top of page
  • kristin7325

From Scientist to Professional Trumpeter, Laura Garwin (Part One!)

Kristin 00:23

Today I'm chatting with scientist to professional trumpeter, Laura Garwin. Laura has had so many chapters in her studies and careers, and I found all of them fascinating. We'll hear about Laura's early musical studies, her pioneering path at Oxford, her first love of trumpet music, and why she chose science instead, "no one decision you make now is going to determine the future course of your entire life. The only basis on which you can make a decision right now is what you think will make you happy." Hi, Laura. It's so good to talk to you. How are you today?

Laura 00:54

Hi, Kristin. I'm very well. Thank you. How are you?

Kristin 01:01

I'm doing fine. Thank you very much for asking. We are officially hearing news about lockdown being lifted. First reactions... lockdown being lifted...

Laura 01:12

Getting back to training with Willesden tri club.

Kristin 01:14

Okay, so that's going to be something that comes later. But we will talk about Laura and I know each other through triathlon. So yes, we are very excited to get back to training.

Laura 01:22

What else? Obviously, getting back to playing with other people. I'm a musician playing is what I do. I've been playing this whole time, mostly in this room, but there's no substitute for playing with others and in hopefully soon in front of others.

Kristin 01:40

So how old were you when you first started taking music

Laura 01:43

lessons? Five, five or six? When I started playing the piano, my parents started us all on the piano. Then I started playing trumpet at about eight.

Kristin 01:51

Was there a musical background in your family?

Laura 01:53

No, my parents were both very non musical. But I think they thought it was important for children to learn music and they enjoyed music. They especially in later life when they weren't busy raising three children they would enjoy actually mostly concerts at scientific conferences. My dad was out or whatever. My dad is a physicist. My dad used to pick out the streets of Laredo on the piano for me. He really do that. Kristen, this is where you're going to come across the fact that I have a bad memory. I do remember him sitting at the piano with the streets of Laredo, but can you really play the piano? I need to check that with him when I talk to him tonight.

Kristin 02:30

Okay. Yeah, I feel like my dad's dream was always to be a violinist. And he wasn't. So I got pushed into the violin very early in life. But what kind of took you from piano to trumpet because that's, in my mind, at least that's a big leap.

Laura 02:43

My parents started us all on a second instrument. And my eldest brother played the trumpet. And he's about eight years older than I am. And when I came to have my second instrument, I don't know why. But it was the violin, maybe because we had a violin that was my grandmother's. And apparently, I used to go to my violin lessons and say to my violin teacher, gee, this would sound really great on the trumpet. Because at that point in my life, I idolised My oldest brother, and I just wanted to be like him. And then apparently, the my fate was sealed when my violin teacher went away for a summer holiday and gave me strict instructions not to touch the violin, because she was afraid that I would develop bad habits. And I wanted to play something. So I picked up my brother's trumpet and started playing it. So by the time she came back from her holiday, she said to my parents, your daughter doesn't want to play the violin, she wants to play the trumpet.

Kristin 03:34

I was gonna ask you originally, what was your early love of music? But what was it a love? Was it something that right from the beginning or something that you left? Or was it just what you did?

Laura 03:43

I think it was just something I did. Like many kids. I wasn't one of these kids that just couldn't wait to get home and get on to the piano or the trumpet or whatever. And we had the usual struggles with Oh, do I really have to practice and all that maybe more so with the piano than with the trumpet. I had a really fun trumpet teacher who used to draw cartoons at my lessons and tell me that when I was playing a concert, he'd come and sit in the front row and suck lemons and just made the whole thing a joke. But the first time I can remember really loving, I was given some records of a guy called adults share bound, playing Baroque repertoire on the trumpet. And it just, it was just so beautiful, that it just made me want even more to be able to do that. And actually, the other thing I can remember is back when I was playing piano, all I wanted to play was Bach. And amazingly, my piano teacher indulged me on this, which was probably bad for my skills as a pianist. But anyway, I just played Bach for years and years and loved it.

