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Music Is Tonic for Penta, NIEHS Scientist

By Colleen Chandler

His own ambitions would eventually take him in a very different direction. But John Penta began playing piano at age 9. His parents had decided he would be a professional pianist.

They were determined to keep John off the streets and out of trouble. And there was plenty of trouble for youth with too much time on their hands in the crowded Boston immigrant neighborhood where Penta grew up. The neighborhood had its advantages, though. As a young boy with friends from various cultures, Penta learned to speak Italian, French, German and Yiddish.

NIEHS's "Unsung Hero" Dr. John Penta volunteers his time and talent.

The Pentas enlisted the help of an immigrant from Italy to teach their young son the techniques of classical piano. Penta described his music teacher as a man of considerable girth, with Bell's palsy, a form of paralysis resulting from cranial nerve damage that disfigured his face.

"I was afraid of him," Penta said. "He played backup with the Boston Symphony so he was very serious about music."

Penta said the man laid out the rules and the young Penta reluctantly agreed to follow them, although he was not happy about trading Saturday mornings with his friends for the rigorous discipline of piano playing. To make matters worse, Penta said, he was expected to wear a shirt and tie to lessons, and to come with clean, trimmed fingernails.

"I was soon introduced to Messrs. Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart et. al., but I was more interested in Messrs. Mantle, DiMaggio, Williams and a guy named 'Say Hey' Mays," Penta said.

He quickly learned, however, that he could make money playing the piano. By age 12, he was rewriting musical scores and playing in restaurants and theaters in his neighborhood and around Boston. He was bringing in a substantial income from tips.

He was barely 15 when he was accepted into the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. His training included recitals by memory. He spent hours perfecting his classical presence at the keyboard, with arms parallel to the piano and wrists flat enough to balance coins.

"There I learned more about my old friend Chopin, and met some new ones named Schubert, Von Suppe and Puccini," Penta said. Much to the dismay of his professors, he continued to play pop music on weekends. "My weekend friends were Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Count Basie," he noted.

The money was good and the people were interesting, so Penta spent several years playing in those "less distinguished habitats."

He said an interest in science had always lurked beneath the surface of his education. Penta's parents had enrolled him in a boys' school across town from the neighborhood he lived in. There he obtained a strong background in math and science.

"To me, it was very similar to music. Learning a periodic table is no different than learning a piece from Bach."

Penta soon left Boston for Purdue, about an hour and a half from downtown Chicago. There, he quickly discovered the upscale clubs, and was as quickly hired to play piano.

Penta earned his doctorate from Purdue. He continued his education, doing oncology research at NCI, where he advanced to section chief, and at Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore. At NCI, he was part of a national effort that led to the treatment of osteogenic sarcoma in children and teenagers. That treatment is still used today. He moved to North Carolina and has been at NIEHS in Research Triangle Park for 5 years. There, he heads the Technology Transfer Program.

In December he was one of three people selected for the newest NIEHS Director's Award, the Unsung Hero Award. The award cites his commitment to technology transfer work at NIEHS, his time spent as a frequent volunteer lecturer on cancer detection and his popular piano-playing during lunchtimes and institute events.

Penta also volunteers his time and talent to entertain at local nursing homes and teaches oncology as an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

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