groups.

“We think music is another way of healing, really, and it can be really therapeutic for people and the scientists and trainees at NIH,” explained Brandon Levy, a health communications specialist in the NIH Intramural Research Program and the administrator for Nerds in Harmony. “It can be a really stressful environment…[so] it’s really nice for us to have something else going on.”

In normal times, Nerds in Harmony performs for both NIH and public audiences, and has begun to hold outdoor concerts again in the latter half of 2021. They have a “Music at the Metro” series held outside the Medical Center Metro Station, and perform at various locations around Bethesda. 

Pre-pandemic, they sang in events ranging from retirement parties to Zoo Lights at the National Zoo in D.C. On-campus indoor performances are currently limited because of restrictions on gathering and the heightened risk of Covid-19 transmission when singing.

The early months of the Covid-19 pandemic posed a huge obstacle to musical groups of all sorts due to safety measures put in place for in-person gatherings. 

“At first, we were really afraid that the group would go defunct and never really start up again when we were allowed to come back in person,” Levy recalled. “So, fortunately, we had a really tech savvy then-grad student (now postdoc).” Members learned their parts virtually using Google Drive and MuseScore and then recorded their performances, which were edited into the split-screen performance videos that are available on the groups’ social media. 

Alex Zhu, a postbac at NIDDK, is the current director of Nerds in Harmony. He grew up playing the violin and always wanted to try acapella but worried about his lack of experience. Zhu was pleasantly surprised to find that “it’s a great group for anyone who wants to sing, regardless of their experience.”

“I had never sung in a group before [either],” Benowitz added, but “all these wonderful people have helped me learn how to read vocal music.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” she concluded.

For details on the group, visit https://sites.google.com/view/nerds-in-harmony.

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