The Secret Lives Of Martinos Folk: Radio, Nerds, and Where Punk and Science Meet

Gary Boas

When you hear the words “MIT radio station” you might imagine a group of nervous, bow tie-clad engineers crowded around a chalkboard with a Venn diagram of Roger Dean album covers and Silmarillion references. And you might be forgiven if you did. Such stereotypes of science and engineering students are, of course, deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious.

“Here’s my favorite MIT joke,” says Keri Garel, a research coordinator in the TRANSCEND Research Group in the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Boston: “How do you tell an extrovert at MIT?”

Give up?

“They’re the one looking at other people’s shoes.”

It’s a good one. But as Garel will tell you, it doesn’t hold up. Far from the socially awkward, even maladjusted nerds you’ll see on TV and in movies, MIT students are a vibrant bunch with far-ranging interests, who are, she says, “super gung ho about whatever it is they’re doing.”

Especially at the radio station.

Garel would know. She joined the station – the freeform WMBR – nine years ago when she was a first-year student at MIT and is still on the air today as a community member. In this time she has seen unchecked enthusiasm for all kinds of music, from indie rock to bubblegum pop, from American folk to Ghanaian highlife, and developed a close bond with her fellow DJs and other station staff thanks to a shared passion for what they do.

Her show – DJ Awesome + The Wonderfriends (Tuesdays at 6PM on WMBR 88.1 FM) – is heavy on punk rock and new wave from the ‘70s and ‘80s, intercut with bands that either influenced or were influenced by those from that era. If you tune in you’ll hear the likes of Sonic Youth, The Feelies and Psychedelic Furs, with the odd David Bowie or Bjork track tossed into the mix.

She’s too young to have followed these artists when they first hit the scene. But if she wants to learn more about a particular group or record, she knows she can go to any number of slightly less fresh-faced folk around the station – graying academic research types among others – who can regale her with stories of years past and add to her increasingly encyclopedic knowledge of the punk rock era.

Indeed, she says, the intersection of punk and science is a busy one. WMBR has a number of punk shows on the air, including the longest-running one in the US: “The Late Risers Club.” And as it happens, quite a few members of ‘80s hardcore bands went on to get degrees in the sciences (see, for example, The Descendents, whose 1982 album Milo Goes to College references singer Milo Aukerman’s decision to leave the band to study biology at the University of California, San Diego).

This isn’t a coincidence. There appears to be a kind of shared ethos between punk and the sciences. “In both,” she says, “you have people looking for answers to questions that haven’t been asked.”

On any given evening there’s a good chance you’ll find Garel at WMBR – on the air; preparing for the show by poring through the station’s library of a quarter of a million CDs and records; logging volunteer hours by entering new releases into the station database or acting as engineer for new DJs, helping them to do a show successfully “without burning the place down” (this has proved a good model for WMBR; members are required to do one hour of volunteer work for every hour of air time assigned to them).

She professes to an unabashed love for the place. Sometimes when she’s there, she says, “there are moments when I realize I’m absolutely in my element, that where I am is where I need to be.”

Bringing it all back home

WMBR isn’t the only place she feels she’s where she belongs.

The TRANSCEND Research Group at the Martinos Center is working to elucidate the neurological bases of autism spectrum disorders. Garel is part of the scan team for MRI and MEG measurements. As a research coordinator, she also spends much of her time recruiting families for the studies and performing cognitive testing on children and teenagers.

“The kids participating in our studies visit multiple times,” she says, “and they’re often nervous about doing things they aren’t familiar with – especially when it comes to scanning.” For this reason, she spends a good amount of time talking about the science that drives the studies, making the work as accessible as possible to the subjects, and helping them to feel welcomed and comfortable in what can be a scary environment for them. “This is challenging, but exciting,” she adds, “and it’s why I keep doing it.”

Such talk of inclusiveness, of making people feel welcomed, whoever they are, brings her back to the radio station and the music she plays when she’s on the air. “That’s kind of what I love about punk rock,” she says, getting to the core of the style and the subculture that’s built up around it. “Its essence is making rock music accessible to those who want their voices to be a part of it.”

– Gary Boas