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Moonlight Sonata for Scientists

The piano in Ray R. Irani Hall provides molecular and computational biology students and faculty a welcome break from lab work.

Ronda Bransteitter, a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology in USC Dornsife, enjoys playing the piano located in the Ray R. Irani Hall interaction lounge. The upright was a gift from  Patrick and Cindy Haden in 2005. Photo by Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody.
Ronda Bransteitter, a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology in USC Dornsife, enjoys playing the piano located in the Ray R. Irani Hall interaction lounge. The upright was a gift from Patrick and Cindy Haden in 2005. Photo by Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody.

When classes let out for the day and buildings around USC campus close for the night, piano tunes from Bach to Coldplay echo through the hallways at Ray R. Irani Hall.

The soft sound of fingers dancing across piano keys is a reminder that scientific experiments do not adhere to normal business hours.

“We practically live in this building,” said Ronda Bransteitter, a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology in USC Dornsife, referring to sometimes working around the clock or ending her days at 2 or 3 a.m.

The long hours send many students and faculty in search of a calming activity. Bransteitter said playing the piano located in the “interaction lounge” on the second floor or listening to the music offers a soothing respite.

“The piano is so relaxing,” she said.

An off-the-cuff comment Bransteitter made in 2005 during the dedication of the 118,000-square-foot Irani Hall, formerly known as the Molecular and Computational Biology Building, resulted in funding for the piano.

Bransteitter was asked to speak on behalf of graduate students during a dinner celebrating the new building, which was dedicated in honor of USC Trustee and alumnus Ray R. Irani, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from USC Dornsife (then called USC College) in 1957. When she offered guests a glimpse into the daily life of biology students, she mentioned how students would take breaks from experiments almost nightly to play music.

“What I tried to explain was that these experiments go a long time and sometimes it’s nice to have a room where we can eat, relax and play the piano if we have one,” said Bransteitter. “It was an impromptu remark.”

The comment resonated with then-USC President Steven B. Sample who moments after Bransteitter’s speech approached University Professor Michael Waterman, the USC Associates Chair in natural sciences and professor of biological sciences, computer science and mathematics.

“If you want a piano I will get up there and get you one but I want to be sure that you want one,” Waterman recalled Sample saying during the dinner celebration.

Aware of the long hours spent in the lab poring over data, awaiting new discoveries and running experiments, faculty at the celebration gave the idea a thumbs-up. With a nod from Waterman and Steven Finkel, associate professor of biological sciences, Sample approached the podium and asked the attendees to help bring a piano to the building.

“This was fundraising in real-time,” Waterman said.

“It was completely spontaneous,” Finkel added. “Hands starting going up.”

The big tent set up in the parking lot burst into activity with guests spouting off questions. What kind of piano? An upright, came the answer. Was there a prize for the highest donor? Breakfast with Sample or then-USC Trojans football head coach Pete Carroll became the prize. 

By the end of the night Patrick Haden, then a USC trustee and member of the USC Dornsife board of councilors and now USC’s athletic director, with wife Cindy Haden outbid the crowd.

Later that year, the piano was moved into the new four-story facility adorned with a plaque reading “A gift from Patrick and Cindy Haden to foster the creativity of USC College Life Science, faculty and students; April 26, 2005.”

Now, at all hours of the day and night, students — computational biologists, experimental biologists, molecular biologists and biochemists — from all playing levels find their way to the piano.

The music is diverse. Coldplay’s “Clocks,” the theme song to Super Mario Brothers, Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” are a few of the pieces sometimes heard.

“It’s nice to step out and hear a little piano music,” Waterman said.

Finkel is among many faculty members who head to the lounge for a little playing time. But only the night owls will catch his musical abilities.

Varuzhan Balasanyan, a doctoral student in molecular biology, has no reservations playing in front of his cohorts. He practices his craft at least an hour a day between classes and lab work.

The piano’s availability was one of the many perks that helped Balasanyan decide to attend USC. As a former lab assistant at UCLA, he remembers what a hassle it was to schedule playing time in practice rooms situated on the other side of campus.

“I thought, ‘How amazing to have a lab on the same floor as a room with a piano,’ ” Balasanyan said. “You can relax your brain before you go back to the lab.”

Gone are the days of trekking to USC practice rooms across campus. Researchers have their own musical haven on Irani Hall’s second floor.