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Med-School Melodies

Columbia Magazine Spring 2015Thank you for the inspiring stories of the dedicated musicians at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (“The Hippocratic Overture,” Spring/Summer 2015). At Columbia College I completed a dual concentration in chemistry and music, shuttling between Chandler and Dodge. During a fourth-year elective at P&S, I had the opportunity to play Chopin on the Rachmaninoff piano in Bard Hall as I gazed out over the Hudson. Throughout my medical training and practice, music has continued to be an important part of my life. I’m glad to hear of the joy that the musicians at P&S are sharing with their colleagues and patients.

Kevin Vitting ’78CC
Ridgewood, NJ


Great article on music at the medical school. I seem to recall that Van Cliburn played his concert at Bard Hall in 1958 one week before going to Moscow, where he was crowned the winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. His teacher, Rosina Lhévinne of Juilliard, had a connection at P&S, and many of her students performed for us.

P&S also had a wonderful program (due to someone’s generosity) where students were able to get tickets to the Metropolitan Opera at a discount. The seats were generally poor (the opera-guild box, mostly), but the music was great. Several of us were there on March 4, 1960, when the legendary baritone Leonard Warren died onstage.

So the music goes on and on at P&S, a great tradition that will not soon end.

W. Jost Michelsen ’63PS
Port Saint Lucie, FL 


The P&S musical tradition may well have begun with Andrew Frantz, the longtime admissions director, who definitely gave preference to musicians. When I was a student, I was delighted that I could go to him and complain, “Dean Frantz, you’ve done well in the past few years: two great clarinetists and several good violinists and violists. But we can’t call ourselves a first-class medical school without a proper string quartet. Can’t you find us a good cellist?” — and be taken seriously.

I remember performing the solo in the Hindemith Trauermusik for viola and string orchestra and also the Mozart “Kegelstatt” trio alternately on piano and on viola, in between directing and acting in productions of the Bard Hall Players. Most memorably, I remember a recital I did with John C. Wood Jr.’72CC, ’76PS, including the Hindemith Horn Sonata, in Bard Hall Lounge on the non-Rachmaninoff piano. The P&S students of today have a greater array of options to choose from, and I am thoroughly delighted that the tradition has only deepened.

When I retired from the US Army in 2013, I chose to use my Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and go back to conservatory. I’m now a full-time master’s candidate in composition at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, while continuing to consult for the government and see patients part-time. It’s a massive flipping of the dials, but no more so than going into the third year of clinical rotations, or, even worse, internship and residency. And I’m sure I’m a better doctor because I spent all those years becoming a musician.

Jonathan Newmark ’78PS
Burke, VA


I greatly enjoyed reading Paul Hond’s “The Hippocratic Overture.” It brought back a fond memory of being contacted at the last minute to fill in as conductor for a P&S production of Guys and Dolls in, I believe, the spring of 1970. I think I got the call because I had composed the music for two Columbia Varsity Shows (The Bawd’s Opera in 1966, with book and lyrics by Michael Feingold ’66CC; and Feathertop in 1967, with book and lyrics by John Litvack’66CC, sadly recently deceased). I was also studying at Teachers College, conducting the Columbia Glee Club, and freelancing as a conductor, pianist, and composer around the city and on Long Island.

For Guys and Dolls, the cast and the orchestra were all aspiring doctors and nurses, and they did a fabulous job onstage and in the pit. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my conducting career — and came to me out of the blue.

The experience also affected my audition decisions in later years for my choral groups, most importantly the Penn State Glee Club. Any auditionee who indicated a major or intended major in any of the biosciences or premed was almost sure to be accepted — I knew the singer would most certainly be talented and dedicated and would be an outstanding and loyal member of the ensemble.

Bruce Trinkley ’66CC, ’68GSAS
State College, PA


The title of my music humanities textbook at Columbia was Listen, so T. Berry Brazelton’s wisdom that Stephen Nicholas quotes — the “importance of shutting up and listening” to becoming a better doctor — is very convincing to me, too.

I remember that Havemeyer Hall, where the chemistry department is, had a piano on the top floor that few people visit except for chemistry majors. After I made a presentation on the synthesis of azulene at the last meeting of Advanced Organic Chemistry, one of my classmates started passionately playing the piano, inspired by my “interesting” presentation. Yes, the musical instrument ignites not only doctors’ but also chemists’ minds.

