Tally Hall’s gray-haired, gray-tied drummer took an unconventional route to become a protein engineer.
In May of 2019, right as he was about to graduate with a Ph.D. from Yale University, Ross Federman received an email.
The message had been addressed to Federman’s old band, Tally Hall, which had gone on hiatus eight years before. The fan thanked the indie-pop group for inspiring them and getting them through a dark place in their life, and hoped that the band would someday re-unite, but was happy with how the members were currently doing. However, one statement in particular stuck with Federman.
“They said, ‘Your music made me see something in life that was invisible to me before,’” Federman recalled. “And it was such a touching thing to read, because in that moment I just thought, ‘That’s what I try to do as a biologist.’”
For the last two years, the 37-year-old Michigan native has worked as a protein engineer for a small biotechnology company in Boston called Generate Biomedicines, Inc. It was the first job he took after graduating. The company seeks to understand a lot of the same phenomena that he studied for his immunology Ph.D.; namely amino acid and protein relationships. Though he can’t talk too much about what exactly they do (“as any biotech, we like to protect trade secrets”), they essentially study protein structure and function and use machine learning to create new protein-based therapeutics.
“We’re definitely a healthcare focused company,” Federman said. “We would see our work reflected in better and more affordable medicine and faster turnaround time.”
He considers himself very much a “wet lab person,” preferring to work in the laboratory, conducting experiments and holding test tubes, rather than sit behind a desk. In addition to lab work, his job responsibilities now involve management duties, working with a team of about 10 people.
Working in biotech allows him to combine two of his passions: biology and immunology. Federman was always fascinated by infectious disease. As a child, he was obsessed with ‘Outbreak,’ a film about a deadly virus that wreaks havoc on a California town. Seeing a CDC worker in a hero role was very inspiring; from an early age, he knew he wanted to study medicine. However, that interest wouldn’t return until much later in his life.
Almost two decades ago, Federman’s life was transformed by a different email.
It was his freshman year at the University of Michigan. He was majoring in cell and molecular biology, with plans to go to medical school and eventually become a radiologist. When he wasn’t diligently reading science textbooks, he was playing drums in the university marching band. One night, Federman loaned a set of bongos to a fellow student, Joe Hawley, who was recording music for his band. The two had gone to high school together but had never been particularly close, as they were two years apart.
A year later, Federman received an email from his new friend — the drummer in Hawley’s band had just quit, and Federman was invited to audition. “Currently, you’re at the top of my list,” Hawley had written. “It’s a short list.”
The band, as it stood, was comprised of guitarist/vocalist Joe Hawley, guitarist/vocalist Rob Cantor, bassist/vocalist Zubin Sedghi, and keyboardist Andrew Horowitz. Each wore a differently-colored necktie: Hawley — red, Cantor — yellow, Sedghi — blue, Horowitz — green.
Pursuing music hadn’t been part of Federman’s college plans, but as three of the members were seniors with plans to go to graduate school, he figured the group wouldn’t last more than a year. In 2004, he officially became Tally Hall’s drummer, donning a gray necktie. He figured he’d be a bit busier with extracurriculars than expected as a sophomore; but by junior year, he could start studying for the MCAT and planning seriously for medical school.
He was wrong. Between becoming finalists on mtvU’s “Best Music on Campus” contest, winning a John Lennon Scholarship for the song “Good Day,” and selling out shows at Ann Arbor rock club The Blind Pig, Tally Hall’s fame started growing far faster than any of its five members could have imagined. At 19 years old, Federman made one of the hardest decisions of his young life: leaving college to become a musician.
“To think of myself as a dropout was a very odd thing,” Federman recalled. “I had gone all through high school getting really good grades; same thing in college — sometime around this was when I received my first B.”
It helped knowing that others were putting their plans on hold as well. Sedghi, too, was dropping out in his junior year, and Cantor had even deferred a full scholarship to medical school. As the band embarked on their first tour, for the album Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, any remaining doubts Federman held about leaving college were quickly forgotten. The MCAT study guide he had brought along for the ride was all but thrown out the window.
But six years, two studio albums and national tours, hundreds of live shows, and several music festivals later, it became clear that the band wasn’t going to last. Between significant hurdles with their label and production of their second album, Good & Evil, and conflicts within the band itself, Federman once again found himself looking for other career options.
It was around this time that he began rediscovering his fascination with infectious disease. Between tours, he had sought out science educational materials: books by biologist Stephen Jay Gould, documentaries and TED talks on neuroscience and biology, and research seminars at the Secret Science Club in Brooklyn. As the chorus was drawing to a close on band life, he knew what he needed to do: Go back to Michigan and finish his undergraduate degree.
The six-year gap had given him some time to think about where his scientific passions really lay. Federman returned to university in 2011 to continue studying cell and molecular biology — but it was while taking an immunology course and doing hands-on lab work that his focus began shifting.
“I spent a lot of time doing research as an undergraduate in a cell biology lab,” he recalled. “That’s where I really got my hands dirty at the bench and figured out how to play with test tubes and run assays.”
His graduate school aspirations also resurfaced. He had taken the GRE before the Good & Evil tour and was offered a fellowship from Yale’s graduate program while finishing his bachelor’s. In 2013, after graduating from Michigan with honors, he enrolled in Yale as an immunology Ph.D. student. Becoming a physician had lost its allure — he now found himself drawn towards research, wanting to use data to tackle problems and expand scientific knowledge.
“Ross just dove into the research,” said Erin Heim, a former lab mate of Federman’s at Yale. “He cared about everything going on in the department. He would ask insightful questions and think about things deeply. He’s just a passionate person, and I feel like that comes across in his music, in his science, and everything he does.”
Federman received his Ph.D. in 2019 and moved to Boston for its biotech hub. In September of that year, he joined Generate, solidifying his career switch.
Theories abound about the inextricable connection between science and music — both involve analyzing patterns and theories, following innovation and intuition. Experimentation. Trial and error. Perhaps for this reason, quite a few musicians and scientists have switched between the two fields: Queen guitarist Brian May holds a doctorate in astrophysics, and Tom Scholz from the band Boston is also an engineer, among others.
“Ross thinks a lot, and he likes to talk about everything that he cares about, so I’m not surprised at all that there were multiple careers,” said Heim. “I know he still cares about music deeply, and there will always be some sort of music in his life.”
Music is certainly still part of Federman’s life. Though he doesn’t drum as much these days, he often moonlights as a DJ under the name Mr. F. He believes he became a lot better at making mashups after becoming a biologist.
“I’m quicker to throw out stuff that didn’t work and try something else,” he said. “That’s something you have to do as a scientist. If you just have one idea, and you think that’s the one that’s going to work and … you try to force it, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Creating an album, too, has a lot in common with conducting experiments in a lab. He likes to imagine what it would look like if, while mixing a record, songwriters had to write liner notes with the same level of detail and accuracy as researchers writing an academic paper.
“You can find many examples of musicians that really are scientists at heart,” he said.
That fan email from 2019 has stuck with Federman. Seeing the impact of both sides of his career — making meaningful music, producing accessible medication — has helped him make sense of where he’s at.
“What I’ve been doing in the lab is to try to see things in life that were invisible before, to find a way to better understand what life is,” he said. “There is, somehow, all of a sudden, this more overarching narrative to what I’ve been doing with my life.”
Artwork and article by Caitlin Hsu