Cynthia Peterson uncovers hidden similarities between science and jazz

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A lifelong piano player, Dr. Cynthia Peterson applies her love of music to her passion for biochemistry. Her research focuses on determining the size, shape and networks of interactions among proteins that orchestrate health during wound responses like blood clotting, or in inflammation that occurs in cancer and other diseases. She believes uncovering the dynamics of proteins will provide clues to turning them on or off when they are out of balance. For Cynthia, these complex scientific puzzles – and their creative solutions – are not unlike jazz’s key elements of composition. Cynthia, who in 2014 became the first woman to serve as dean of the LSU College of Science, explored her thoughts about the connections between music and science after attending a summer jazz workshop at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York. She is passionate about science communication and showing others how science is active and creative, much like the music she admires and enjoys.

Cynthia is one of the speakers for TEDxLSU, which is coming up on March 11. She sat down with us to discuss what fascinates her about science, music, and their similarities.

What spurred your interest in studying proteins?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied biochemistry because it was the interface between chemistry and biology. At that point in time, I began learning about protein structure. So, proteins, particularly enzymes, are the machines of life. They’re what carry out all the chemical reactions that maintain us as living organisms. I think that’s what fascinated me — that proteins are the machinery of life.

You say that your goal is to communicate that science is fun, has space for individuality and is an active process. How do you communicate these ideas?

Well, I try to say those things when I have an opportunity. I speak to a lot of different kinds of audiences. I also try to emphasize that with parents. More specifically, that parents should send students to LSU because it’s a research university and in science, we allow students to be engaged hands-on, essentially from the time they walk in the door. Science is about asking questions and experiencing the process. I’m very interested in and feel a big responsibility to communicate science. I believe that professional scientists have a responsibility to make sure that the public can understand the process of science and why it’s really important, and that it is a very active and ever-changing set of information that we move forward with. So, having that interest in communicating science, we have just recently launched a blog in the college of science, called The Pursuit, where we talk about the great things going on in the college in a very accessible and interesting way.

What musical instruments did you play growing up?

I played the piano, while my father played the trumpet. When I was born, he looked at my mom and said, “We have to get a piano.” So, that was his wish for me — to grow up with music. I didn’t think about playing other instruments, or not anything very seriously. I played the piano all through high school. When I went to college, I didn’t keep up with piano to any significant extent. I focused on my science, but then enjoyed music recreationally. I wasn’t making music myself. I was consuming music.

When you’re not practicing science and music, how are you spending your time?

I do love to read. I’m in a book club, so that keeps me reading lots of different things. I enjoy biographies and fiction. My husband and I also enjoy traveling. My daughters don’t live in Louisiana, so some of my traveling is to go see my family — I’m very much about staying connected with them. Two of my daughters live in Memphis and I have a niece who lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

If you could switch jobs with another TEDxLSU 2017 speaker, who would it be and why?

The speaker who really captured my attention was Jay Ducote because I’m so interested in the local foods movement. Food can tell you so much about the culture. And it’s really so different from what I do. I enjoy cooking, but I cannot even imagine running a career related to it and having creativity come out in that way, but also managing the business of it. I think that’d be a lot of fun.

What do music and science have in common? How are they different?

At the core of a major research university like LSU is a liberal arts education. So science and arts, including music, are two components of what makes us whole people. They make us well-rounded and add to our quality of life. At the very essence of it, something that science and music have in common is being pieces of what it takes to be a whole, educated person. Science and music both require creativity, practice and discipline. Science and music are about making something new. They’re always changing, always moving forward. Music is a performing art, while science can be an individual pursuit, or even a group pursuit, but it’s not a live performance. Science is about taking time, accumulating data and evidence, and then telling a story.

What do you enjoy the most about living in Baton Rouge?

The people. It’s a friendly place, with people from all kinds of different backgrounds, all kinds of different sorts of cultures merge here. There’s a lot of ability for individuals and appreciation of differences and that’s great. Of course, what I really love about Baton Rouge is working at this wonderful university. LSU is one of the things that really defines Baton Rouge — yes, it’s the state capitol, and that’s unique — but in addition to that there’s the major state university right here. I believe that there’s a lot of give and take between LSU and the surrounding community, both benefit from each other. That’s a great thing.

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