Growing Up in Academia with Fredrik Ullén
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics).
On Monday, November 1, 2021, Growing Up in Academia features Fredrik Ullén, Director of the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm.
The online application for this event is zoom. You can register for the event by using this link.
Fredrik Ullén is a Director of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and a concert pianist. His major research interests are the neuropsychology of musical skill learning, expertise and creativity, and associations between cultural engagement, wellbeing, and health. His focus on music reflects both his interest in the musical brain as such, and the fact that music has proved to be an excellent model domain for the study of human learning, perception, and performance in general. Methodologically, his team combines neuroimaging with experimental psychology and behavior genetic analyses of gene-environment interplay.
As a pianist, Fredrik Ullén has performed in leading concert venues in Europe, Canada, and the US and is represented as soloist on 25 CD records, many of which have received outstanding reviews and accolades in the international press. He is a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and a fellow of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music and Academia Europaea.
I was born in Västerås, a Swedish town located about 100 km west of Stockholm. There I grew up with my parents and a younger brother and sister in a house on the outskirts. My parents still live in the house, but it no longer stands at the edge of the countryside. The town has grown and new families and their children now live where before there were fields where we ran around as kids.
Many of my early memories are connected with music. Already as a young boy, I played the piano and I had a burning desire to become a composer, scribbling page after page full with notes. Later, I took lessons in harmony and counterpoint, and the scribbles became more playable, but by the time I was 14 or so this wish to write music had faded away. Instead, my interest in the piano had grown and I started taking lessons with Prof. Gunnar Hallhagen, a well-known teacher in Stockholm. Hallhagen was a gentle, mild-mannered man with a curiously radiant otherworldiness that was unlike anything I have ever encountered. He seemed to live almost entirely in the realm of music, with only occasional descents to the hassles of everyday life. Although not a virtuoso player himself, he fostered generations of Swedish pianists. His influence on me was formative because he opened the door wide to the whole treasure trove of the humanities. What I found most inspiring was his way of constantly pointing out relations and interconnections, not only between pieces and composers, but also between music, literature, and other art forms. This view of human creations as one vast web stretching across space and time made a lasting impression on me.
From early on I also had a strong interest in the natural sciences, but this was more free-floating. My father was a mathematics and chemistry teacher, and I was fascinated by his books on these topics, even if they were way too advanced for me as a young boy. I was out a lot in nature with my brother and friends, looking at plants and animals, collecting butterflies. Later, I and a schoolmate got quite interested in chemistry, and thanks to my father’s admirably liberal attitude to obtaining the necessary ingredients, we could perform a lot of interesting and sometimes daring experiments at home. I will not go into any details, but we had a lot of fun. This was also the time when programmable calculators and computers became more commonly available. My father was very interested in this development. Thanks to him I learnt programming at an early age, and this developed into a big passion in my teens. Again, I was lucky to have friends with the same interests. I remember many happy, nerdy evenings and weekends spent joking, laughing, and writing assembly code for the Zilog Z80 processor. Even if today’s personal computers have evolved a long way from the early machines of those times, this basic experience of programming continues to be useful to me today.
My early years saw a lot creative freedom, but they had also left me with two vocations, science and music. Amputating one of them did not seem like an option. In the years to come, it became a difficult challenge to find a way of life that allowed me to pursue both. I enrolled at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, studying solo piano. It was not the happiest time in my musical life. After graduating I felt unsatisfied, without direction and with no clear ideas about what to do with my piano playing. Luckily, after some time in limbo, I met Prof. Liisa Pohjola at the Sibelius Academy, who became a very important mentor, friend, and support. She had a fascinating, brilliant mind which combined enormous erudition and musical understanding with the wildness of a troll. Her reactions to performances ranged between ecstatic enthusiasm and physical fits of rage, making her lessons quite memorable. Liisa strongly encouraged my growing interest in contemporary music, and a decisive moment came when I discovered Ligeti’s piano etudes in the early 1990s. Scrolling through the score the first time was a peak experience: I felt as if struck by lightning and immediately realized that this was something I had to play. To make a long story short, some years later Ligeti himself invited me to play all the etudes at his award ceremony for the Rolf Schock Prize in Stockholm. This event was a turning point in my musical career. On the same evening I was offered a long-term collaboration with BIS Records; from then on, I received regular invitations to perform at international venues. Most importantly, I had found a clear identity and way forward as a pianist. If I was going to combine science and music, I would have to select engagements and repertoire very carefully, and focus entirely on works that were close to my heart. But this, I felt, was an acceptable compromise.
On the science side of things, I finally decided to go into medicine. The main reason was that, partly through my interest in programming, I had come into contact with neuroscientific research and early attempts at simulating networks of nerve cells using computers. After all, what could be more captivating than to study the brain? I left medical school after just a couple of years, and started as a PhD student in the laboratory of Prof. Sten Grillner, investigating neuronal networks controlling posture and locomotion in a simple model organism, the lamprey. I am very grateful for those years, during which I learned a lot about the brain and scientific work in general from both Sten and my two Russian supervisors, Grisha Orlovsky and Tania Deliagina. Grisha and Tania were fantastically skilled and inventive experimentalists; and another thing I bring with me from that time is the unique atmosphere in the laboratory, a happy combination of intellectual freedom and disciplined, careful laboratory work. If something of that spirit is present also in my own research group, I will be very happy.
Nevertheless, a few years after finishing my PhD, I found myself again at a crossroads. My life as a pianist was developing in an exciting way, but the research I had been engaged in so far had nothing to do with music. The disconnect was straining and seemed unsustainable in the long run. After much brooding, I decided to take the risk of making a topical and methodological turn, and transitioned to human cognitive neuroscience and research on the musical brain. With some luck, and with the support of Sten and other more senior colleagues, I received the necessary means to do this and was able to build my own small research group in this new, budding field. This, of course, gave me renewed inspiration for my research work, and it is a decision I have never regretted. From the beginning, our group had a strong focus on movement sequence performance, which created some continuity with my earlier work on motor control. Later on, the laboratory grew, and I was thrilled to be able to address a broader a set of questions concerning musical expertise and creativity, and to incorporate new techniques such as behavior genetic analyses of gene-environment interplay.
If there is any unofficial theme in this story, I think it has to do with finding a way to be who you are, and to spend your life working on the problems, questions, and projects that you are really most passionate about. This is a difficult struggle and I would not have managed without a lot of luck and the support of other people. I have already mentioned friends, teachers, and mentors, but last and most importantly I want to thank my family. My parents gave me a great start. Judit, my wife, has been a wonderful, never-failing support and friend during all our time together. Laura and Alma, our two marvelous daughters, have changed our world and given it a new center.
I usually do not look back much, but I enjoyed writing this text because it helped me realize what an interesting journey my life has been so far. I hope this journey will continue for many years still.