University of Texas at Austin

Friday, June 5, 2009

A lab’s (musical) notes

John Wallingford

John Wallingford

The new Neko Case, vintage Jimi Hendrix, the Black Keys and the polyester-clad classic “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.

An iPod playlist gone rogue?

No, it’s the soundtrack of John Wallingford’s developmental biology laboratory on a typically eclectic day.

“My philosophy is to make a lab a very fun place because I need my people to be here all the time,” he says.

Music is a key ingredient in lab fun. It helps the students stay alive while doing painstaking bench work.

“You’re going to be sitting at the microscope for 30 minutes or an hour,” he says. “On a hard day you might sit at the microscope for four hours straight manipulating things. It’s much more fun if there’s some music playing.”

Wallingford’s lab researches embryonic development and it focuses on development of the neural tube from which the spine and brain are formed. That involves close work with early stage embryos.

Wallingford says the lab plays just about anything. Rock and roll is the most-played followed with county-and-western (the Willie Nelson branch) and alt-country.

“We also do a good bit of blues, bluegrass and electronic music as well as some jazz,” he says.

The lab’s music etiquette is pretty basic: “The record played is decided by whomever walks over and turns it on,” Wallingford says. “But technically, everyone has veto power.”

Check the lab’s Web site for its listening list. There’s also a link to the Continental Club.

With long sideburns, mustache and bushy soul patch, Wallingford would fit in on the Austin singer-songwriter circuit. He seems almost as enthusiastic about music as he is about his research.

Some of his favorites are Austin-based Hayes Carll and his album, “Trouble in Mind,” (fantastic, Wallingford says) and a local group called Salesman.

Ryan Gray

Ryan Gray

The lab has been known to make music as well a listen to it.

“I’m graduating a student who was a guitar player, banjo player, mandolin player, singer and we had a lot of good music,” Wallingford says. “I’m a hack but I like to play and it was fun to have someone who actually can play in the lab.”

So blame graduation, not Yoko, for the breakup of the band.

It’s been a busy spring for Wallingford and his lab.

The graduating musician, Ryan Gray, is taking his new Ph.D. to a post-doc at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Two other Ph.D.s are headed to the University of California, Berkeley and another is staying at Texas. Wallingford’s lab is sending an undergraduate to Berkeley and another to Caltech.

I visited Wallingford and his lab to learn about his research. We’ll post a story about his science in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, post a comment about what you listen while you work.

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