Double Lives: Stories of loving both science and art

This week, we present two stories about being torn between a love of science and a love of art.

Part 1: Saad Sarwana tries to juggle careers in physics and comedy. 

Saad Sarwana is a Pakistani-American Physicist and Geek.  His research is in superconducting electronics. He has over 40 peer reviewed publications and two US patents. Saad is also an amateur comedian for 20+ years, and is on a personal quest to perform in every state in the US, he is about halfway there.  Saad has combined his love of Geekdom and his south asian heritage to create the “Science Fiction and Fantasy Spelling Bee”, a show he hosts at various local cons. On most days you can find him in the lab or home playing with his kids (he doesn’t get out much!). He lives in Westchester County, NY (home of the X-men!).

Part 2: Jean Zarate is torn between science and music until a tragic event brings both into perspective.

Jean Mary Zarate is a Senior Editor at Nature Neuroscience and a musician. As a neuroscientist, her research focused on auditory cognition, including the neural correlates of vocal pitch regulation in singing. Her musical endeavors are widespread across multiple bands, genres, and a few albums scattered across the world wide web (unless you are a persistent web searcher or know her stage name).

Note: Jean's story was produced as part of our partnership with Scientific American and Springer Nature's Springer Storytellers program. Find out more at beforetheabstract.com.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Saad Sarwana

Growing up, I wasn’t the class clown, but I always wanted to be.  If there was an opportunity to make a smart-aleck comment and get the biggest laugh possible, I took it as my personal responsibility to do so.  What prevented me from really grabbing the class clown title was my love of math and physics so, in a way, my studies kept on getting in the way of my clowning around. 

I was growing up in the mid-nineties, when the most popular book among the nerdy people who I used to hang around with was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.  Everyone claimed to read it and understand it, and I was one of those people.  So when it came time to graduate high school and move to college, I left Pakistan and I moved to Canada to McGill University in Montreal, where I joined the undergraduate physics department.

It was during freshman orientation that my new friends took me out to see the college improv troupe and my eyes were exposed to the world of amateur comedy.  I was hooked.  I loved this.  There was a comedy club close by which had open mic nights.  I used to go there just to watch.  It took me a whole year to have the guts to actually attend one of the improv workshops, but once I did, I never missed a single one. 

 Saad Sarwana tells his story at the Kraine Theater in New York. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Saad Sarwana tells his story at the Kraine Theater in New York. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

By the time I’d graduated with my undergraduate degree in physics, I was me, a fresh-off-the-plane immigrant was now part of the college improv troupe.  I'd even tried stand-up a couple of times but it was time to move on and I didn’t want it to end.  So I did what every other undergraduate does in this situation.  I went to grad school. 

Because even in all this time my parents had always taught me that you must have a career and I still loved science and physics so I joined the Physics Department at Stony Brook on Long Island, which is right next to Brookhaven National Labs, and I continued my research in superconducting electronics and physics.  I kept on doing stand-up on the side.  I tried to find an improv troupe in Stony Brook.  I couldn’t find one so what I did was I tried to start one.  I failed miserably. 

But I found a local comedy club and I started going there.  One of the graduates from that local comedy club’s improv group was Kevin James, who had just left Long Island - he's from Stony Brook as well - and moved to L.A. so I was performing with all these comedians who used to hang around with Kevin James.  They started giving me tips on what to do in stand-up so I started doing more stand-up.

My act at that time could best be described as a Pakistani Yakov Smirnoff.  What I did was political correctness had started coming into comedy and I took all the hacky 7-Eleven racist jokes and I could get away with doing them so I started doing them.  It was horrible.  I’m embarrassed to say that I even did any of those jokes.  But I didn’t know any better and I gradually started getting better at doing comedy. 

Then 9/11 happened and in those times I was one of only maybe three Muslim comedians doing stand-up in New York.  I realized that I had to say something important.  I had something important to say.  So I started talking about my life and what my life was.  It was basically a life of a single Pakistani Muslim male who had come to America on a student visa to study physics.  Basically I talked about racial profiling. 