Kristin 04:43

So this first recollection of love of music, do you remember about how old you are hearing these records,

Laura 04:48

maybe when I was 10, or 11, or 12. Around the time I was also in love with a month so you could say that I did have

Kristin 04:56

a huge crush on Davy Jones... that's my first recollection of a crush.

Laura 05:00

Davy Jones. Oh, no, I think I was Mickey, Mickey Dolenz.

Kristin 05:05

I love Davey, but he is so short and I ended up so tall. So it's just all a funny thing. I'm going to fast forward, you're finding this love of music around 10. But you end up studying physics. How does this happen? Where did you make a choice between potentially a career in music and a career in something else?

Laura 05:20

it would be wrong to say that music was my driving passion that as a kid, and I gave it up to do physics. I just liked everything equally. When I was a kid music and sports and schoolwork and everything. I'd forgotten about this, and was only reminded of this about 10 years ago, when I helped my parents clear out their house and looked at things I was doing. When I was a senior in high school and decisions I was making about my future, I actually did think about going to Conservatoire when I was graduating from high school. And I knew I wanted to do science, if I was going to go to university. So it was science versus music that I was weighing up. And I did make a conscious decision at that point that music made a good hobby, whereas science maybe made a less good hobby people don't tend to have laboratories in their spare rooms. And also, I thought to myself that music is quite a hard profession to be in bit like acting. And I thought that if there was something I thought I would enjoy doing other than music, it was probably better to do that. I wasn't convinced that I wanted to do music enough that I would stick to it through the hard times when there was something else that I could more or less equally enjoy doing.

Kristin 06:29

I feel like I was similarly logical about trying to choose my first career.

Laura 06:34

It's interesting. Since then, at various points in my career, I've been called on to advise young people about how to choose their careers. I remember when I was working for nature, a young person phoned me up, she must have been, and she was asking me in great detail about how she should spend the following summer and which would be better for her career. Say I was amazed because even though now as we're talking, I realised that I was probably thinking the same way when I was her age. But serendipity has played such a huge part in my own life. What I said to her was, look, no one decision you make now is going to determine the future, of course of your entire life. The only basis on which you can make a decision right now is what you think will make you happy in terms of what will make you want to wake up in the morning and go to that job or that activity or whatever.

Kristin 07:30

There's a lot of pressure at that age to choose what you're going to do as if it's something that you never can escape from. You have to go to college, you have to study this. And that will be your job for the rest of your life. Instead of why don't you start here and let serendipity take its course.

Laura 07:45

Exactly. Anyway, so I chose science and thought, music can be a hobby. And in fact, music was a great hobby. I picked up the trumpet and played a lot in college, I played in the Harvard band, marching band and jazz band and Concert Band. And so it did make a good hobby. And I studied physics,

Kristin 08:04

you do have a very well known, you might say famous, physicist father. Did that influence your decision either way to go into physics? Did it make it more appealing or less?

Laura 08:16

I actually tried to avoid going into physics. And I did successfully avoid going into physics. But anyway, I can't really think now what what the thought process was for wanting to avoid it. Other than that was my dad's thing. And he was really good at it. And I guess I wanted to do my own thing. So I went to university, imagining that I was going to do something like biology or chemistry or biochemistry, maybe do medicine, I wasn't sure. But in my first year at Harvard, I took introductory physics and also organic chemistry. And organic chemistry was the course that all the pre meds had to take in order to apply to medical school, you have to have taken organic chemistry. And you could tell that they didn't want to be there. Actually, the lecture came in to class the first day dressed as the Grim Reaper. That's a good start. That sort of set the tone for the class. And there were stories that people's homework was getting stolen from the box so that other boys just doggy dog. It just seemed a bit. I don't know, maybe this was just the way it was being taught. It seemed a little more like cooking than like science. To me, it was more to do this reaction, do this and then do this and do this. And I felt like they I wasn't learning the underlying principles the way I was. Okay, so that's the bad side. And then the good side was I was being taught physics by a Nobel Prize winning physicist called Edward Purcell, who was also my freshman advisor, who was also just the kindest, loveliest man you would ever want to meet. And he was so smart. He just made physics seem like the easiest thing in the world. Although he ended up majoring in physics at American universities. You don't have to specialise the way you do. In Britain, you don't have to do physics to the exclusion of everything else. And in fact, I ended up taking the minimum number of physics courses that it was possible to take and still graduate with a physics degree because I was interested in everything. And that's the wonderful part of a liberal arts education. I could take art history, I could take economics, I could just take all these things that I was interested in. And that would help me in later life. To this day, if I walk into an art museum, I'm so grateful for the year long history of art class I took. And I reckoned that either I was going to become a physicist, in which case, I could do all that physics in graduate school, or I wasn't, in which case why take all those extra physics courses when I could be learning all this other stuff. And actually not being able to specialise was a theme that took me into my Later career.

