Nazneen Rahman: ‘Science and music are mediums in which I create’

The scientist at the Institute of Cancer Research – and a singer-songwriter with two albums – reflects on her two loves and motivating forces

I’ve had an exciting and unusual few weeks. My group published a scientific paper revealing a new genetic cause of a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. This discovery has been of immediate benefit to families, providing an explanation for why their child got cancer, and information about cancer risks for other family members. During the same period, I also released my second album of original songs, called Answers No Questions. On one day, I found myself singing live on Radio London in the morning and talking genetics to the World Service in the evening.

Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to know quite how to answer the ubiquitous question – what do you do?

For most of my adult life, I have replied: “I’m a scientist and a doctor.” It is an accurate description. I am professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and head of cancer genetics at the Royal Marsden Hospital. For 20 years, my work has focused on identifying gene mutations that predispose us to getting cancer and then using that information to help patients and their families.

But I am also a singer-songwriter. This is a smaller activity than my science, but far more than hobby. I release music that people pay good money to experience.

As my music has become better known, more and more people have asked me about my unusual career combination. Dubiously, admiringly, wistfully, jealously, but most often simply because they are intrigued by the motivations and the practicalities.

This has forced me to consider how, if at all, these parts of my life are related. At first, I was adamant they were distinct facets of my character. I railed against modern society’s pervasive need to simplify and pigeon-hole the human spirit. Most people have multiple passions and drivers. I am fascinated by these subterranean pursuits. One of the joys of sharing my previously secret musical existence (it’s not been all joy – but that’s another column) is that many scientists now share their secret passions with me – pot throwing, flugel playing, novelty cakemaking, fire eating – scientists are as wondrously idiosyncratic in their appetites as the rest of society.

Nazneen Rahman on stage
Nazneen Rahman on stage Photograph: Nazneen Rahman

I also rail against the cliche that people are drawn to science and music because they both have a mathematical basis. It may be true for some, but it has no relevance to my passion for music. I was singing complex harmonies to pop songs long before I learned the theory of music. I am an intuitive, emotional, spontaneous songwriter with little idea of the key, notes or time I am composing in – until I have to write it down. There is little science in my music, but I have come to believe there may be music in my science. There is a kinship in how I do science and how I make music that flouts the division of science and the arts that our education system promotes.

My branch of science is genetics. Genetics is underpinned by a simple four-letter DNA code (designated by A, C, G, T). This code dictates how our bodies work. And how they can fail. This beautiful code is framed, shaped, constrained and enhanced by a multitudinous orchestra of associates that determine when, how, where, how long and how strong different parts of the code are played in each of our 30tn cells. DNA is also extraordinary in being able to copy itself with unbelievable accuracy while retaining the ability to mutate and evolve. The sophisticated controls and balances are breathtaking in their elegance. Our recent childhood cancer gene discovery revealed some insights into these control mechanisms and how cancer can occur if they go wrong. Studying genetics provides an endless variety of patterns to unravel, problems to solve, questions to answer. Gratifyingly, it also provides endless opportunities to bring benefits to humanity. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of genetic questions that excite me.

Music is underpinned by a simple 12-letter note code (designated by C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). These notes can be layered in almost infinite ways to produce music. In a hundred lifetimes I would not run out of music to write. My challenge has never been about finding the time to write songs, it has always been about finding the time to not lose songs. Snippets of music and lyrics are my constant companions. Most disappear into the clouds like lost balloons. But every now and again, I reach up, grab a string and tie one down, just before it is lost for ever.

Science and music make me feel like I’m swimming in infinity pools of possibility, but within structures that keep me from drowning. The potential and expectation to keep delivering new things can be daunting to scientists and artists. The DNA code in genetics and the note code in music are my lifelines. They let me be audacious and unfettered. They give me confidence to dive in, even when I can’t see the shore on the other side.

And the practicalities of delivering science and music are quite similar for me. Science is typically funded as three- to five-year projects. For example, I am currently leading a £4m collaborative programme, called the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative, which is building the knowledge base, tools and processes needed to deliver genetic medicine. To get science funding, you need to present, in great detail, a persuasive, innovative concept that seems worthwhile and feasible. But once you receive the funding there is considerable creative licence to alter the project, within the overall concept, because science is fast moving. You cannot predict everything you will do at the cutting-edge of knowledge, five years in advance.

My albums have also had three-year lifespans, though I didn’t plan it that way. I don’t plan them at all. My songs tend to be stories about the complexities of everyday life, inspired by words, subjects or images that briefly, randomly, ensnare me. I don’t know what the songs will be about before I write them. There is no overall concept for the albums, at least not consciously. And yet I see now that each album had a central theme that wasn’t apparent to me when I was writing them. Can’t Clip My Wings, which I released in 2014, includes songs about how we adapt to loss. Lost loves, lost lives, lost dreams. My new album, Answers No Questions, includes songs about choice – the complexities, burdens, excitement, pain and joys of making choices.

Watch the video for Everything Must Change by Nazneen Rahman.

As I am writing this, I wonder if I am forcing these connections, if they are a post-hoc construct that allows me to give a more pleasing answer to why I am both scientist and songwriter. But I have truly come to believe that, in me, science and music are different manifestations of the same need. A central deep desire to create new things – elegant, beautiful, new things. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a scientific discovery, a clinic protocol that makes things easier for patients or a song that tells a human story from a fresh perspective. When it works it feels amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, the journey is always paved with nuggets of enlightenment that feed into future creations.

So what do I do?

I think, at my core, I am a creative, though it would be perplexing to many if I started to describe myself this way. Science and music are the mediums in which I happen to create, undoubtedly an unusual combination. But maybe only because we are relentlessly conditioned, from an early age, to believe we must choose whether we are in the science or the arts camp. People from the “arts camp” routinely tell me they were hopeless at science, sometimes apologetically, sometimes as a badge of honour, a mark of their creativity. Likewise, scientists worry that any proficiency in creativity might be interpreted as a deficiency in objectivity, the bedrock of science. It seems our society has lapsed into considering activity in the sciences and the arts a zero-sum game. It is not.

What would happen if we stopped constraining ourselves and our children in this way? If we embraced and fostered fluid boundaries between the sciences and the arts? If many more people were able to cross freely in and out of both worlds, successfully and unapologetically?

I believe science, art, individuals and society would reap countless benefits.

Answers No Questions is out now;

Nazneen Rahman

The GuardianTramp

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