And I started getting a lot of laughs.  I got profiled by 20/20 on a story about Muslim comedians.  I passed a lot of comedy clubs.  I started even getting gigs at colleges and I got approached by a casting agent who said, “Hey, I can put you on TV and you can get paid.” 

I’m like, “Paid?  I’m on a student visa.  If I start doing comedy for money, I'll be taking jobs away from American comedians.  I could get deported for doing that.”  But I said, “You know what?  I think maybe I'll get away with things under the table so…”

And I couldn’t really say no because this is what all my comedian friends hoped and wished for, to get their own sitcoms.  For me I was like, “Nah, this is gonna disrupt my lab experiments.”  I had no problems doing stand-up at night because I could work in the lab during the day and the shows were usually nights and weekends where I was free, but these auditions were during the day. 

But against my better judgment I started to go out for these auditions, and let’s see what I auditioned for.  I auditioned for a 7-Eleven employee, a cab driver, a gas station attendant.  You might be noticing a little bit of a pattern here.  The one audition I really remember was I was doing a research project in quantum computing superconducting implementation with IBM Research in Yorktown Heights one day and the next day I was in the city auditioning for a commercial for IBM.  It was for a software engineer so it wasn’t like I was breaking any boundaries there either. 

When I used to go into these auditions and normally when I was a physicist or as a comedian I used to be unique when I go into these rooms.  When I used to go into these audition rooms there was a roomful of people who looked exactly like me and even I was like, “All these people look the same.”  Finally I told my agent that, “Please, don’t send me out for anything unless it’s different and unique.” 

She finally contacts me and she says that she has this opportunity for a new feature film that they're making and they want me to play the part of an Indian stoner.  I’m like, “Okay, submit my thing.” 

So she sends me the script finally.  I get the script and the first scene is described to me, and this is the scene I have to act out in the audition, is it starts out with… how should I put this delicately?  A moonshot of my character.  He's turned away from the camera and he's shaving his genital area and hair is falling down.  I’m like, “I am not doing this.”  Besides, I’m a Muslim and Muslims are supposed to already shave that area so they might have to use some CGI or something to create that so it’s probably not going to work.  

I never went for that audition.  For those of you who haven't recognized that movie, that movie was Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.  Kal Penn who got that role went on to do great things, including work at the White House.  Somehow his whole career wasn’t sabotaged by that pot-shot. 

So I went back to my research.  I concentrated more on my research.  I published more papers, kept on doing comedy on the side, pretty much dropped auditioning because I wasn’t really an actor, and I told my agent that, “Unless you get a role for like an awkward Pakistani physicist, I’m not really interested.” 

So she contacts me a few months later and she says there's a new sitcom which is being shot out in L.A. and if I would like to fly out to L.A. to try to audition for this spot.  It’s a sitcom about physicists.  I’m like, “No one’s gonna watch a sitcom about physicists.  Americans will not watch this.  What’s my character?” 

So she reads me what she has and she's like, “Well, it’s this awkward Indian guy.  He can’t really talk to women so in this pilot most of the time you'll just be sitting there and smiling.” 

I’m like, “You want me to fly to L.A. on my own expense to audition for a one-dimensional character who can’t even say anything and all I do is smile?  You know what?  I'll pass.” 

That show, as most of you would have recognized, was The Big Bang Theory.  Kunal Nayar who got the part of Raj Koothrappali now makes a million dollars an episode. 

But I moved on.  I continued doing my physics.  I got married.  I had children.  Instead of doing comedy at night I changed diapers at night, pretty much the same thing.  And I concentrated on my research. 

Finally, I get a call after a long time from The Discovery Channel.  I, at this point, had given up on comedy and they said, “Hey, we’re looking for funny physicists who can take YouTube videos or internet videos and make funny smart-aleck comments about them and explain the science behind them.” 

I’m like, “This I can do.  I've been doing this since high school.”  So I sent in my audition tape and I got it.  The show is called Outrageous Acts of Science.  We've been going around about six years in the Science Channel.  It’s one of their highest-rated shows.  It’s watched by over four million people globally. 