Kristin 10:59

I love so many different things. And it has led my liberal arts education has led me to several different courses in my life. Sometimes I think maybe too many I did specialise in design was very hardcore. And a lot of designers didn't want to do anything but design, but I love to taking marketing classes and history of German literature and art history. And there were so many different things that I feel like have served me even just things that I'm interested in life now. So next off you. So was there a time in between that you thought, Okay, I'm going to go out in the world and do something else? Or was it just very obvious that education would continue,

Laura 11:35

I thought education would continue. But I fancied a bit of a break. I hadn't had a gap year before I went to university. And actually, I was a bit young, I was two years younger than my contemporaries, because I'd skipped some grades when I was little. So I thought, okay, I can take some time out and not fall behind. So when I was approaching the end of my time at Harvard, I just applied for every scholarship that was going to go somewhere else and do something different. And at that time, I thought that I was going to do graduate work in oceanography. I'd spent a summer when I was in high school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And then I'd spent a summer when I was in college at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And I really liked oceanography, I wanted to get out on ships. And so that was my idea. I was going to do physical oceanography, physics, oceanography, then I applied for the scholarships to do different things. And I applied Initially, I applied for the Rhodes Scholarship to go to Oxford to study music. And, again, this is a pattern, which I didn't think about till later, but I guess I hadn't really got music out of my system. So I thought, okay, I'll just go to Oxford for two years, do music, and then settle down and go to graduate school, I ended up going to Oxford, and that was great. I was going to do music. And then you had to apply to a college because, as you probably know, Oxford has this college system where you're at the university, but you are accepted by a college. And so I applied to various colleges, and they all turned me down. And the scholarship people got in touch and said, This has never happened before. But you're in danger of not being able to go to Oxford, because all the colleges keep turning you down. And the reason they turned me down, and I really only learned this after I got to Oxford and made some inquiries was that the colleges are very, we're very competitive with each other, for how their students do in the league tables of academic achievement. every college wants to have more students who are getting first class degrees or whatever. So they looked at my transcript from Harvard, and saw that I had taken zero music courses. I took one music class in the second semester of my senior year, but they might not have even been able to see that at that point. And they thought, Oh, no, when you go to Oxford to do a undergraduate degree, which is what, at that time, most Rhodes Scholars did. Now people do more graduates. Anyway, if you go as an American, to do a second ba at Oxford, you start in the second year, you do the three year course in two years, because they reckon even though you may not know anything about the subject you're studying, you've already done an undergraduate degree, you know how to study, you can catch up. So they looked at my transcript and thought this woman doesn't know anything about music. How is she going to be able to do a three year music degree in two years? And they all said no,

Kristin 14:29

they had not met Laura garwin because you could have.

Laura 14:32

So the roads people said to me, You better do science, so you're not going to be able to go. So this is very sad. But I leapt through the book. And when I had been studying Oceanography at Scripps, that summer in high school, I found out about plate tectonics, it was still a relatively new thing in those days, hard to believe. And in fact, when I was at Harvard, I took a geology course that was team taught by one guy who believed in plate tectonics and one guy who didn't believe in it and just for your listeners, quit. tectonics is the idea that the earth is divided up into segments, which actually have shifted around on the surface of the earth during the course of geological time. So for instance, North America and Europe used to be stuck together. And at one point, they separated and the Atlantic Ocean was formed.

