Thomas Michel

Thomas Michel, MD, PhD, wears many hats. At the Brigham, he is a senior physician in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, leading an active basic research group and practicing clinical cardiology. But he also answers to more arcane titles: Cardiology Editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), Musical Impresario of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, and Maestro of the Boston Squeezebox Ensemble – a group of musicians who, like Michel, play the accordion.

Michel is also a professor of medicine (biochemistry) at Harvard Medical School, co-director of the Leder Human Biology Program at HMS, and a member of the Leadership Council of the Harvard/Massachusetts Institute of Technology MD-PhD Program.

BWH Clinical & Research News recently caught up with Michel to find out more about his commitment to science activism, to chat about the Ig Nobel Prizes, and to listen to him play the accordion.

What are the Ig Nobel Prizes?

TM: The Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is a wonderful celebration of science in a broader context –  featuring “discoveries that make you laugh, and then make you think.” The prizes are for research that is genuinely funny and deeply thought-provoking. For example, the physics prize last year went to a physicist from France who used fluid dynamics to probe the age-old question: Can a cat be both a solid and a liquid? This year’s Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine went to two doctors who published a paper showing that riding a roller coaster can hasten the passage of kidney stones. These awards are not just funny – they also help to demystify science and humanize scientists.

The Ig Nobel prize ceremony is held annually at Harvard University and the event is open to the public. People come from around the globe to accept their prizes, which are presented by Nobel Laureates and scientists around the world.

How did you become interested in the Ig Nobels?

TM: There’s a magazine for humorous scientific research called the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). I have been a fan of the magazine for a long time. When I was a junior attending physician, I submitted a tongue-in-cheek spoof called Politically Correct Cardiology. For example, my article observed that we want to avoid use of the politically incorrect term “failure,” so instead of saying that our patients have “heart failure,” we say that they are “inotropically (or lusotropically) challenged.” We don’t want to say that patient has “mitral insufficiency” – again, that’s a value judgment. We say instead that they are “retrograde mitral flow-enabled.” Same deal for “multi-system organ failure”; we should say that these patients are “metabolically challenged” instead. Much more PC!

So when I wrote this piece in 1993, Marc Abrahams, the editor and founder of AIR, wrote back to me immediately, offered to publish it, and asked if I would like to become involved with the journal; eventually, I became part of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I also became the cardiology editor of AIR and I’ve been involved with the Ig Nobels for more than a decade, and I now have the challenging task of helping Marc Abrahams select the individuals who are awarded Ig Nobel Prizes. 

And you also play the accordion?

TM: I’m a multi-instrumentalist, and music has always been a large part of my life. The accordion is great because you can be a one-person band; I’ve focused on the accordion for last several years, teaching myself how to play. I have a broad range of musical affinities –from opera to klezmer to Italian restaurant music – all of which are perfectly suited to the accordion. But the accordion is an instrument that gets very little respect (for unclear reasons).

What is your favorite accordion joke?  

TM: Well, there are lots of great accordion jokes – so you shouldn’t get me started. But my favorite accordion joke is:

Q: “What is the definition of a true gentleman?”

A: “A true gentleman is someone that knows how to play the accordion……but doesn’t!”

Can you tell us more about your involvement with science activism?

TM: This is a very difficult time for science in this country. One of the things that has become clear to many scientists – an awareness that’s in part a response to our current political environment – is that scientists can no longer afford to remain isolated within the world of science. Scientists need to be active members of the greater community and communicate the importance of scientific discovery to the broader population. Demystifying science and humanizing the public perception of science is key. I myself have only come to this realization recently.

In what other ways have you been working to bring science to the public?

TM: I was involved in the original Boston March for Science and have helped organize other events that have taken place here in the Longwood Medical Area and elsewhere in the city. I even wrote the lyrics for an anthem for the March for Science, which I titled “Stand Up for Science.”

As the son of an illegal immigrant (my mother escaped from the Holocaust in Austria in 1941 and somehow made her way to the U.S.) and the grandson of legal immigrants on my father’s side, I feel a commitment to affirm the importance of sharing science across international boundaries. For my frequent engagement in protest marches, I purchased a bright red ‘protest’ accordion named “Rosie” that I bring to events such as the March for Science and the March for our Lives, so I can play as we march from the Longwood Medical Area to the Boston Common. Rosie, my new accordion, is named after Rosie the Riveter, Rosalind Franklin, Rosa Luxemburg and Rosa Parks: four amazing ‘Rosies’ that have inspired change.

Most of all, I have been inspired by our young trainees and students at the Brigham and throughout Boston – these young men and woman are united in their efforts to protect our most vulnerable citizens and to affirm the importance of scientific discourse and accessible health care.

Listen to the crowd sing “Stand Up for Science” at the March for Science