The Art of the Virus with Olivia Tournay Flatto
A moving body, notes in harmony, an emotion, a knowledge, a narrow door toward a new idea, an engine inherent to life, to the mere concept of human beings’ survival, science and art maintain an intimate relationship, two mirrors reflecting each other and focusing on the hope of creation.
A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) actually just metamorphosed Covid19 into a musical existence, similar to the work of a composer, an exceptional melody that could help science to better understand the mechanics and weaknesses of this devastating virus.
Art in the service of science, science in the service of art. Olivia Tournay Flatto is no stranger to the crossover between these two fields.
A scientist herself and President of the Pershing Square Foundation, she has developed a fund to support young researchers with bold and new ideas in the fight against cancer. Passionate about ballet, she is a member of the Board of the Friends of the Paris Opera and President in New York of the American Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet (AFPOB), created 35 years ago in response to Rudolf Nureyev’s request to support a tour in the United States of the ballet company, which he directed.
The halls of the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille are now closed until further notice; laboratories are mostly concentrating their research on a Covid19 vaccine. Yet science and art—brain and heart—remain more than ever the essence of our lives.
Thank you for not seeing me in your home, Olivia, in your apartment office, apparently?
This room has always been set up as a home-office since my first foundation. I also use it as a guest room, and this is where the kids used to do their homework.
It’s very organized!
I’ve just filed everything away, I tidied it up. As soon as confinement started, I put all my books back in my library in order of importance and by category of health, research, novels, biographies, French books, children’s books. I threw away whole boxes of papers. There were so many of them. I’m trying to deal with my obsessive-compulsive disorder for these things, so I’m either very organized or it can be very disorganized. I have piles of stuff and I love to tidy up. It’s interesting how many forgotten things one can discover at home.
Any specific memories that have resurfaced?
I’ve awakened the moods of the past. I found my school books, my university thesis, my lab notes when I was studying for my PHD at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I even found the measurements for my experiments, an incubation with the picomoles of an enzyme. It soothes me a lot, but I’m not finished.
A true back to the future. Would you do it all over again the same way?
I often ask myself that question, and I ask it even more now. I always come back to the same idea: with the information I had when I made a decision, I believe I made the only decision that made sense at the time in the context of my education and my family.
The Scientific world is a world apart, that evolves in a different space-time
Does being a scientist allow us to better understand the crisis we are going through?
We are going to appreciate in a new way everything that is scientific, doctors, medical staff. When I was 17 years old, I already wanted to bring medicines to Africa, to be a scientist, I thought I could change the world that way. But I was always surprised that these people weren’t as well-known as stars, athletes or movie stars.
That explains your current work at the head of the Pershing Square Foundation and the creation of a program to support young cancer researchers?
I wanted to put these young scientists in touch with great philanthropists and Wall Street leaders, give them a platform, visibility and allow everyone to understand their work. The world of science and laboratories is so disconnected from the world of business and finance. It’s a world apart, that evolves in a different space-time.
Is that changing with Covid19?
At this moment, everyone is working around the same project, the same problem, with a super stressful timeline. Everyone has come together: scientists, financiers and philanthropists. It’s unique.
Why hasn’t this ever happened before? This isn’t the first appearance of a very dangerous and deadly virus. Have we taken medicine for granted, finding it normal not to be threatened by diseases that were once devastating?
It is our fault. We did not prepare ourselves despite Ebola, MERS and SARS, all of which were signs. Something had to be done. Many people like Bill Gates with his 2015 TED talk had tried to draw our attention to the possibility of a pandemic. If we had spent the money to do that kind of research, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
Coordination is the key word here?
Let’s remember how the polio vaccine was discovered: through crowdsourcing, a true community effort. Thousands of people were then vaccinated very quickly.
Will the Covid19 crisis enable us to launch a lasting transformation in public health policy or are we just witnessing a momentary epiphany of scientific, financial and political coordination?
