For Professor, Chemistry and Composition Make Music Together

Goal in science, music is to bring people joy, create the unexpected. April 22, 2009, by Jill Sakai.
On any other chemistry professor’s desk, the thick musical score would seem out of place amid the mid-semester clutter of undergraduate lab manuals, hand-scribbled notes and research grants-in-progress. But for John Berry, the sheaf of music simply represents a different outlet for the same creative forces that guide his scientific research. In addition to his work as a chemistry professor, Berry is an avid musician who plays violin, viola and piano and has composed several original works. “As a musician, as soon as I learned to read music and play music, I started to write music. As a chemist, once I learned the fundamentals I became a synthetic chemist,” he says. “For me, the link between science and music is creativity.”
Berry started music at age 10 when his younger brother lost interest in playing the violin. “He just really didn’t like it. But we had rented this violin,” Berry recalls. “My mother had already paid for several lessons in advance, so [my brother] stopped going to the lessons and I started going.” His musical ambitions stuck even as he got hooked on chemistry in high school, and he went on to earn both a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in music theory and composition at Virginia Tech. Professionally, Berry decided to pursue the scientific angle, and he started as an assistant professor of chemistry at UW-Madison in 2006. “I think I’ve been very lucky with chemistry, and everything has worked out so far,” he says. Others credit his successes to far more than luck. His chemistry career, though young, is already studded with awards, including several fellowships and awards as a graduate student at Texas A&M University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Bioinorganic Chemistry in Germany. In 2008, he received a National Science Foundation CAREER award, one of the most prestigious awards available to a young faculty member. “He is a phenomenal teacher and researcher,” says colleague and chemistry department chair Robert Hamers.

John Berry performs during the Concert at Chemistry
Assistant Professor of Chemistry John Berry performs during the Concert at Chemistry, a musical performance held in March at the Chemistry Building. Photo: Bryce Richter

Berry’s research, on rather unusual metal-containing compounds, is “a bit of an esoteric area of chemistry, but it’s one that has a lot of overlap with areas like molecular electronics and energy transfer.” Berry studies properties of these compounds that help them drive a variety of chemical reactions, and synthesizes new molecules in hopes of harnessing their utility as potential catalysts for applications including streamlining industrial processes and improving efficiency. For example, he is currently collaborating with Hamers to explore possible energy applications for his novel compounds. Although the demands of life as a young tenure-track faculty member – supervising students, writing grants and papers, teaching – have slowed his musical endeavors, he still finds daily grounding in his music, beginning at the piano. “Every morning when I wake up, one of the first things I do is I play a Bach fugue from ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier.’ That’s what gets my mind ready for the rest of the day,” Berry says.
His scientific and musical pursuits reflect the common goal of making something new in hopes that others will find value and enjoyment in it, he says. He particularly enjoys “taking two things that don’t belong together and putting them together” to create unusual and unexpected combinations – for example, a duet for French horn and double bass, or a new metal compound containing two chromium atoms linked by a quadruple bond and an iron atom thrown in for good measure. Berry also participated in a recent juxtaposition of campus scientific and musical interests, a “Concert at Chemistry” on March 12, sponsored by the Science, Arts and Humanities program of the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy. The concert brought together science, engineering and music faculty and students to perform for a packed chemistry lecture hall. The program included the world premiere of Berry’s “Sonata for Tuba and Piano,” performed by music graduate students Kristin Ihde and Stephanie Frye. Berry wrote the sonata in 2006 for a Japanese tubist he befriended in an intensive language class in Germany. “He asked me once if I would write something for tuba. And no sooner did he do that than I heard this in my mind,” Berry says, pointing at the first line of his score. “I went home as soon as I could and started writing.”
The concert was a great public demonstration of the dual interests many university members hold, says John Yin, a chemical engineering professor who played cello in the concert, and especially for Berry. “I see the concert as a celebration for him.” “I’ve always wanted to hear it,” Berry says of his tuba sonata. “[Kristin and Stephanie] played it as well as I ever imagined… And the fact that it’s something I wrote – that’s the icing on the cake.”