Yohkoh Yumoto ’02GS
Iruma, Japan


As a former musician who is the other kind of doctor, I think music is a prescription for success in any field. I learned time management, mathematics, listening, grace under pressure, and more from classical, jazz, and symphonic band ensembles over the years. 

Janet F. Alperstein ’92BC, ’01TC
New York, NY


Musicians, by nature and by training, are better listeners. They also tend to be particularly passionate and compassionate, striving for perfection while attempting to connect with all of humanity through a universal language.

When I was an attending at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles, I would encourage the surgical residents to strive for technical excellence using the analogy of musicians striving to perform at Carnegie Hall. Virtuosity in the operating room should be no different than virtuosity in Carnegie Hall.

There is no doubt that my love of music and my pursuit of musical virtuosity have greatly helped me in becoming a better doctor overall, in becoming a better surgeon, and in becoming a “conductor” in the operating room of many key players, all working harmoniously to achieve the best outcome for our patients.

In addition, jazz, which was born and matured in America, has contributed significantly to my development as a surgeon. Jazz emphasizes improvisation, which requires not only listening but extemporaneous composition that works both rhythmically and harmonically. In surgery, while most straightforward cases proceed in the classical mode, some situations require a quick shift into the jazz mode, where the surgeon improvises in different keys, tempos, meters, and chords. This cross-training, without a doubt, has helped me to quickly and effectively navigate difficult situations in the operating room, which I believe has resulted in better patient outcomes.

I applaud Stephen Nicholas for recognizing attributes other than test scores and grades in his mission of selecting future surgeons of great ability.

Peter H. Kwon Jr. ’81PS
Middletown, NY


My own story is similar to those you describe: I was a professional pianist before entering college, composer of two Varsity Shows, student director of the Glee Club, and music director at WKCR. I chose to become a physician (as did the subjects of your wonderful article) and have enjoyed my medical career. Music has remained an important part of my life. 

Peter I. Pressman ’55CC, ’59PS
Emeritus Professor of Clinical Surgery
Weill Cornell Medical College
New York, NY 


A Hedge For Corps

Your Spring/Summer 2015 issue includes a very interesting article titled “Seeds of Hope,” in which David Craig explains how scientists at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) are working with Uruguay’s national agricultural research institute to help the agricultural sector predict and better prepare for climatic events.

I am a GSAS PhD in economics and a World Bank staff member. Among my current duties, I lead a team that seeks to find new models of agricultural insurance to help farmers in developing countries better insure against adverse climatic events. These models often rely on some type of weather index, such as rainfall and temperature, or on sampling of area yields within a specific geographic region. The same analytic capabilities that scientists are using in Uruguay to help farmers make better decisions about planting their crops can be used to design and distribute insurance to farmers to compensate for significant crop losses after adverse weather events. The World Bank Group is leading efforts in this area and has been interacting with scientists from IRI.

In late May 2015, I participated in a workshop on agricultural insurance in Paraguay. One of the speakers came from INIA to showcase what they do in Uruguay in the area of agro-climatic data and analysis, and the presentation drew significant interest from all workshop participants, both from the public and private sectors. Such systems should become examples for other countries around the world to emulate.

Panayotis Varangis ’92GSAS
Bethesda, MD 


New Orleans, Mon Amour

Thanks to Lolis Eric Elie for reminding me why, after forty years of living in New Orleans, I fixed up and sold my Katrina-damaged house and left as soon as possible (“After the Deluge,” Spring/Summer 2015). Elie warns that the flood-protection system is still not capable of handling another severe storm and that coastal erosion, which exacerbates the problem, continues unabated. Once bitten, twice shy, I have now retired to Arizona’s dry heat, which, by the way, is infinitely more comfortable than the drenching humidity of the city that care (and government) forgot. 

Martin Flamm ’64CC
Sun City, AZ


Columbians may be struck by the disgruntled, resentful tone of Lolis Eric Elie’s piece. As a resident of New Orleans, I’d like to point out that before the storm, conditions in New Orleans were poor and declining — socially, politically, economically, educationally, and even in terms of its brilliant native culture, which after all requires some degree of prosperity and optimism to thrive.

In fact, generous Americans and fantastic workers from Central America didn’t just save New Orleans — they resurrected it. American taxpayers and generous donors contributed billions. Cities near our borders and elsewhere provided shelter, sustenance, human connection, and aid of all kinds to a few hundred thousand refugees; many New Orleanians found unaccustomed opportunity and wisely elected to stay. Droves of talented, dedicated, inspiring volunteers — most but not all young — from across the country converged on the city to help. (Elie calls them “hipsters” and “YURPs” — young urban rebuilding professionals.) The Central Americans astonished everyone with their ubiquity on rooftops, in gutted houses and buildings, and wherever work was needed, sleeping in trailers and laboring from dawn to dusk like it was no big deal.

