The Road Taken—Student Discovers the Paths to His Dreams Converge in Arts and Sciences
He blends into the crowd of college students as he walks to class wearing Oakley sunglasses, carrying a Starbucks coffee, and listening to his iPod. But if you followed him closely, you might be surprised to discover he is singing along to “Good Morning Baltimore” from the musical Hairspray; he is on his way to a biochemistry lab to conduct research on beta cells; and the cell phone case attached to his belt is actually holding an insulin pump.
For a student juggling a biochemistry major, a theatre minor, and the effects of a dysfunctional pancreas, life is nothing short of complex for Andy Rogers, but he enthusiastically and effervescently takes it all in stride. And now, through a one-of-a-kind independent project spanning the boundaries of art and science, music and medicine, and education and entertainment, he has found a way to use his multifaceted reality to inspire others not to let obstacles—even disease—stand in the way of realizing a dream.
At age 15, Rogers was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes. For an outgoing teenager involved in athletic, academic, and social organizations, this news would most likely be unsettling; but for Rogers, diabetes was no unchartered territory. His older sister had been diagnosed about seven years prior to him.
“At first I was actually kind of excited when I got diagnosed because I wanted to be there for my sister,” says Rogers. “But a couple of weeks later the realization hit me that this isn’t going to go away.” Rogers soon realized the disease would create many hurdles in his life, but he decided to not let the disease become an excuse for not reaching his goals.
Upon graduating from Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Tennessee, Rogers had a longing to explore what else the world had to offer. He considered other colleges and universities and even visited New York City, but ultimately he decided to stay in his home state and enroll at UT Knoxville.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but UT was the best thing that could have happened for me,” says Rogers, who is now a fourth-year senior. “I have never before been stretched as much as I have been here.” But as he experienced, in order to be stretched, he had to put his limits to the test.
“Two roads diverged…, and sorry I could not travel both…”
Having a father who is a doctor and a mother who is a singer and songwriter, Rogers naturally took a liking to both musical theatre and medicine. So, in college, he decided to major in biochemistry and minor in theatre. Despite the balance he thought he had achieved, his two seemingly unrelated passions began to create an internal struggle within him during his sophomore year at UTK.
“It was almost as if my two pursuits were competing against each other for my undivided attention, and I felt that I had to choose between them,” Rogers said. But he would not realize until later that he could reasonably do both.
Rogers succumbed to the indecision and tension and decided to drop out of school for a while to sort things out. Shortly after, he was presented the opportunity to tour the globe with the community service and performing arts group Up With People. In this experience, he witnessed how education and entertainment could go hand and hand.
After six months of performing, Rogers returned home to find another opportunity knocking. A friend of a friend was looking for a roommate in New York City, and Rogers jumped at the chance to take up an acting career in the place where he first fell in love with it. But his dream did not turn out quite as he expected.
“I was absolutely miserable,” says Rogers. “I was ill prepared emotionally, physically, intellectually, and artistically for a venue like New York City, and it really kind of broke me.” Still, Rogers believes divine intervention was at play in the experience that taught him a life-changing lesson.
“I thought that in order to achieve a certain level of success in the acting world, I had to be in the big hubs like L.A. and New York City, but I had been blinded by my own ambitions and expectations,” said Rogers. “I realized that I don’t necessarily have to live in a big city to be a great actor. I could use my talents in any community and perform in great professional theatres such as the Clarence Brown.”
After confronting this reality, Rogers returned to Tennessee to take care of unfinished business. With the encouragement of family and friends, he picked up where he left off in school, taking biochemistry classes during the day and training for shows at the Clarence Brown Theatre at night. During this time, an idea began germinating in Rogers’ mind for an unusual project that would create harmony between his two beats.
“And be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one…to where it bent in the undergrowth…”
In the spring of 2010, Rogers began considering an independent study after finding inspiration in a friend who thoroughly enjoyed working in a biochemistry lab. Rogers knew he wanted to research diabetes, but if he was going to do an independent project, he wanted to make it both meaningful and exciting.
In the meantime, Rogers was performing in the musical Man of La Mancha when the thought came to him that it would be fun to write a musical. Rogers jokingly asked his friends backstage, “How cool would it be to write a musical about diabetes?” They enthusiastically chimed in and suggested silly song titles with puns such as, “Pump it!”
