Scott Fruhan: From Multiple Sclerosis to Med School--And Music
A 1999 Intel finalist works toward a career in medicine—but don't count out his Boston-inspired rock band
His finalist year: 1999
His finalist project: Studying cells that attack the nervous system in multiple sclerosis
What led to the project: Scott Fruhan was always fascinated by how the parts of living things worked. As an eight-year-old growing up in Newton, Mass., he used to carry around a wooden briefcase with the inscription "Scott Fruhan, entomologist". What else would you write on a briefcase full of dead bugs?
In high school, Fruhan pestered a friend's father who ran an immunology lab focused on studying multiple sclerosis (MS) at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) to let him volunteer there. He started out pipetting blood samples.
After awhile, though, he was allowed to participate in actual studies. The lab was looking at certain molecules on T cells—a type of immune system cell—that calm the body's immune response. Whereas normally an immune response is desirable, in patients with an autoimmune disease like MS, T cells can attack the body's own nervous system, causing it to function less efficiently.
MS patients, they learned, appeared to have fewer of the T cell molecules that down-regulate the immune response, which may contribute to the out-of-control immune system attacks that characterize this debilitating disease. Fruhan entered his part of the project in the 1999 Intel Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Fruhan went to Harvard University to study biological anthropology. He graduated in 2003 and spent the next year earning a master's degree in social and developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge in England.
Although he enjoyed his time abroad, he decided that going further in a theoretical academic program wasn't for him, and he returned home to Massachusetts as soon as he finished. He went back to work at the immunology lab at BWH, took pre-med classes at area colleges, and applied to medical school.
What he's doing now: These days, Fruhan is a third-year medical student at Columbia University's medical school. He plans to do a residency afterward and practice medicine—unless, that is, he lands a major record deal for his band, Heath Street.
Not long after Fruhan began walking around with his briefcase full of bugs, he also began playing the guitar and piano as well as writing songs. During his second go-around in Boston, he wrote (and later recorded) an album called Heath Street, named for a Boston T (transit) stop. One of his favorite tracks, "Yellow Shoes," tries to capture a sense of nostalgia, changing love, and the way city neighborhoods can take on emotions of their own: "It's funny how I picture telling everything to you/even as you're standing in your faded yellow shoes/when I'm quiet in my head/I will love again."
These days, Fruhan plays gigs in New York City every few weeks. Although Heath Street's music is pretty laid-back, the visuals on stage are more interesting than those of the average acoustic band. Fruhan writes some of his pieces on the guitar and others on the piano—and to perform, "I pretty much have to be playing the instrument I wrote the song on," he says. This forces his band members to rotate between instruments, as well, meaning, "We all play every instrument at least once," he says. "But this works much better than you think because they're wonderful musicians."
One of those musicians, bassist Nick Donin, a fellow medical student, has equally high praise for Fruhan's songs. "Because Scott is very well-read and has a genuine interest in writing as well as songwriting, the words really are beautiful[ly] written pieces that tell stories and conjure up images of real life," he says. "It never strikes me as being about a fantasyland."
This realism also sometimes comes into play in the messy world of live music. "I remember one time Scott was performing, and at one point he forgot the words to a verse—and almost instantly, and perfectly in time, he said into the mic, 'Note: learn words to own songs,' and everyone in the crowd started laughing," Donin says. "I think that really showed Scott's great sense of humor, which relies heavily on self-deprecation, as well as his timing."