Kristin 15:17

And amazing that it was still being debated, because I feel like that's just taught as no one ever said to me, but we weren't really sure. They're just like, here's the big massive land lump that once existed. And now it looks like this.

Laura 15:28

Yeah, takes time for people to change their minds. And that's science as well. It's always changing. And I think it might have been Thomas kuhns, that historians of science have said that actually, most scientific beliefs don't change by people changing their minds, they change by the people who believe in them strongly dying out.

Kristin 15:47

I guess that's a lot of things, though, not just science.

Laura 15:50

Yeah, you would hope science might be a little better in that regard, but science is done by humans.

Kristin 15:54

Do you know the Shakers in America and how they were their whole concept was that men and women shouldn't share the same space and they didn't believe in sex or procreation. So they died out because they thought they literally died out? No way to keep going. So I don't know when you said that. I was like the scientists or like the shakers in a completely opposite way.

Laura 16:17

Like the way your mind works, were we Oh, yeah. So I leapt through the book of different things I could study at Oxford and geology left out because I thought, Oh, I really liked plate tectonics. Okay, I'll study geology, and they let me in. But then when I got to Oxford, I went to the music department. But that first week when you're not doing anything much, except learning your way around, I went and visited the music department. And I said, Well, I wasn't able to study music. And they said, Oh, we'd be happy to have you study music. It was your college that wasn't letting you study music. So I went to the senior tutor at my college and said, why wouldn't you let me study music? Or what would it take to make you let me study music, he said, if you can pass the first year exams in music will let you study music. So I spent the first term going to lectures in music and geology. And at the end of the first term, I took the first year exams in music. But during this course of the first term, I discovered that the music department was dry as dust at that point, we were having to wear academic gowns to lectures like black powder didn't exist. And so it wasn't cool. It was just weird.

Kristin 17:19

I actually showed up to an exam in my pyjama bottoms once at university. So that's the difference in my education and yours. I had studied really late to be fair,

Laura 17:31

these days, over zoom, because of the poor university students who are having to do it online. I'm sure they show up in their pyjama bottoms true, too. So there was that. And then also, I was interested in music from the performing arranging composer conducting the live part of it. And what they were interested in was harmony and counterpoint, Gregorian chant. And I said to myself, they believe that music should be seen and not heard. Yeah,

Kristin 17:59

it's theoretical, instead of what music is, which is something that to be heard.

Laura 18:04

Now, I have to say, I've spoken to people who've studied music at Oxford since then. And apparently it isn't like that at all. And Oxford aren't here to defend themselves, as they say on the radio. It's just one person's experience. But meanwhile, the geology department was so much fun. They spend half their time in the pub,

Kristin 18:21

Laura likes a beer. And a whiskey. Actually, I should say that Laura likes a whiskey.

Laura 18:27

This is something that geologists and brass musicians have in common actually. We like going to the pub, but we would spend every Friday afternoon in the second year and every Friday all day in the third year going out into the Oxfordshire countryside, visiting quarries and looking at rocks in other ways with a pub lunch in the middle. The contrast between the two was was striking. And I did pass the first year exams. That was a bit of a cliffhanger. I did pass the first music but then what really sealed the deal was a friend of mine and I for Christmas vacation, which was very long. It was like four weeks, six weeks long. It was very long vacation. We got Eurail passes and went off through France to Italy and did the length and breadth of Italy. And so Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna, and I thought oh volcanoes are so cool. I want to study geology. So I got back to Oxford. After my vacation, I went to see the senior tutor, and I said, thank you very much for getting me in to study music, but actually, I'm going to study geology after all. And it just confirmed her in her long held belief that Americans were just silly, dilettante.

Kristin 19:42


Laura 19:45

weren't serious about anything.