What I've learned from all this, because my friends, all my comedian friends tried to follow their dreams and become comedians and none of them made it.  Some of them even got cast in pilots which never got made and they just struggled and failed and they experienced a lot of pain just like I did before I got this show.  And what I've learnt from all this experience is that if you're a professional and you have a passion for doing something, don’t follow your dreams.  Just keep on what you're doing on nights and weekends and if you're lucky your dream will come find you.  Thank you.

Part 2: Jean Zarate

When I was eight, I was taking private violin lessons and singing in a children’s choir at the local church for about two years.  One night, my violin teacher surprised me.  He said that he thought I had enough promise to audition for a children’s music program at Julliard.  I got scared at first, but, as our lesson went on, I grew more excited and I'd hoped that my dad would let me audition. 

As I was packing up my violin as the lesson ended, my teacher told him about the opportunity and my dad said we’ll discuss it first. 

After my teacher left, he sat with me on the living room couch and said, “A musician’s life is really hard.  It would be better for you if you picked a more stable career and just keep music as a hobby.” 

I was disappointed, but I knew why he said that.  He didn’t want me to struggle as much as he and my mom did growing up in the Philippines. They worked extremely hard to become medical professionals and they moved to New York for the American Dream.  They worked really long hours to support our family here and back in the Philippines. 

So since they worked a lot, I was left to my own devices to occupy my time outside of school.  They made sure I was surrounded by books so I wouldn’t get bored, but eventually I started reading my dad’s science magazines and those fed my growing curiosity and interest in science and math and helped me do well in those subjects. 

As I got older, of course, my taste started to change.  I'd leave the radio or MTV blaring in the background as I started flipping through those science magazines more quickly to look for any story about the brain, especially the ones about how it changed with musical experience.  And that is until I got distracted and started singing and dancing along to any pop music that came on that my parents really didn’t like.  So as soon as I heard my mom open that front gate, I shut that music off before her key unlocked the front door. 

Sometimes I'd start doing my homework and other times I would crack open my violin case and act like I had just finished practicing a piece for the high school orchestra.  I don't know how I got away with that, though, because the sound of my violin usually traveled across the street so she would have heard if I was actually playing something, but she never said anything.  She’d just tell me about the tapes of old Hollywood musicals or Disney cartoons that she brought home, movies that she never got to see in the Philippines.  So we’d watch them together every week and I grew to love them, those movies and that musical style as much as she did. 

When I started college, my parents were really proud.  I was enrolled as a neuroscience major in the pre-med program.  I planned to get rid of the orchestra and the choirs and focus myself on becoming a neurosurgeon. 

But the appeal of a new youth program at the church was too strong to ignore.  It was aimed at getting kids off the street with sports and pop-infused music and that was something I really wanted to be a part of, so I joined that.  And as exciting as it was, my commitment grew so large that I started to burn out in college and I had to drop out of the pre-med program.  Needless to say, my parents didn’t receive that very well. 

I switched to a research track so I could continue studying neuroscience and work my way to a PhD, but since I didn’t take time to acquire research experience I failed to get into any neuroscience graduate program.  So I worked hard in a couple of labs to make up for my inexperience until I was accepted in a graduate program up in Montreal the next year.  Once I had that chance, I knew I had to focus on my PhD completely and leave the creative side behind.  And I did just that. 

After moving to Montreal, I made sure that I was up to speed in my lab and in all of my classes.  About three months in I decided to go into a class early so I could settle in and eat lunch in the amphitheater before the class started.  In walks this kind, older gentleman sheepishly asking me if he could play the piano off to the side because it was part of his lunchtime routine.  I said yes and he started to play a jazz song that I used to sing. 

Once I admitted that, his eyes lit up as he told me about a group of grad students and postdocs and staff that played music together every week and he asked me to join.  And I politely said no because I didn’t play anymore. 

