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From music to medicine: MD/PhD student serves as concertmaster for high-profile charity orchestra in nation’s capital

Robin Su won an international piano competition before he had a driver’s license, has been invited to play at Carnegie Hall, and performed a violin solo at the esteemed Cleveland Orchestra.

But the greatest musical honor of the violinist and aspiring physician’s life came in August when he was selected to be concertmaster for two rare joint performances by the World Doctors Orchestra and the National Institutes of Health Philharmonia in Washington.

Robin Su, fourth-year MD/PhD candidate in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences, performed last month with the World Doctors Orchestra and the National Institutes of Health Philharmonia in Washington.

Su, a fourth-year MD/PhD candidate in The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, wasn’t just sitting first chair — the most important orchestra position after the conductor — he was the only student among the 70 or so doctors and researchers volunteering their time for the charity concerts.

“It is very difficult to be invited to perform with this orchestra,” Su said. “Some of the world’s finest MDs and PhDs were there together.”

Su, 25, is hoping to join their ranks.

As he worked toward a degree in violin performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Su was taking pre-med classes at Case Western Reserve University.

Robin Su posed for a photo with Nancia D’Alimonte, music director of the National Institutes of Health Philharmonia, in Washington.

“I was always interested in music and medicine,” he said. “As I got older and looked at the different possibilities of pursing both, I think that became more realistic.”

Su was one of just three students accepted into UT’s joint MD/PhD Program in fall 2015. His current research is focused on how microcystin, a dangerous toxin produced by algal blooms, might affect individuals with pre-existing conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

He is working to find biomarkers that could help clinicians diagnose microcystin-induced liver damage.

“We’re trying to be at the front end and have preventative measures and diagnostic measures to prevent it from progressing further,” Su said. “Liver disease is a progressive disease from multiple hits, and we think that microcystin definitely plays into that and accelerates that process. We’re trying to prevent that from moving forward.”

As a professional musician, Su would dedicate eight hours a day to practice. That’s been significantly scaled back as he juggles his course load and laboratory work. Even so, Su managed to cram in four hours of practice every night in the weeks prior to the August performances.

Once together in Washington, the group went through three days of grueling eight-hour rehearsals. As concertmaster, Su took on many added responsibilities, including the execution of several solo passages, acting as a liaison between the conductor and orchestra to facilitate musical communication, and serving as a leader of the entire orchestra to ensure musical unity.

That’s no small task when you’re talking about an organization in the World Doctors Orchestra that draws from a rotating cast of more than 1,200 physicians from nearly 50 countries. Combine that with integrating musicians from the NIH Philharmonia, and it’s downright challenging.

“Normal orchestras rehearse throughout the year and we only have three days,” Su said. “I think everyone was very appreciative of my strong leadership of the orchestra, and I think it played a role in bringing everything together very quickly.”

His work won high praise from Sheyna Burt, president of the World Doctors Orchestra USA. There’s a bit of a cliché, Burt said, of a hard-charging physician by day and a dedicated amateur performer by night.

“With Robin it’s different. Whatever his academic prowess might be, he is a genuinely gifted and sensitive artist,” she said. “During the first rehearsal of the World Doctors Orchestra/NIH Philharmonia collaboration, I witnessed his interpretation of the opening violin solo in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Russian Easter Overture’ stop an entire orchestra in its tracks.”

Su, who is about halfway through his dual degree program, eventually wants to actively practice medicine along with conducting academic research.

And he hopes to continue playing violin, encouraged by the world-class doctors and researchers with whom he recently performed.

“It’s definitely inspirational for me, seeing that physicians can still balance their work with their musical passion,” he said.