Kristin 19:47

Okay. You skipped over this part, but this is pretty important. You You casually mentioned Rhodes Scholarship. You were also a very much dare I use the pun groundbreaking rocket braking. When it comes to when it comes to the road scholarship because you were there, on the first year, they accepted women,

Laura 20:07

that was just a lucky accident of timing. The Rhodes Scholarship was set up by sessile Rhodes. And of course, he's a very controversial figure people want to take his statue down. And I sympathise with the reasons he was an imperialist. And also not only was the scholarship only for men, but for the longest time, it was only for white people. And I'm not sure that was written anywhere. But de facto it was the Rhodes Trust has done a lot to rectify that in recent years. There's a Rhodes Mandela organisation in in recent years, they really have gone a long way away to be more inclusive, but to allow women anyway, required an Act of Parliament to change the rules, because this was what was stipulated in Rhodes as well. And that had to be changed. Fortunately, for me, it had just been changed in time. And I applied, and I was lucky enough to win it. And of course, there was a lot of publicity about the first crop of women, when everybody wanted to know what was it like, and

Kristin 21:09

I want to know a bit about what it's like, because one of the things I thought of when you are talking about going well, having an academic kind of family really is so many women I've talked to not too similar in age to you who their families never encouraged them to be academic their families didn't, they said, Oh, they encourage them to have a career it was in nursing or teaching or those traditional female, if you will, inverted commas kind of roles. So I was wondering about that, but more because it sounds like your family was encouraging of you being academic. But what it was like to be amongst this very small group, what was it like 17 women? Was it? Were there interesting pressures or snide comments or anything like that,

Laura 21:49

actually, just as a sidebar on how things have changed. When I was little, we were asked to this was kindergarten or first grade, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I said, I want to be a secretary. Because I want to learn shorthand,

Kristin 22:02

you have a brilliant mind. And you're like, my goal in life is to learn shorthand,

Laura 22:07

the only thing I can think of, and actually this is maybe a positive thing is that my grandfather and grandmother ran their own business. So he was an engineer. And my grandmother helped him with the business. She did the books and type the letters. And she knew shorthand. So maybe it was a sort of I want to be like my grandmother thing. I can't remember. But anyway, no, it was interesting. And or it is interesting how times have changed. Because even though my parents never did anything to make me feel circumscribed society was just like that. There used to be that joke. There's a terrible car crash, and a young man is brought to the hospital, and he's on. He's on the operating table. I can't you you probably remember this joke better than I do. But the surgeon says, I can't operate on this boy, because he's my son. But some were earlier in the joke. You've been told that the son doesn't have a father,

Kristin 23:04

or the father died in the crash or something like that.

Laura 23:06

Yeah, that's right. Yeah, the father died in the crash. And you're supposed to this is a terrible conundrum who How can this be the father died in the crash, blah, blah, blah? And of course, the answer is that the surgeon says, Mother,

Kristin 23:16

I do remember being like, oh, the riddle!

Laura 23:20

right. And to this day, I think when somebody talks about their doctor, or their lawyer, or whatever, maybe less so a scientist, but I think deep down in my brain, my first reaction is my first image that comes up is a man. And then as soon as they say she, okay, my mental image changes immediately, and it isn't a problem. So these things were quite deep. And as far as being the first woman or in a minority, I'd already been studying physics. And at that time, there were I think the number of physics undergraduates was 12%. And then as you went further into the profession, it was going down, that's still a problem. To this day, I remember the American Physical Society sent somebody to the Harvard Physics Department to interview people about what it was like being a woman in the physics department. And I read, I don't know, five or 10 years ago, they did it again, because it's still hard for women in physics, much less so in other branches of science and in biology and medicine, and many other branches of science. Women are equal, if not the majority. So I was already a minority in the physics department. I was already a minority trumpet player. True, but it's interesting because I was interviewed by a reporter from the Boston Globe about what it was like being in this first class of women Rhodes scholar, and I could tell that she was approaching the interview or it seemed to me that she was approaching the interview with a bit of an agenda. And she wanted me to say how discriminated against I had felt all through my life as a woman or as a girl. But the fact is, I hadn't felt discriminated against. I was lucky. I wasn't saying that there weren't other people who hadn't been discriminated against. I wasn't saying that there weren't other people who had been discriminated against. And I was certainly aware that I was standing on the shoulders of generations of women who had fought battles, so that I could be in the position I was in. But I personally could not tell her any stories of how I've been discriminated against, and the headline of her article with something like the smug little girl who never knew discrimination.

