Their leader is Collins, who often performs in a T-shirt that reads: “Vaccines Cause Adults,” hinting playfully at his serious side. The 15 band members (the number fluctuates) currently range in age from 24 to 72. Lead vocalist and trumpet player Laura Chopp, one of four women in the band, is a doctoral student and fellow in the laboratory of immune cell biology. The 27-year-old joined the group after seeing a performance two years ago while she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. “Michael Lenardo and [another band member] stayed after,” says Chopp, who was doing dissertation research at NIH for her doctorate at Penn. “We were just talking about music. They asked if I played any music. I said trumpet. They said, ‘Come to rehearsals.’ I fell in love with playing music with all of them.”
Lenardo, her accidental recruiter, also joined the band by happenstance. “I was asked to fill in for a guitarist who didn’t show up, probably due to illness,” he says. “I was very inexperienced and performed at such a low level—I was astonished when they invited me back.”
There are no formal tryouts. “Band members just find out about other talented scientists who might be interested,” Collins says. “They get invited to a rehearsal to see if it’s a good fit. We are very open to new people, which is how the band has grown.”
Occasionally, important scientific advances have emerged from informal band chatter. Tisdale, 55, a bass guitar player, recalls the time in 2016 when the band was getting ready for a gig to welcome the new post-baccalaureate fellows at a restaurant in Bethesda. After they set up, they had time for a quick bite to eat.
“I told Francis we need something like a ‘Moonshot’ for sickle cell,” Tisdale recalls, referring to the federal government’s Cancer Moonshot initiative that had recently been announced. “We had the mounting tools available to start thinking about curing the disease. We needed now to get everyone on the same page, get more funding, organization, advocacy, more patients involved, and we’d really be able to do something.”
The conversation didn’t go too far that evening, but a couple of weeks later an email from Collins suggested that Tisdale should put together a proposal and pitch it to him. “This was the genesis of the sickle cell initiative,” Tisdale says, “which launched about a year later in 2017.”
The band’s name—the Affordable Rock ’n’ Roll Act—is a fitting one. As government employees, they aren’t paid for their performances—eight this year, at venues ranging from The Loft at 4935 in Bethesda for a celebration of NIH trainees, to AMP by Strathmore at Pike & Rose for a Friends of Patients at the NIH event. In past years they’ve performed at the Library of Congress and the National Building Museum. “Some of us give talks at big conferences,” says sax player Scott Durum, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, one of 27 institutes and centers at NIH. “O’Shea and I often say we’d rather play for a party than give a talk at a somber lecture hall. It’s more fun.”
Durum, 72, supervises researchers who inject mice with cancer and then treat them with an experimental drug that appears to extend their lives. The targeted disease is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common cancer in children. Current courses of chemo have a high cure rate, “but the chemical treatments are extremely harsh,” he says. So his lab is working to develop a less toxic drug. “It’s so absorbing. It keeps evolving,” says Durum, who has worked at an NIH facility at Fort Detrick in Frederick since the 1980s. “It’s a challenge, but not in the usual sense of doing something to make a buck and [you] can’t wait for retirement. It’s the opposite—we can’t get people to retire.”
It was Durum who came up with the name for the band, “riffing off the Affordable Care Act,” during the Barack Obama administration. “Somehow the name stuck,” he says, “as cumbersome as it is.”
The band first formed as “The Directors” back in 1998, “because it was primarily led by institute directors at NIH,” Collins says. He and O’Shea, 67, are the only original members left. “People have come and gone. With fewer actual directors leading the band, we needed a new name, and so the Affordable Rock ’n’ Roll Act was born about eight years ago.”
They don’t raise funds directly for NIH, but their presence at charity events draws donors. A dinner gala to benefit Friends of Patients at the NIH is one of the band’s biggest gigs, most recently held on Oct. 24 at AMP by Strathmore. Founded 35 years ago by NIH employees who saw families sleeping in their cars and on couches at the Clinical Center, “Friends at NIH” started with bake sales. Today, the organization provides housing and emergency support for patients and their families.