In the middle of 2020, Texarkana native, "The Voice" veteran and singer-songwriter Stephanie Rice took to social media to discuss how her plans in life were undergoing subtle changes.
This was July and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic's grip on the country. And the unfolding events inspired her to get back to another passion of hers, that of science and medicine.
At the invite of the University of Southern California, she explained, she was able to begin managing research projects related to "the global, clinical and therapeutic trials for COVID-19," she wrote.
She also wrote that working in a lab offers her plenty of inspiration.
To that end, the Gazette decided to check in with Rice about her work, her life, her music and her perspective now that she's several months into these projects.
Here's what Rice had to say in an email interview:
Q: You have been a person and a performer who wears her heart on her sleeve and maintains honesty about your feelings. What was the emotional pull to get back to science? In the same vein, what is the analytical pull that keeps you intrigued with this part of your mind? What about the COVID pandemic called you to take action?
A: "I think maybe I could better answer the question by answering what was the emotional pull that pulled me away from science in the first place. I've always had a love for observing the natural world around me, so perhaps, then, it was natural for me to choose a major in biology. Most people who choose biology as a degree do so as a prerequisite for med-school. I picked it because it literally meant the study of life.
Parallel to my curiosity regarding the mechanisms by which life generates and maintains itself, also ran the desire of wanting to ease the burden of life in the form of physically helping people. And in the more metaphysical sense — I've always wanted to do something that was outside of myself, bigger than myself — and whose actions could be summed up and be added to the side of the scale that measures the alleviation of pain. My last year in college I knew I wanted to do research as a living, and I knew I wanted it to be in the medical field — where my efforts felt and could be directly applicable to physically helping human beings.
This passion has never ceased to exist. It just so happens that I have another passion for singing and writing my own music. But the key distinction here is that my passion for music was born out of the longing to alleviate pain, yes, but just of my own. But as I began performing live, I saw that the healing my songs brought me (just maybe not so much in the physical sense) was also felt by others. And if you know my story, you know that those open mic nights turned into forming a band, releasing an album, and then landing a spot on "The Voice."
And now — here is the answer as to why I left science to begin with. My two passions always ebbed and flowed with each other, but then when music started doing most of the flowing, inevitably the science did more of the ebbing. "The Voice" was an exciting time for me, and a unique one in that I had never focused my mental energies on only one thing. I had always, in the past, been split in two. I "left" science — but the passion to create something out of nothing, and for that something to mean not nothing, never went away.
I think, though, that when I left, I left a piece of my heart AND mind behind. While grateful for the opportunity to focus on just music, I lost a bit of my identity that was so strongly tethered to what I felt was my life's purpose. I want to help people — but in the physical sense is how it all started for me. I equally love being at the lab bench discovering a novel mechanism that could be used to help cure an illness as much as I do receiving a message that one of my songs helped get someone through a hard time. In both moments, I feel a part of something bigger than myself, and as RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) once said, 'If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair the tears in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you.'
"And when a pandemic hits — you have to look within — re-prioritize and ask yourself some hard questions. For me, the pandemic posed something more acute than music: a pain that cannot be cured with melodies and lyrics. I felt the pull to be on the front lines of life vs. death, where the best form of pain alleviation is when it's avoided altogether. Where victory is claimed only when one does not NEED a song or poem to get them through missing a loved one.
At the end of the day, the goal, the ultimate goal in life, is being able to hold onto our loved ones for as long as possible before all we have to hold onto are memories. And that's what I wanted to be a part of.
So, I guess then, for me — there was really no choice to make regarding whether or not I would jump back into the ebbing and flowing tide of music and science. The answer was clear, and it's my honor to play a role in aiding in the global, clinical trials for COVID-19."
Q: You wrote on social media that you were asked to join the USC lab to work on COVID research projects. What can you say about the nature of the work when it started, how it has progressed and where it stands now several months into your work? And several months into the pandemic, for that matter.
A: "I can broadly say that my lab is a part of aiding in the global, clinical and therapeutic trials for COVID-19."
Q: What have you learned about COVID in your studies? About the virus itself, as well as how it impacts people and how it's being faced by the scientific and medical community.
A: "What I can say about this — is that it's been really inspiring to see so many scientists come together, striving towards a common good with transparent data, and putting competition to the side. Not that this doesn't happen when there isn't a pandemic, but all efforts were/are prioritized to this one virus — and when you have a mass focus like that — it's just a matter of time before the impact makes its mark."
Q: How has the pandemic experience, personally and professionally, changed your thinking? Have you been impacted personally?
A: "Professionally, I feel just like that old saying, 'the more you know the less you know.' The human body is exquisite. Nature is exquisite. The evolution of viruses themselves is a testament to how nature bends its will towards survival. Without a host, the virus cannot survive. And it wants to live. If we remove the host, (us) poof — there goes the virus.
Personally, I have not been affected and have been very blessed in that area. I know (it was) a very devastating year for so many people. In response to that devastation, and in efforts to avoid that devastation, so, so many scientists and health care workers have been fighting so hard.
My thoughts and love go to everyone that has lost someone. It's truly a tragedy."
Q: Where does music fit into your plans now? Are you still able to write music, perform and stay motivated with music? Does music mean something different now than it did before, given the mental and emotional trials we've faced with COVID?
A: "I am making more music now than I was ever before. My intentions were to keep up my writing when I joined the lab because without it, I am not whole. However, writing and good quality writing are not always the same thing. And, you can plan to write — but you can't always plan for the muse to visit.
I have realized now, from my time being back in the lab, that activating the scientific side of my brain extends a strong invitation to the muse. It's not an exaggeration that I walk through the door of my house and sometimes walk straight to the piano and hit record. There's generally a melody brewing inside of me while I collect data and perform experiments. It's a very odd sensation, yet, it feels like home.
Also — I am not only writing more music; I'm recording more music. Due to the need for social (physical) distancing — it pushed me to start self-producing, and then that pushed me to want to make high quality recordings, and that inevitably led to me building my own home studio! I just completed the studio to where it's in shape to record — and now I am honing in on the art and skill of engineering.
That's another thing that has changed me in being back at the lab: an attempt at a foreign skill-set scares me less, and I've become more ambitious on the technical side of music. I figured — If I can isolate RNA — I can figure out a good vocal chain.
Music has, and I think always will, mean the same thing for me. I began writing songs to soothe my own pain, and as long as I am human, I cannot escape that reality. I will be a writer — not necessarily until the day I die — but until I can no longer feel."
Q: Lastly, what lessons have you learned through this experience, and perhaps what lessons would you hope the country learns through facing COVID-19?
A: "We will never beat death. But we can prolong our lives by making responsible decisions if we are so blessed to inhabit a healthy body.
And in that prolonging, the only memories worth making are the kind that you can only find when you are present in the moment, and present in your body. Life is a gift. If you are breathing, be present, make those memories, and be cognizant of the impact you're making on the world and on others around you.
Make sure the actions we take in the world leave 'a mark,' and not a wound."