Working Life

Playing a new tune

Science  22 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6199, pp. 974
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6199.974

Russian-born pianist Igor Lovchinsky attended the Juilliard School in New York City and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He has won several competitions and performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall. Time Out voted his debut album one of the top five classical recordings of 2008, making comparisons to Walter Gieseking and Martha Argerich. But now he is changing course: Lovchinsky is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in physics at Harvard University. We caught up with him after a performance at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine. This interview has been edited.

“I hope to keep playing, at least until they stop paying me!”

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Q:Which came first, piano or physics?

A:I started off as a pianist; in fact, I didn't even like physics until I was in my mid-20s! I grew up in a musical bubble, where everyone I knew was a musician, and the thought of doing anything else really never even entered my head. I spent all my time practicing: preparing for performances, competitions, etc. But several years ago, I got interested in science and started reading some books on my own. One thing led to another, and now I'm a graduate student at Harvard, working with Professor Mikhail Lukin.

Q:What are you working on?

A:I'm working on using solid-state defects in diamonds as magnetic field sensors, with the goal of using them as little nanoscale MRI machines that can study the structure and dynamics of single biological molecules (e.g., proteins).

Q:Do you think of your move into physics as a career transition?

A:I never planned to give up the piano, and I hope to keep playing, at least until they stop paying me! A truly successful career as a musician takes a full-time effort, and that's simply not realistic when I spend most of my time in the laboratory, but I've learned to be much more efficient in my practicing and have adopted a more scientific approach to problem-solving in the practice room.

Q:Do you have any insights to offer readers making their own career transitions?

A:This transition certainly wasn't easy. There were obvious difficulties in learning a new field and having to catch up to people who have been doing it all their lives. But the harder part was the social pressure from people who said I was crazy for giving up a promising career in music to start from scratch in science. I didn't care, since I was determined to do it no matter what anyone said. I found it helpful to set realistic expectations and to realize that it will not be easy, and that I will fail many times along the way. It'fs also important to find people in your new field who are supportive but also not afraid to be honest with you.

Q:Does your experience performing music help your science?

A:Public speaking is a type of performance, and the quality of the delivery (or lack thereof ) is almost as important as the content. It's also true that performing on stage is a great way to get used to being under pressure. But there are important differences. If you have a memory slip in the middle of a performance, you can usually just put down the pedal and improvise your way out of it before most people realize anything happened. Unfortunately, there isn't an equivalent to “pedaling-through” for a physics talk. Every professional musician frequently finds himself in a situation in which he has to learn a new piece or prepare for a performance on short notice and has to practice 10-plus hours per day. Concentrating for that long, with no recourse to Facebook or YouTube, does not come naturally to people, but doing this for many years taught me to shut off all distractions and focus on my work. In addition to work ethic, learning to play an instrument on a serious level trains your memory, coordination, and abstract reasoning—all useful skills that can be applied elsewhere.

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