On a June evening in the basement of Dr. John O’Shea’s house in North Bethesda, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins belts out a 1960 Sam Cooke classic. “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology. Don’t know much about a
science book, don’t know much about the French I took…”
The Affordable Rock ’n’ Roll Act, a band made up of NIH physicians, scientists and researchers, is getting ready for its next gig, a two-hour set under the portico at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda. O’Shea, on guitar, is the scientific director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. His work led to a new drug for rheumatoid arthritis that is marketed by Pfizer.
“That’s such a stupid song,” Collins says. At 69, he oversees the $39 billion annual budget for the largest biomedical research agency in the world, though you wouldn’t know it when this towering 6-foot-4-inch tenor belts out the rock and roll classic. He finds it ironic—but not disqualifying—that a band from NIH covers a tune that mocks the importance of science.
“You can’t work genetics into it?” jokes Dr. Michael Lenardo, 63, who sings and plays guitar and is director of the Clinical Genomics Program at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Before a performance at the 2010 USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., Collins and another band member actually did write their own lyrics to the song, and he prefers those over the real words.
“But I do know that this stuff is cool. If they only taught more science in school, what a wonderful world this would be.”
When the Affordable Rock ’n’ Roll Act performs at NIH, staffers line up for selfies with members of the band. They are rock stars, both at work and at play. Collins oversaw the Human Genome Project, which identified the sequence of human genes and has led to new ways of combating disease. Dr. John Tisdale’s groundbreaking genetic research on sickle cell anemia—a type of red blood cell disorder—was featured on 60 Minutes earlier this year. Dr. Peter Grayson is researching inflammation of major arteries, hoping his work will lead to a cure.
On the job, they are engaged in cutting-edge research, seeking cures for intractable diseases. Under NIH-funded protocols, they see and treat patients, putting their test results to work. Most toil away on the Bethesda campus, comprising 75 buildings on more than 300 acres, while others work at NIH outposts. They work in clinics, labs and the research hospital at the NIH Clinical Center, sometimes in all three.