Before every class after that point he still approached me with the same gentle demeanor asking if I would reconsider and join, even introducing me to another student in that class who was already part of that group.  So by the third week of this I just gave up and I went to a rehearsal. 

The others were just as warm as he was and they wanted to do nothing else but share their music.  I missed being a part of a group of people who had a passion outside of science so I just kept coming to be around them.  And that welcoming environment allowed the group to nearly double in size and every week we just had fun learning each other’s musical styles. 

At some point, I realized that two of the newer members worked in a lab that studied music and the brain then I confessed that I wanted to do that kind of work.  So that kicked off a flurry of insistent requests from my band mates to the professor who ran that labs saying, “You really need to talk to this girl.”  And after one conversation, that professor opened a spot for me in his lab and within months I wrapped up my neuro-psychopharmacology research at the masters level and switched my research focus to study singing in the brain, finally integrating my two halves. 

So music was no longer an overactive hobby for me.  Each half fed into the other.  My musical experience informed my study designs and my musical connections helped me recruit participants for my research.  For the first time, I felt free to let my musical side grow as big as I wanted because I was surrounded by people who understood how important it was to have both science and creativity to make me whole.  So as my PhD work progressed both sides grew with more scientific and musical collaborations outside of my thesis work and that scientist band. 

As my PhD work drew to a close, I looked for a postdoctoral fellowship back in New York because my mom had grown quite ill in the last year.  So I wanted my parents to see just what I could accomplish by having both sides help each other.  I wanted them to know that I was going to be okay and that I could be there for them.  Then my mom died two weeks to the day that I moved home. 

My brain was no longer filled with dozens of thoughts flying through it and my ears could no longer tolerate anything related to music. I felt nothing except dull hunger pains and exhaustion forcing me to sleep and I just went through the motions, snapping to attention only when my dad couldn’t process some details as we planned for her funeral.  And that same muteness shut everything on the day of the funeral until we were sitting in the back of a black car heading to the cemetery. 

One thought popped into my head.  “Your body betrayed you,” and I was stunned for a few moments before another thought popped in.  “Write that down.  You'll use it when you're ready.” 

I slowly eased myself back into the science because I could design a project that had nothing to do with music if I wanted because the creative side hurt too much.  When my friends asked me to sing a song that I used to cover several times over in Montreal, I trembled and nearly bawled at the microphone when I forced myself to do it.  And my chest ached to use my voice for anything besides speaking so I decided right there that I was no longer going to sing in public. 

 Jean Zarate shares her story at the Bell House in New York. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Jean Zarate shares her story at the Bell House in New York. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

But a year of only science satisfied my brain and nothing else.  Again, I longed to be around people that were looking for a creative outlet.  But I couldn’t just join a band again in New York so I took a beginner’s acting class since it felt safe to start from scratch with others.  But there was this exercise that required singing a few notes of a song and my stomach twisted.  I nearly let everyone else go up before they realized I hadn’t gone yet.

So when I went up to start singing, I shut my eyes and sang the same song that I forced myself to do for my friends.  When I was done, I slowly opened my eyes and saw the teacher looking at me.  She said, “Wow!  You should be a singer.” 

Then I said, “I am.” 

I started acting and taking acting classes with her for the next few years and those improv exercises and scene work brought me back out, exploring and writing emotions that I couldn’t express.  I learned how to act confidently until I became strong enough to actually feel that way whether it was in trying music again or in job interviews as I looked for the next position after my postdoc. 

My musical performances became stronger and acting and writing became additional creative outlets for me.  And when my creative drive grew strong enough for me to write songs for myself, that phrase that entered my head at the cemetery worked its way into a song which became part of an album which I produce music videos for. 

Since then my science career has changed again.  Just like when I was little I get to read the latest neuroscience findings but now I get to read it before they're published by any research journal or by science magazines.  My creative endeavors have changed too but both sides nourish each other again.  But I’m not going to lie.  I still struggle to find where the balance should be because, more often than not, the science now overtakes the music.  But I’m certain that I shouldn’t prioritize one side just for stability.  I need both. 

Thank you.