Gabriel Victora, an immunologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City, built a career in music before turning to science. Science offered greater room for creativity, but music still informs his approach to research. Victora was awarded a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ in 2017 for his work on how antibodies mature within lymph nodes.
Tell me about your musical career.
I never thought of being anything other than a musician when I was growing up.
I moved to the United States from Brazil at the age of 17 and studied classical piano for 6 years at the Mannes School of Music in New York City. When I moved back to my home town of Pelotas in 2000, I was basically just practising for concerts: I’d practise a certain programme, then book four or five concerts and play them over a period of a month or two. It takes a lot of effort to perfect a programme, and you don’t want to play it only once. There were months where I didn’t do anything other than practise for the next cluster of concerts, and I would spend almost every waking hour practising at home.
At some point, that endless practising started to take a toll. I became a bit burnt out with the whole business of performing as a professional musician. It wasn’t as creative as I wanted it to be.
How did you decide on science, and immunology specifically?
My father, Cesar Victora, is an epidemiologist who did pioneering work on how exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life reduces infant mortality. I thought it might be interesting to follow in his footsteps in science.
My father suggested that I look up a medical-school friend of his who had a laboratory at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and that I go and volunteer there, washing the glassware or doing whatever they’d let me do. They put me to work doing polymerase chain reactions, in which an enzyme is used to amplify pieces of DNA. I went in early in the morning, pipetted all day long, ran the samples on the gel at the end of the day and gave back some numbers. That’s the reason I’m an immunologist. If this friend of my father’s had been studying something else, I would have been something else. I wasn’t too picky. I didn’t have the savvy to be picky about a topic at the time.
What was the most difficult aspect of switching from music to science?
It was leaving something that I knew how to do very well, and becoming a newbie again. It’s exciting, but it’s also very scary. When you’re sure of what you’re doing, as I was in music, it’s difficult to venture into something completely unknown. I remember at one point being lost in the woods with the complexity of immunology: there are so many loops of cells that tell other cells to do things that, in turn, tell the other cells to do things, and so on.
In my own lab, when we came up with a technique to label cell–cell interactions1, we initially wanted to use it to study the interactions between types of white blood cell called B cells and T cells, which is what we study. But it didn’t work. Instead, it worked for the interactions between T cells and dendritic cells. So there was a learning curve to adapt it and work out what we could learn with this new technique.
Does science compensate for what was lacking in music?
Yes. Even as a musician, I was very attracted to music theory and Schenkerian analysis, which is sort of a scientific dissection of whole pieces of music to understand their structure and how the parts fit together. When I moved to science, that kind of analytical thought process jumped to the fore.
Science is a lot of hard work, even repetitive work, which is similar to what I did in music. But you intersperse that with periods where you’re talking to people and thinking about things. When I started out, I’d pipette for a few hours, then have a break while samples were incubating or a gel was running, and that’s the time when you get to just exchange ideas with people. I think that social side of science is very important. And it provided a lot more variety than I was getting from playing the same pieces over and over again, just so that my fingers would stay in shape.
I still have a very bad electric piano at home and play several times a week, easy things like Chopin nocturnes — nothing too difficult! It has a volume button, so I can play late at night and the neighbours don’t complain. My son saw me playing and wanted to learn, so he’s now taking lessons himself.
How has your background in music helped your research?
Music gave me an appreciation for things that were done a very long time ago, and the importance of trying to dig into these things. When I started out in science, I remember thinking how recent the references were. Whereas musical theorists might cite Johann Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, which is a treatise on counterpoint that influenced Bach, Beethoven and other composers, and dates back to 1725, biologists rarely cited anything that old. But there’s a long history to the kind of work we do today. For instance, we combined some old methods that biologist Karl Landsteiner developed in the early twentieth century with newer techniques to discover how T cells help to select the best antibodies in structures called germinal centres2.
Another aspect of my musical career that I continue to apply in the way I do science is that habit of just practising something over and over. The way you learn a piece of music is to practise. It shouldn’t matter that you’re bad at it at first: what matters is that you’re beginning something that’s very difficult and working on it until it becomes easy. You’ll become good at it at some point. The effort you put into it is what enables you to do challenging things. I use this approach a lot in science, and I encourage my trainees to do so, too. Difficult protocols and techniques, for example — they all benefit from many tries until you get the hang of them. A lot of the work, both in science and music, is just being willing to try something, fail repeatedly, and not take no for an answer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.