From Alzheimer’s Research to Aerosmith: Rudy Tanzi on Creativity in Science and Music

Posted January 14, 2014

For PBS’s series “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers“, Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., talks about his life-long love of music.

“In high school”, Dr. Tanzi says, “I was mainly interested in music…but I knew that if I was going to keep Mom and Dad happy, I’d have to become a doctor.”

That interest in medicine turned into a passion of its own. In graduate school, Dr. Tanzi was studying how people with Down syndrome, a condition caused by the presence of an extra copy of chromosome 21, also develop Alzheimer’s disease. Did this mean there was an Alzheimer’s gene on chromosome 21?

“My mentors at Harvard said, this is way too risky a project for a grad student,” Dr. Tanzi says. “And I was pretty rebellious…so I didn’t listen. And it turns out I was completely right.” His work ultimately led to the discovery of a gene on chromosome 21 that confers risk for Alzheimer’s.

Even though it’s no longer his goal to become a rock star, Dr. Tanzi hasn’t given up on music. In fact, his creative pursuits outside the lab seem to boost his abilities in the lab. “My own creative process in the lab,” he explains, “seems to correlate with my ability to keep writing new music.”

Following a GQ “Rock Stars of Science” photoshoot in 2009, Dr. Tanzi had the chance to meet Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Dr. Tanzi recounts their conversation on the creative process: “The best music, just like the best science, comes from clearing your mind, letting ideas flow, and not being derivative.”

Dr. Tanzi hit it off with Perry and even ended up performing and recording with Aerosmith. “If I had stayed a musician, would I have ever had the chance to play with Joe Perry and Aerosmith?” he asks. “No.”

Dr. Tanzi’s music inspires his creative thinking in neuroscience, while his scientific achievement has given him the chance to fulfill his goals as a musician. We look forward to many more years of creativity from Rudy, in the lab and in the recording studio.