Try, and fail. And thus you will succeed…

Before Dr. Richard Mooney was the George Barth Geller Professor of Neurobiology at Duke, he was a curious five-year-old who knew he preferred facts to opinions. Speaking to me in his office today, he fondly recalled childhood memories being outdoors, fishing and collecting butterflies and moths. This kindergartner didn’t know the word yet, but he knew he wanted to be a scientist.

In middle and high school, he was fascinated by chemistry (what kid doesn’t love lighting metals on fire and seeing pretty colors?) and even considered a chemistry major at Yale, but he never forgot his childhood love of plants and animals and ultimately chose to major in evolutionary biology. The only subject that ever rivaled Dr. Mooney’s interest in biology was his love of music. Growing up, he had learned classical guitar and often struggled with balancing schoolwork, lab work, exercise (Dr. Mooney was also a track star!), and the time commitment of a musical instrument. Motivated by curiosity coupled with sheer busyness, he wondered how to connect his two interests of music and biology. A musician myself, I faced a similar dilemma in high school and was interested in how Dr. Mooney approached this challenge. He credits two men with helping him start to bridge this gap: Dr. John Trinkaus, an esteemed developmental biologist, and Dr. Alvin Novick.

Dr. Trinkaus was the “master” of the Branford residential college at Yale and ultimately introduced Dr. Mooney to Dr. Novick after learning of his dual interests in music and biology. Dr. Novick studied echolocation in bats, and specifically how bats were able to control the rate of their ultrasonic pips in response to auditory feedback. Sound familiar? If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that one thing the Mooney lab studies is the mechanism by which mice are conscious of their own ultrasonic vocalizations and can control it in response to auditory feedback (eg. hearing a higher pitched version of their voice in helium). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Finally, his two interests had merged into one: the study of audition. But to Dr. Mooney, it wasn’t just their impressive work and helpful mentorship that made Dr. Trinkaus and Dr. Novick inspiring, but also their personalities. Both of these men dared to be different in a much more oppressive world than the one we live in today, and Dr. Mooney admires that “they knew who they were, with no apologies”. He fondly remembers the stories he heard of Dr. Trinkaus’ daring compassion, hospitality, and pure humanity to members of the controversial Black Panther movement and Dr. Novick’s steadfast advocacy for HIV/AIDS prevention and education despite public ridicule. Being a great scientist is respectable, but being an even better person is truly admirable.

After graduating from Yale, Dr. Mooney missed playing the guitar and decided to return to music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. However, after achieving his goal of performing a solo recital from memorization, he had kind of a, “Now what?” moment. Biology was still calling out to him, and in what he described as a lucky opportunity, he trekked up the hill to UCSF and met Dr. Jim Hudspeth who took him under his wing as a lab technician. Dr. Mooney had been a lab tech before in less stimulating environments, but Dr. Hudspeth was the first PI to provide an environment he could really flourish and learn in. Having a good mentor can go a long way, and Dr. Hudspeth reset Dr. Mooney on the path that would become the rest of his career.

Dr. Mooney completed his PhD at CalTech under Dr. Mark Konishi, an “amazing behaviorist” who had a deep understanding of and love for animals. It was Dr. Konishi that inspired Dr. Mooney to run the lab the way he does now: to let his mentees “sink or swim”, letting them think critically about their own scientific projects without holding their hands. Dr. Konishi summed up this philosophy: “If you succeed in this environment, you’ll be fine. If you fail, you will learn and this is a safe place to do so”. And that leads into Dr. Mooney’s take-home message quite well: “always try, and don’t be afraid to fail. Trial and error is the only way you’ll find out what you really want to do”. It took plenty of tries to eventually land at CalTech with Dr. Konishi, from an unsatisfying lab tech position at Stanford to his classical guitar studies at SFCM. But without these “failures”, he never would’ve been able to narrow down his true career passion. And if my mentioning his many mentors hasn’t hit it home to you yet, Dr. Mooney emphasized the importance of reaching out to mentors and peers and building relationships with people. Not only will they help you bloom as a scientist, they will become wonderful friends for decades to come.

P.S. Pro tip! Want to be a better scientist? Try learning an instrument! Dr. Mooney also believes that musicians make good scientists: besides physical similarities between the two disciplines like fine motor skills, both fields require a keen attention to detail, strong focus, and crucially, a commitment to practice and repetition that won’t always successful. So maybe your mom forcing you to take piano lessons in third grade wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

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