This crisis is an accelerator of the underlying problems that are difficult to manage. This is the time to put things in order and change the system. Whether in science or in the media, a new generation is going to want to become a scientist or a journalist, the ‘Sanjay Gupta’ tomorrow.
Do the media play a key role?
An essential role even to put this community on a pedestal. Before taking a PHD in molecular biology, I worked in Philadelphia for a year, dividing my time between the laboratory and a television studio. I wanted to be a journalist and share science with a large audience. I dreamed of creating an encounter between these two worlds, translating the often hard-to-understand-jargon of researchers.
Yet, you mentioned Bill Gates’ TED Talk; great French professors like Jean-François Delfrayssi and Didier Raoult have also raised the alarm in past conferences-such as the S3 Odeon conferences in the heart of Paris; videos are available on YouTube without attracting a lasting media attention, without advancing public policy or engaging voters in democracies to respond to these threats. What is true by the way in health is just as true in ecology and the climate threat.
A number of people hear from these experts, but the takeaways of these conversations remain a question of a system’s priority. This is changing. A group of American billionaires with an ear in Washington D.C. has just launched a coalition to centralize and advance therapies, vaccines, and scientific ideas. This group brings together Nobel Prizes, Harvard and Cambridge researchers, and a desire for interaction between the private and public sectors. The problem lies in budgets. The NIH’s budget—a little over $35 billion with $5.5 billion allocated for cancer research—has not really evolved for many years. The budget for infectious diseases is far less. This problem has been around for a long time. It is a matter of importance, of values and agenda.
Apart from Covid19, what is happening in the research sector at the moment?
The labs are closed. All other research, other than that to combat Covid19, has been put on hold.
All attention has been focused on one problem. Everything else seems to have vanished.
And the other illnesses, all other health needs are still there. A friend of mine just wrote to me and said, ‘I’m in Dutchess county with my five-month-old baby. I can’t find a pediatrician to give him his shots, no pediatrician wants to come to my house. What do I do?’
All other research, other than that to combat Covid19, has been put on hold
As if there were another virus in hiding, the confinement virus, with unknown side effects.
There are mental health risks, depression because of the economy, and the possibility in an increased use of substances and opioids.
Is there such a thing as psychological confinement, regardless of the quality of the place where we are isolated because if this situation further highlights our immense inequalities, we may also be prisoners of mental confinement?
This is a very important point. I love contact and I’m very interested in others. Exchanging with people gives me energy, it’s a source of knowledge. I love to go out, see my friends and travel so much. However, I have adapted incredibly well to this situation. In the first few days, I felt a lot of anxiety, but I was unknowingly prepared by my childhood, the loneliness, the days spent in my room, reading. I belonged to a generation that knew neither the telephone nor email, much less Whatsapp. I spent a lot of time alone in a garden without seeing many people.
But now, I have a trust issue. Are the people telling me they’ve been in a confined quarantine going to be trustworthy? Do they even have the same notion of confinement as I do? I see it with my children, my daughter experiences confinement differently than I do. We will have to trust one another again, and that trust saddens me because we had learned to trust our friends. Now, everyone has become a potential enemy.
Learning to trust and take risks again?
Risks that will be mitigated by the presence of an antiviral or therapy.
The word “Science” is often associated with the word “Art”. How do these two fits together?
Art and science share in common creativity and innovation. Music and science have always coexisted. They speak to the brain in the same way. When I lived in Philadelphia, I was staying with a friend of my parents’, Hilary Koprowski, who, along with Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk, discovered the polio vaccine. He was a great virologist and at the same time a wonderful musician. This man, who was Polish by birth, had studied at the Krakow Conservatory and played the piano particularly well. Being a pianist implies a sense of rigor, memory, sensitivity and creativity, qualities that are also necessary to scientists.
Incidentally, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology transcoded Covid19 into music. The result is a fascinating, harmonious melody, and according to Professor Markus Buehler, who accomplished this feat, this would allow to better understand the movements and vibrations of the virus.
