A Triton’s life in punk rock and molecular biology.
The way he explains it, you might think Milo Aukerman ’86, PhD ’92, has a chronic condition, one he’s had to manage nearly his entire life: “Sometimes I just have this urge,” he says. “I just need to rock.”
Rock he does, and has, from the Che Café and The Pub on campus to concert stages worldwide. He’s done so for decades, all the while earning dual degrees at UC San Diego, doing postdocs around the country and embracing a career in molecular biology. And while punk rock stardom and scientific research may seem like polar opposites, for Aukerman, they’re simply two sides of the same coin.
“All my life, I’ve just wanted to do things that are exciting and stimulating,” he says. “Punk and science were what did it for me.”
Both interests took hold of Aukerman in high school, where the self-described “nerd” was equally as obsessed with DNA as he was with bands in his hometown of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and nearby L.A. Eventually he’d join the Descendents, a band started by his classmates. “I was just a fan at first, hanging around their practices,” he says. “But I thought I could try singing; I was pretty shy back then and thought it might help me overcome that.”
The fan-turned-frontman soon belted out blistering songs full of either teenage angst or more fatuous topics like fast food and fishing. The Descendents soon gained a following, owing to intense musical precision behind the frenzy and exceptionally sincere lyrics that spoke to those who felt perpetually on the outside. This mixture is the essence of what is considered the band’s breakthrough album, intended to be Aukerman’s swan song as he left for UC San Diego and thus titled Milo Goes to College.
21:47 – Milo hears the album for the first time freshman year.
Aukerman did focus on school in La Jolla, notably breezing through O-Chem, running cross country and resuming his place as a mere fan of campus bands. The Descendents went on hiatus until drummer Bill Stevenson mentioned he had new material and Aukerman felt the first of those chronic calls to rock. Throughout his undergrad years, on weekends, summers and the occasional quarter off, Aukerman would play shows, tour the country and eventually record three more albums with the Descendents, each growing in musicianship and honing a signature sound: a blend of punk fury and pop catchiness, with a strong sense of melody and occasional harmonies that were reminiscent of the Beach Boys.
While that sound would later influence much of modern rock music, back then, it stayed firmly in the underground scene, where even a successful band still toured in a run-down cargo van, crashed on floors and altogether scraped by. “I just couldn’t see doing that as a career,” says Aukerman. “And the more it felt like a career, the less I enjoyed it. I had my degree in biology by then, and at the time, that seemed to have more of a future in it.”
With sights set on a PhD, Aukerman split from the band, and they moved on with a new singer and name, ALL, an homage to their ethos of utter ambition. Aukerman rotated through various bio labs, landing with then-new professor Bob Schmidt, studying the developmental biology of corn. And though it may seem like punk rock and the study of corn couldn’t be further apart, Aukerman is quick to see the connection: “They’re both the road less travelled, in a way. The majority of institutional genetic research is medical, but plant science is off the beaten path and can attract interesting personalities because it’s not really the mainstream.”
Though he sang for a bit in the campus band Milestone, Aukerman mostly devoted himself to science during graduate school. He also met fellow Triton Robin Andreasen ’91, and the two would later marry while in Wisconsin, where Andreasen did graduate work in philosophy and Aukerman had a postdoc doing plant genetics. Suburban home and all, it would appear as if he had shifted gears for good.
But about this time in the early ’90s, mainstream music saw a sea change in the likes of Nirvana, Green Day, Foo Fighters and, later, San Diego’s blink-182. Bands like these brought the melodic punk sound to the masses and often trace their influence directly to the Descendents. In the 2013 documentary Filmage, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl recounts, “The Descendents were a positive influence on generations of musicians. Those lessons that we learned from them back then were important.”
And as it happens, by the mid-’90s Aukerman was writing songs again, albeit expressing a new angst coming from his work. “Research can be frustrating,” he says. “Every scientist has periods where just nothing works. And as a postdoc headed to the job market, you feel like you have to be a superstar—just a fabulous, productive researcher. I was feeling downtrodden at the time, and that was definitely fodder for some songs.”
Short of scientific stardom, Aukerman and the Descendents cut a new album and returned to the stage with bona fide rockstar status, as the radio had primed listeners for the sound they pioneered. They spent a year playing to crowds of thousands and doing festivals around the world. And thereafter, just like at UC San Diego, Aukerman resumed a sort of double life, writing songs and playing occasional shows in between long stretches in the lab. Andreasen became a professor at the University of Delaware, and Aukerman spent 15 years at Dupont, doing agricultural biotech research into microRNAs before finally focusing on music full-time. “I got laid off at DuPont during a downsizing, which surprised me because I never would have thought music would be the more stable thing in the end.”
The Descendents have since found the right cadence, he says—a handful of shows here and there rather than long, draining tours. Now living in different cities, the band has also perfected collaborating remotely, even though Aukerman has practiced that ever since going to college.
“Thinking back on it, UCSD facilitated most of the important moments of my adult life,” Aukerman says. “I met my wife, I was able to stay connected with my band, and I even took a music minor and did some really unconventional work in those classes. That mix of rigorous science and an experimental, open-ended perspective—it’s a place where things are done a little differently. And really, it was just the perfect place for someone like me.”