But what started out as a joke actually stuck with Rogers. During breaks from rehearsing, he came up with different characters to portray different aspects of the disease. “I knew I was stretching the limits of art and science, but at the same time, it all made sense,” said Rogers. “The purpose of a musical is to entertain, and sometimes, to entertain, you have to take people to a place they have never been before.”
When Rogers realized he could combine his scientific research findings with the fantasies of musical theatre to educate the public on the realities of diabetes, he contacted his advisor Dr. Beth Mullin to see if it would qualify as an independent project. Mullin passed Rogers’s idea along for approval to Dr. Cynthia Peterson, the department head of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology.
“Our department is very engaged in undergraduate research, and out of the 600-plus students who have worked in a BCMB lab, I have never had a student approach me with this kind of project before,” says Peterson. “But I was all the more excited about it because it blended science with a creative and educational outreach opportunity.”
As soon as his project was approved, Rogers dived headlong into countless hours of research, songwriting, and composing. A few months later, the musical reflection of his research paper had a name: Andy and the Beats. Rogers intended the musical not only to educate the public on the daily struggle, lifelong fight, and long-term consequences of a serious disease but also to give a sense of shared community and hope to juvenile diabetics.
“I wanted to give families an opportunity to share laughter, pain, struggle, triumph, and hope—all in one musical that has the ultimate potential to spark the community to advocate for intense research for the juvenile diabetic cure,” says Rogers. And his expectations were soon met.
“And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black…”
The time finally came for Rogers to star in his own production and share his talent with the community. In the musical, Rogers plays a seemingly healthy 12-year-old boy named Andy, who learns he has diabetes after his pancreas falls prey to a virus. His future is manageable, but he feels trapped inside his own body and all alone. Andy decides to research all he can about the Type 1 diabetes and strives for a cure. He has almost given up all hope when he discovers other children who are in the fight, too, and together they decide to move forward, take one step at a time, and beat the dia’BEATS.
Many characters in the show were Rogers’s friends and classmates who volunteered their time to help, but the best promoters of the show were the 14 children who actually have Type 1 diabetes in real life.
“The kids in this musical are the real stars of the show because their presence helps the audience grasp the reality of the disease,” says Rogers. “For me, the biggest problem in having diabetes is other people’s misconceptions of it; but juvenile diabetes is nothing to be ashamed of, and kids need to know they don’t have to hide it.”
The musical gave juvenile diabetics a healthy outlet to tell the community how they feel. In the finale, the children come out on stage wearing their red tennis shoes, symbolizing their Walk to Cure Diabetes as part of Juvenile Diabetic Research Foundation’s annual fundraiser. In the last song, they leave the audience with the basic message of the production: Finding a cure for diabetes is not a sprint or a run in circles, but a walk in which everyone can be involved.
“I shall be telling this…somewhere ages and ages hence…”
All four performances of the musical (Feb. 18–20) were packed, and a total of $1,800 in donations was given to the Juvenile Diabetic Research Foundation. “The success of this musical was bigger and better than I could have ever imagined,” says Rogers. “I’m just blown away, and now I can confidently say that hard work really does pay off.”
Rogers says this independent project has pushed him in a way that no other class has, and he attributes his success to having both art and science as the foundation of his education.
“Before conducting this independent study, I thought that art and science were at odds because art transcends logic and reason while science embraces logic and reason,” says Rogers. “But I discovered that at the crux of their overlap, they actually complement each other rather than clash. And through the combination of the two, people are more likely to listen to what you have to say.”
Rogers says that through the College of Arts and Sciences he has learned to test his limits and keep asking questions. “I am really glad I decided to come back to UT,” he adds. “But I also wouldn’t take back leaving for anything, because then I wouldn’t have appreciated the journey as much.”
So what does the future hold for this ambitious undergraduate? Possibly medical school or Broadway? While he still has another semester to figure that out, Rogers has planned on one thing for sure—to drive across the country after graduation to see what other opportunities are in store. Perhaps that journey will open doors for Rogers to share his unique project with the rest of the world.
“Two roads [converged]…and [for Andy Rogers] that has made all the difference.”
Subheads quoted from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
—Sara Collins Haywood