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Scientists at The Pasteur Institute in Paris Are Forming Musical Groups

The Pasteur Institute, since opening in the 15th Arrondissement in Paris in the late 1880s, has been recognized for world-altering scientific discoveries. The institute, named for Louis Pasteur, the pioneering French scientist who founded it, has contributed to the production of vaccines for tetanus and the flu and was at the forefront of discovering the virus that causes AIDS.

In recent years, the Pasteur Institute has made advancements in another field — the musical arts — as some of its scientists have formed bands and other acts involving colleagues as well as students who have studied there. That cohort has honed its musical passion and ability at an on-site studio they call the music lab.

On a Friday evening in March, three acts developed in the lab headlined an event held at the institute’s cafeteria. They included Polaris and also Billie and the What?!, both blues-rock bands, and an a cappella group, Les Papillons, or “the butterflies” in English.

Moody purple light bathed the room, which was decorated with balloons and streamers in shades of pink, gold and white. It was filled with more than a hundred people, as well as with an array of equipment, including mics, speakers, guitars and an elaborate drum kit.

The drums belonged to Germano Cecere, a member of Billie and the What?! and a lab director at the Pasteur Institute whose research specializes in mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance. His job involves researching how organisms “don’t get only DNA from our parents, but also other stuff,” he said, using laymen’s terms.

Mr. Cecere, 44, was born in a small village near Naples, Italy. He started playing drums at age 9 and aspired to play professionally. In college and graduate school, he played in bands that toured across Italy. “I wanted to do music but my family said music is for fun — do something else,” he said.

That “something else” was earning a Ph.D. in human biology and genetics at the University of Rome, after which came some postdoctoral work at Columbia University in New York. He joined the Pasteur Institute staff in 2015.

Mr. Cecere has copper-colored hair that he wears pulled back into a low ponytail. He can talk animatedly for hours about topics that excite him, which include epigenetics, jazz and Neapolitan food. He is the kind of person who is good at a lot of things: In 2006, while he was completing his Ph.D., he made a short film called “Borderline” that premiered at a film festival in Rome and received a best cinematography award.

Mr. Cecere said that the Pasteur Institute has attracted many people who could play a guitar riff and explain the complexities of biochemistry with similar ease. Among them: Pedro Hernandez-Cerda, a developmental biologist and bass player who helped convince the institute’s leadership to create the music lab. (Mr. Hernandez-Cerda, who has since left the Pasteur Institute, lobbied for the lab with Camille Baussay, a singer and former human resources lawyer at the institute.)

The lab started as a place where employees who dabbled in music could meet up to jam. But it wasn’t long before those employees were forming musical groups and performing at department retreats and other work events.

Georg Braune, a member of Les Papillons a cappella group, described the lab as a sort of refuge. “You really have a lot of equipment,” said Mr. Braune, a 22-year-old master’s student researching brain development at the Pasteur Institute. “In the middle of the day we can go there, we can play. We can do whatever we want.”

Mr. Cecere said the lab has helped foster a stronger sense of community between the institute’s directors like himself and students or scientists in temporary programs. His band includes two other directors: Gérard Eberl, whose research is in microenvironments and immunity, plays guitar; Javier Pizarro-Cerda, whose research is in systems biology of bacterial infections, plays bass. Two doctoral students, Ana Choi and Alice Billie Libri, perform as vocalists.

Ms. Libri, 27, who is completing a Ph.D. in DNA repair, immunodeficiency and cancer, said the Pasteur Institute facilitated other activities like theater and drawing. “But I think music is the main activity,” she said. “There’s a choir, there are guitar lessons and stuff. It’s really nice.”

About halfway through the March event at the cafeteria, which was held to mark the 21st anniversary of a social committee at the institute, someone started handing out glow sticks. The crowd was grooving to covers performed by Billie and the What?! of songs like “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and “Smooth” by Santana as members of Les Papillons, who were costumed in butterfly wings, led a dance circle.

Pizzas and a towering cake made of doughnuts were served, along with beer and, of course, Champagne.

Before Billie and the What?! performed, Ms. Libri, who goes by Billie and whose name inspired that of the band, said that music is a way for her to escape when she’s “disappointed with science.”

And then, she added, “I can always go back to science when I’m disappointed with music.”

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