|NHGRI’s Dr. Joseph Ryan readies his drum kit (l) before the Rock Stars of Science rehearsal last fall. Above, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry follows his rhythm.
Please, no corny drummer jokes around Dr. Joseph Ryan, who last fall, on account of his status as both a scientist and a musician, was invited to sit in with NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and his fellow Rock Stars of Science at an event later videocast at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
Rock drummers are traditionally mocked as having more brawn than brains, but that stereotype fails with Ryan, a research fellow in NHGRI’s Genome Technology Branch. An evolutionary genomicist, he works within GTB’s computational genomics group.
Ryan has done two stints at NIH. He began as a programmer in fall 1996 and worked for 5 years before attending graduate school. He returned to NHGRI as a postdoctoral fellow in 2006.
A convivial, music-loving institute, NHGRI holds annual picnics and retreats at which employees play home-grown music. Collins, who directed NHGRI for 15 years beginning in 1993, often played in and led bands at these events. Ryan followed his older brother Sean’s steps as a drummer at NHGRI functions, and word got around that he, too, could play.
Last fall, Collins emailed Ryan with an invitation to play drums at a charity event featuring Joe Perry, the lead guitarist for the rock group Aerosmith. The band included Perry and his bass player David Hull, Collins, Ryan and Harvard scientist Dr. Rudy Tanzi.
“It was pretty incredible playing with those guys,” Ryan said. “You can really feel it when you’re playing with pros.”
The band practiced a handful of tunes five times each as a video crew captured the best performances for the Rock Stars of Science Briefing and Tribute sponsored in part by Geoffrey Beene Gives Back on Sept. 24.
“It went off pretty straight,” Ryan remembers. “I was pretty nervous—I didn’t know what to expect. I’m not primarily a drummer these days,” he added, noting that his main instrument is guitar, which he plays in a group called Impossible Hair. That band is currently working on its second CD and has already toured Europe, in addition to playing gigs in the Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor.
“I could just imagine being ripped by Perry or his bassist,” Ryan recalls, “but Joe Perry came in and did his thing. He was not critical at all. And his bass player was very encouraging.”
Ryan did not take up music until 1998, when he was in his late 20’s, and is largely self-taught. “All my friends play music,” he said. Drums were his first instrument, but he has also learned guitar, bass, writes songs—most of Impossible Hair’s music is original—and enjoys singing. He is also teaching himself piano.
“If I had the time, I would love to play in four bands,” he said. “I’d play some kind of weird keyboards in one group, bass in another, guitar in another and sing in the fourth.”
As much as he enjoys making music, Ryan has no interest in switching careers. “Music is way harder than science,” he said. “Touring is very hard (as his band knows from playing 20 European cities in 3 weeks last year). And it’s easier to measure success in science. Musical talent is not often rewarded. I like doing it as a hobby more.”
Ryan enjoys reaching specific goals in music: release a CD, conduct a tour. “But I don’t want to be dependent on external stuff,” he said.
Ryan was intrigued by comments guitarist Perry gave to an interviewer at the Rock Stars of Science event. “He said he’d always wanted to be a marine biologist, and he really admired the life of Jacques Cousteau.” Ryan notes that Led Zeppelin guitar ace Jimmy Page, too, when interviewed as a youngster, expressed interest in a career in biology and cancer research.
“Science and music are kind of joined,” Ryan said, “and most people don’t realize it either.”
Ryan divulged that he would enjoy sitting in with The Directors, NIH’s pre-eminent erstwhile rock band, which has long featured Collins as a guitarist and singer.
“I would love to play with The Directors,” he said, “but I like being a fill-in guy, too.”