Kristin 25:30

I for one, I'm actually really glad to hear that you hadn't felt that because I do feel like there's so many stories that you do hear that it's nice that you could mean judged on your talent and your intelligence and that nobody said don't do it.

Laura 25:43

In a way. Maybe I was oblivious, in the sense that when they when the American Physical Society came and asked, What's it like sitting in the lecture theatre in being one of three women in a lecture theatre full of 100 people or something like that? I said, Oh, this is gonna sound crazy. But I said, I, I hadn't noticed. What I noticed was that I was one of the few people who wasn't wearing glasses. I don't know, maybe I just grew up sex blind or something so far, as far as being the first in the first class of women. I don't know. We were forced together for a while by the publicity photographer from the New York Times would come in want to take photographs of all of us together, but we soon just meld it into the scene. And yeah, I don't think it impinged on me, except that I was very grateful that I had come along at a time when I was able to do it.

Kristin 26:33

I think I read an article that the bracing myths and brussel sprouts kept you in the UK for 19 years. Are you a fan of Brussels sprouts?

Laura 26:42

I do love brussels sprouts. I think even when I was a kid, I liked brussels sprouts. But no, I do love I love Britain. I love all sorts of things about it. I love the absence of guns. That's it. That's a negative thing to like, that's a plus. No, I feel unfortunately a lot of bad things about the US it seems to me get to Britain. But the on the positive side I love the British countryside. It's so as a geology undergraduate, I got out into it a lot. Every every vacation between terms we were out in Scotland or the Lake District or Yorkshire or Wales hitting the rocks. So there's that I have a romantic attachment to the countryside and the bracing mists. Yes, a lot of the time when we were out in the countryside, it was more like horizontal rain or sleet. But there was always a pub afterwards. Yes, exactly. And one of the reasons that I have a certain fondness for whiskey is after a really cold wet day stomping across the Heather in Scotland. There's a warm fire and a wee DRAM at the end of the day. So what could be better?

Kristin 27:47

I think probably very little could be better than that. So I did mention it was 19 years that you were here in first time. What kept you after graduating?

Laura 27:56

So what kept me here?

Kristin 27:58

brussel sprouts, obviously.

Laura 27:59

Yes, it was in part- and this is so cliche- a man.

Kristin 28:04

Oh, I did not know this. My research didn't turn this one up.

Laura 28:08

Yes. And this is so often the case but it which is why I say it's cliche. Yeah, so I had met actually use a trumpet player, a jazz trumpet player. And I had met him while I was still at Cambridge. What we had left out was that after when I finished at Oxford, I decided that actually I quite liked geology and wanted to do a PhD in geology. And so I ended up going to Cambridge, basically, I liked being a student, get my PhD there. But although the typical PhD takes three years, mine ended up taking five, which meant I spent six years at Cambridge, and fortunately I got a research fellowship to fund it and But eventually, all good things must come to an end. And as I was coming towards the end of my PhD, that's when I was asking myself the question, What do I do next, and I had met this man who lived in London. So that sort of weighed in the balance about looking for a job in London. And in a way the natural next step, I had this research fellowship, I could have kept on doing research, or I could have applied for postdocs, but I really didn't want to specialise when I thought about continuing into a research career leading to teaching at a university or whatever, I just thought well, to really get on in research, all but the most special people and really even the special people early in their careers have to specialise. And I didn't want to specialise. And this is where serendipity came into my life.

Kristin 29:33

Next week, we'll continue Laura's story, including how serendipity led her to her next move and what finally brought music to the foreground in her life. Thanks again for listening. The Second Chapter is just getting started. So your subscriptions and five starreviews mean so much. The Second Chapter is brought to you by Slackline Productions, a production company dedicated to redressing the balance of women's stories being told and who's telling them with a specific focus on women 35 plus. For more about Slackline, visit Thanks again!


music, physics, trumpet, oxford, women, people, thought, study, geology, laura, years, science, serendipity, career, playing, oceanography, applied, discriminated, rhodes scholarship, life


Laura, Kristin

63 views0 comments


bottom of page