What path will you choose? Music, science or both?

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Elizabeth Oakes

Guest commentary by Elizabeth Oakes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

I’m a musician who grew up in a house that was steeped in science. My father is a retired physicist and his curiosity for how and why things work — whether it was the refrigerator or the universe — ran deep through my childhood.

His daily scientific exploration had a profound effect on me and I seriously considered pursuing chemistry as a career path while I was in high school. Also during that time, I started to feel the pull of music and was torn about which direction I would go. Science and music both offered me powerful languages to express what I saw and felt in the world around me. In the end, my passion for music won out but my fascination for the beauty of science remained.

In my own home, my husband and I are now raising a teenage daughter who it seems from birth has been a passionate environmentalist. Whether she is naming all species of cats or grappling with the enormity of climate change at the dinner table, she struggles between being overwhelmed by the magnitude of our environmental challenges and empowered to change the world for the better. She also happens to love writing and art and wonders what her career path will be.

Is studying biology going to be the key to saving her beloved ecosystems? Can her love of language and drawing be part of the solution? As someone who has built my own career on interdisciplinary work, I am hopeful that she will be able to make a career choice that integrates all her talents and passions.

Clearly, many musicians, artists and scientists have had the same desire to merge disciplines in order to better understand our world, and Iowans will have the chance to experience the results of one such collaboration this week in a number of different events and programs on the Unviersity of Iowa campus.

The Crossroads Project, which arose out of a desire to better understand both the majesty and the fragility of our planet, features the Fry Street String Quartet, physicist Robert Davies, and composer Laura Kaminsky in an interdisciplinary exploration of the choices we as a global community face with climate change.

When attempting to describe The Crossroads Project, I find the language on the Crossroads Project site the most poetic and succinct way to relate the experience: “Using diverse and complementary languages, The Fry Street Quartet joins with physicist and educator Dr. Robert Davies to explore the impacts of society’s unsustainable systems, Earth’s rapidly changing climate, and humanity’s opportunity for a new direction. Merging intellectual with visceral, understanding with belief, the performance weaves together a chorus of artistic and scientific voices responding to one of society’s greatest challenges. The Crossroads Project offers a deep meditation on the choices before us, the paths they forge, and the dramatically different landscapes to which they lead.”

During this week, the UI String Quartet Residency Program, in collaboration with the UI Office of Sustainability and the UI College of Public Health, will welcome Davies, the Fry Street Quartet, and composer Laura Kaminsky to the University of Iowa campus.

Highlights of the residency will include:

  • A performance of The Crossroads Project at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Callaghan Auditorium at the UI College of Public Health (limited seating)
  • A concert by the Fry Street Quartet at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Riverside Recital Hall
  • And a recording of the television/radio program WorldCanvass at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber (more information)

As a musician and someone who is curious about how we can reframe conversations to solve our significant global challenges, I am very much looking forward to these events.

As a parent, I am even more excited for my daughter to see that the possibilities before her are endless.

Elizabeth Oakes is coordinator of the University of Iowa String Quartet Residency Program.

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