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The Most Interesting Men in the World

Monday September 18, 2017

The Most Interesting Man in the World was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s and said, “I don’t always get a disease, but when I do there is no cure.” Not really, but that’s what passes as PD humor.

Recently I met the real most interesting men in the world; yes, there are two of them! In February of this year, while reviewing research grants for the Department of Defense, I met one of the foremost scientists and PD researchers in the world. On that same trip, I was fortunate enough to meet the most fascinating musician in the world.

I’ll start with Dr. David Sulzer of Columbia University. Although interesting and highly intelligent, he is also somewhat of a slacker—he is merely a professor in the departments of Psychiatry, Neurology and Pharmacology. In addition, he runs the Sulzer Lab. Having a laboratory named after you means you’re either damn good at what you do or very wealthy and donate a lot of money. Turns out, Dr. Sulzer is that good; if he was rich, he’d be on an island in the Caribbean.

When asked about three critical and current strands of research, Dr.  Sulzer suggested that we need a way to identify people in the early stages of PD—long before tremors show up—a biomarker. Further, we still don’t know what the cause is or how the neurons (brain cells) die. Although we know bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Parkinson’s, we don’t know enough to see the whole picture. Finally, the issue of people with advanced PD is an important area of inquiry.

As an aside and apropos of nothing, Dr. Sulzer is the only person I’ve ever met who’s wedding was announced in the society pages of the New York Times.

Dr. Sulzer is a strong proponent of basic scientific research. Although some projects look for a lucky break, he believes success comes through painstaking and frequently frustrating years of methodical works—that’s how we got Levodopa (the gold standard of medication) and DBS (deep brain stimulation). If you are interested in medical research as a career, Dr. Sulzer suggests earning a combined MD/PhD. He is also brutally honest: science is hellishly hard, both to conduct and it is very hard to produce funding and make a living at it.

We now shift to the musician, Dave Soldier. This man plays almost a dozen instruments,  played guitar with Bo Diddley, been in several rock bands, founded the Soldier String Quartet (a punk chamber group that plays with amplification and percussion), and produced numerous CD’s including several for the Thai Elephant Orchestra.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra? Yes. Special oversize instruments were constructed and pachyderm polyphonics resulted. Dave reported, “The elephants are a delight… dangerous sometimes, and sweet nearly all the time… a degree of intelligence we do not see in our domestic animals… they have a sense of humor; whenever I would look away, one would suck water out of a glass and blow it on my head.”

Soldier combined his interest in math with his quirky sense of humor to create a twenty-three minute recording of Chopin’s Minute Waltz—the joke being that one musician was so bad, it took him thirty minutes to play it. On the same CD, he explored various mathematical functions applied to sound—including Fourier transforms, derivatives and integrals. [I don’t know what those are, either]. Amazingly, these CD’s and others are available on Amazon—get yours today!

If that’s not enough, Dave has also written scores for films (some by Andy Warhol) and for television (including Sesame Street). As if it were no big deal, Dave Soldier admitted he co-wrote two operas with Kurt Vonnegut—yes, that Kurt Vonnegut [Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five]. Dave noted, “Kurt has terrible directions skills in driving and we have been lost for hours on the highway, with him (Vonnegut) telling long stories.”

Why am I sharing these brief and disparate biographies in the same column? Some readers may have guessed by now the reason—Dr. David Sulzer and musician Dave Soldier are the same person. Together they are a true 21st century renaissance man. David/Dave believes both science and music are impossible. “No matter how hard you try, you don’t really reach a point of satisfaction beyond a pretty temporary feeling. This may seem obvious for arts like music, but is genuinely true in scientific research, too. Anything that is obvious, you pass through in a flash, and then you end up at the next obstacle, stalling your motor until you think of a way to break down the obstacle—or go around it.”

Dave Sulzer/Soldier is small in stature with a shaved head, slightly elfish appearance and very intense—think of  Doc from Back to the Future, only bald. That, however, is not why I call him a MAD scientist. I do so with the deepest respect, admiration and appreciation because he is Making A Difference in the ongoing battle to defeat Parkinson’s.

A.C. WoolnoughA.C. Woolnough
NWPF Blogger

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