There to Here: Paul Kaufman,
University of Massachusetts Medical School

(In this installment, Che Underground: The Blog talks to the original drummer of Manual Scan and co-founder of Lemons Are Yellow about his memories of the San Diego scene and his far-ranging career in biochemistry. If you’d like your story told, e-mail cheunderground@gmail.com!)

Paul Kaufman, 2012We actually met right after you’d left San Diego to study at UC Berkeley, then for your doctorate at MIT. But you stayed in close touch with all of us who were still in America’s Finest City. What was it like coming back for short visits and seeing the scene change?

I have very vivid memories coming back during quarter breaks and other holidays during my first year away, 1982-3. The most shocking thing was that every time I came back, the Answers song list was totally different, even within a couple of months! At the same time, the Mod scene became incredibly huge, and the punk scene seemed to go from an artistic, underground scene to a place laced with way too much testosterone. So I did feel like I was missing a lot, a lot was indeed happening, and not being there day-to-day probably accentuated that feeling. I stayed in San Diego during that amazing summer of ’83, so I did get to see some of the best parts first hand. (cue “Nowhere”).

And then when I came back summer of ’84, so much more had changed. No more Answers. No more Noise 292. I think that summer, the Morlocks emerged (pun intended) at a party at Paul Allen’s house. I remember I had to stand back, they were so loud, and I was accustomed to some pretty loud stuff back then! They played “Voices Green and Purple,” it was intense. And before long, everyone was up in San Francisco, just across from me in Berkeley, so I got to see a bit of that era before I left for Boston in late ‘86.

Tell us about the voyage from San Diego punk to biochemistry. As I remember, you always seemed pretty focused on what you wanted to do for a career … And you’ve worked at many institutions over the years.

There to Here: Mark Stern, Soup Nation

I think I was very lucky, in that I loved music, enjoyed playing music, but I was also able to be honest enough with myself to admit that I’m not very musically talented. Especially the part where you play the instrument. Oh yeah,, and that singing part … not so good either. And both at the same time? Yikes. Since my songwriting has largely focused on riling on people, places and things (cue “America’s Finest City”), I feel fortunate that my instinct to keep it as a hobby is looking better every day.

Paul Kaufman then and now

I had enjoyed classes in chemistry in high school, and I liked the combination of theoretical thinking about molecules, and the hands on assembly of apparatus to do the experiments. I loved my college chemistry classes, after the first one I felt like I had found something very exciting that fit my skills well. During my two summers in San Diego, I decided I wasn’t going to go back to employment at Jack in the Box and instead volunteered at an Immunology lab at Scripps Institute. That was the first time I had ever worked with proteins and cells, which was also a revelation.

Listen to Lemons Are Yellow play “Spotted Dick”!

My high-school biology classes had always left me a bit cold, since at the time there was a lot of descriptive stuff, a lot of names for things without looking for the mechanism of how they worked. But this was different; this was biology where the goal was manipulating the system to test how it worked. Once I dived into a research lab at Berkeley, I knew very quickly that this is what I wanted to do.

There to Here: Todd Lahman, Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop

You travel often speaking about your research (most recently at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester) but usually to other scientists. Can you give us the three-minute, radio-friendly version of your work?

What I work on has changed quite a bit in the last few years, which is one of the fun aspects of my job. Indeed, we’re willing to undergo lots of pain and hard work for this type of freedom of ideas: tomorrow, you can get a result in the lab that changes what you want to do the following day.

Here goes: Right now, my lab works on two rather different areas. One group of people is studying basic aspects of how human chromosomes are built, examining links between signals that trigger cellular growth and signals that drive the cells to divide. The other group is interested in microbial pathogens. We’re interested in developing new ways to prevent microbes from adhering to human cells, which is the first step in many infectious diseases.

This has been a lot of fun to learn about because it’s very far from my previous studies, and it’s led me to reach out to experts in fields I know very little about. For example, we’re working together with several groups to find ways of improving these molecules and incorporating them into the surfaces of implanted medical devices (for example, catheters), because those surfaces often become infected.

A major part of your gig is organizing and running a lab full of researchers. How is getting a lab together like being in a band?

I’m not sure if I can really make any complete analogies — the only bands I was ever in were either when I was very young, very immature, and still living at home (e.g. Manual Scan, back in 1981!), or playing in as a fun hobby (everything else I’ve ever done, most notably Lemons Are Yellow). So, I never was at a point where I was leading a full-time musical unit, either in terms of the music itself, or in terms of the business side, the complex interpersonal relationships or the morale building that are also crucial in bands.\

Running a lab, except for the science part, requires a lot of the things you’d need for a small business — skills in hiring and training personnel, raising funds and spending them wisely, building teamwork, and generating excitement in the product. I imagine many of these skills are very useful for full-time bands. … Hey, maybe it’s not too late for me!

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