Here’s the part Elie got right: New Orleans is a magical, special, one-of-a-kind city. It has some of the familiar urban problems, but most residents report the Crescent City to be better, more vibrant, more promising today than it has been in their lifetimes.

Roger Baker ’69LAW
New Orleans, LA 


Free Falling

In the Newsmakers section of the Spring/Summer 2015 issue, we are told that “NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra ’13BUS will return to the International Space Station in November for the first time since 2009. The commander plans to stay for six months to test the effects of zero gravity on humans ...”

That cannot be his plan, because gravity in the region of the ISS orbit’s altitude of 250 miles relative to gravity of 1.0 g at Earth’s surface is about (4,000/4,250)2 times g, which is 0.89 g. (Earth’s radius is 4,000 miles.)

If there were zero gravity at the ISS, then that vehicle, its occupants, and the espresso machine aboard would not be tethered to their assigned orbit and would all slingshot away.

Norman Spencer ’64PS
Northampton, MA

Caleb Scharf, the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center, responds: “Although the term ‘zero gravity’ is commonly used to describe the environment on the ISS, it is true that this is not entirely accurate. And yet astronauts aboard the ISS are in a state of continual free fall — ‘falling’ toward the Earth in an arc that forms a near-circular orbit around the planet — and in free fall, we feel a sense of weightlessness that is indistinguishable from zero gravity. Thus, the ISS serves as an excellent lab for experiencing the closest physical equivalent to zero gravity.”


A Rare Teacher

For someone as well trained in the choice of words as Brad Gooch to call Edward Tayler — the Lionel Trilling Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and a driving force of the Department of English and Comparative Literature for decades — a “cube of a man” begs the reader to wonder about his motives (“Model Teacher,” Primary Sources, Spring/Summer 2015). It is sad that one cannot tell if this is an homage or something less flattering, which is the author’s failure.

Tayler deserves no such ambiguity. He has inspired, led, educated, cultivated, and supported many a student brilliantly. He has shared himself candidly and generously, and this is hardly a way to pay tribute to him and his devotion.

Laurie R. Kuslansky ’79GSAS, ’92TC
New York, NY


Gooch says that Tayler tirelessly promoted his own reputation, but Tayler earned his reputation the way Shakespeare earned his: as Gentle Will wrote great play after great play, Tayler continued year after year to demonstrate his care and compassion for his students and to teach the best course at Columbia, one that called on students to use the great plays to inform the choices they would make in their own lives. 

Tayler turned four-hundred-year-old dramas, opaque in many places to modern readers, into accessible, moving experiences — none more so than the lectures about King Lear that Gooch seems to think were a rehearsed, melodramatic stunt. While under the spell of the greatest play in our language, Tayler looked out on the faces of his students, many of whom he knew would participate in tragedies of their own someday. It was his compassion for their future sufferings that made his voice crack. What he imparted to his class was a species of love — what the Greeks called agape — something rare in a teacher.

Kyle Freeman ’82GSAS
San Francisco, CA


Thesaurus Correctus

In a lovely book review of Girl at War, Jennie Yabroff describes the protagonist as "tomboyish". I think Columbia magazine policy should disallow this word as its sole definition is to describe a girl as someone who is trying to be like a boy and thus defies societal expectations of the way a girl is supposed to act. It doesn't help that the word is often used in a denigrating manner. The reviewer could instead have used any of a number of other words (or a combination thereof) such as: active, athletic, spitfire, enthusiastic, energetic, boisterous, mischievous, physically active, playful, spirited, or rambunctious.

Miriam Goldberg ’91BC
Rego Park, NY


Editor's Note

The Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Columbia Magazine reported on a study by UCLA doctoral student Michael LaCour and Columbia political scientist Donald P. Green that claimed to show how effective gay canvassers had been in changing the minds of California voters who opposed same-sex marriage (“Face-to-face dialogues seen as key to breaking down bigotry,” Explorations). On May 19, after Columbia Magazine had gone to press, Green requested that the journal Science, which had initially published the scholars’ findings, retract the study because independent researchers had noticed irregularities in the findings and LaCour had not produced the raw data to explain them. Science retracted the study on May 28; that retraction can be read at sciencemag.org/content/348/6239/1100.2


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