In its form, this virus is very pretty because of its crown all around, the spike protein. It’s a very large virus with 30,000 base pairs. So, it has a lot of potential targets.
This is very Star-Wars-like, a flagship with entry points to destroy it from the inside!
It makes me think of a film I really liked in which a microscopic shuttle is injected with humans to travel inside the human body.
Ah, I remember: Fantastic Voyage! We’re in the middle of science fiction.
I loved that movie so much. When my children were young, I showed them the videos from the ‘J’aime La Vie’ series about lymphocytes, white blood cells, red blood cells, etc. Everything that happens inside our bodies is incredible.
Science is the music of our existence, which allows us to be more than the sum of all our cells
Science is actually both very complicated and entertaining.
Like a ballet.
Let’s talk about it! While researchers are working tirelessly to find the right therapy, the vaccine for this vicious and invisible Covid19, museums and theaters have been inviting us to virtual art galleries and performances. We now have access to more cultural programs than we can absorb in a day. What does art bring us, in addition to entertainment of course?
We don’t need to be educated, to know scientific jargon or to have studied virology to be moved by a ballet, to be moved by a voice, to be moved by a story, by the complexity of sometimes tragic operas, exacerbated reflections of everyday life moments. Everyone can find in these emotions a contemplation of our lives, of our own emotions. Music is a universal language that we all understand.
Emotion, as a necessary commodity?
It is the music of our existence, which allows us to be more than the sum of all our cells. It is our spirit of empathy, of connections, this breath of life that we need even more in this period of confinement.
You represent the friends of the Paris Opera in the United States. Since the beginning of the stay-at-home policies, the institution created by King Louis XIV 350 years ago has offered every week—and exceptionally throughout the world—access to some of its finest productions (see end of article for the program to come).
We are very fortunate to be able to program and transmit operas and ballets digitally. It is wonderful to involve audiences other than those in France. The Paris Opera is thus shining beyond its horizons and asserting its leadership role, promoting their artists and giving them a digital presence.
What about the American Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet?
We are trying to answer the sensitive questions of the moment and bridge the gap that affects those who need help, these young artists, these dancers and singers, whose careers are just beginning and who will suffer a lot economically. If we can make a commitment to help them, that would be great.
Is it complicated to engage our American friends in such a project and talk to them about something other than scientific research at the moment? Because if we solve the scientific question but destroy everything else in art, economy, social life, what’s the point?
As it is the case in the restaurant industry, a whole group of people became jobless overnight. Artists have decorated our whole being and given it a dimension beyond our own confinement. They are part of this life we love so much. We have to help these artists, even on a small scale.
Your favorite opera and ballet?
An opera that is not often performed, but which I particularly liked, Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites. I find it intense, a mixture of despair and hope. And if it were a ballet, Ravel’s Bolero adapted by Maurice Béjart… I saw it again during the Paris Opera Ballet Company 2012 tour of the United States already featuring Aurèlie Dupont, now dance director, as the principal dancer, la danseuse étoile.
The French—once a new Yorker—director Cédric Klapisch created a video-conference clip that became viral with members of the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera during this confinement. Why did this little film generate such enthusiasm?
Because of its great poetry. Klapisch invites us into each dancer’s home, into their environment. We see them dancing with their children, their partners, and this choreography chosen by the dancers and this music that binds them together, these dance steps at home, gave life to an intimate picture. When we enter the dancer’s life, we receive a wonderful message. It’s a very beautiful story whose only words are music and movement.
Therefore “Not at the Paris Opera Ballet dancer’s home,” but with only music and movement…
Remaining Streaming Available worldwide from the Paris Opera
May 4 – 10: A Midsummer’s Night Dream, George Balanchine
May 11 – 17: Don Pasquale, Modeste Moussorgski
Until July 19: Bastien and Bastienne, Mozart
Links available through www.afpob.org
Covid19 becomes music at M.I.T