L.A. native Emmanuel Masongsong knew he wanted to pursue a career in science after he got a book on his sixth birthday. “It had pictures of the planets, the solar system and the galaxies. I knew I wanted to learn more,” says Masongsong, 36. “I began to check out all the books I could on volcanoes, the Earth, the moon, rocks, earthquakes, the Space Shuttle, airplanes and all that.”
After excelling in math and science at school, Masongsong ended up studying science at UCLA. He started out in psychobiology but decided to go with microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. After graduation in 2004, he began working in the lab, doing clinical trials with the HPV vaccine, then studying cervical cancer and HIV-related cancers.
After a dozen years in the lab, he began to feel isolated. “I liked the science but I didn't like the long hours and being alone in the lab all the time,” he says. He started looking for a new job and found one at UCLA's Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences.
Now Masongsong is managing the ELFIN Mission — UCLA's first satellite, set to be launched into orbit in September. “There are a few researchers and scientists working with us on this mission, but it's mostly teams of students,” he says, noting that the project is being completed in conjunction with NASA.
The satellite will collect data on the Earth's magnetic field, the aurora, and how solar winds affect our magnetic system. “The ELFIN mission will also help us understand solar radiation, and how solar storms affect our planet,” he says.
Even with a full-time career in science, Masongsong finds an outlet as a musician, performing Indian music and jazz, classical and even black metal. “I started playing music at 6 or 7,” he says. “I heard my grandma playing piano growing up, and I was absorbing the musical language.”
By middle school Masongsong had taught himself to play guitar. “When I got into high school, grunge was in full effect,” he says. “I got into metal, and started playing with friends. This would eventually become our band Exhausted Prayer, a black metal–influenced proggy band.”
Masongsong and his bandmates (guitarist Chris McCarthy, drummer Mike Caffell and bassist Richard Vulich) have played hundreds of shows over the past two decades, toured the country several times and performed with some top-notch underground metal bands, such as Asesino, Cattle Decapitation, Intronaut and Enslaved.
A couple of years ago, Masongsong joined several other musician friends and formed Cetacean, an experimental metal group that just played an EP release/tour kickoff show at Five Star Bar. Masongsong, who plays guitar and saxophone, jokes that Cetacean describe their post-metal sound as “Black Floyd,” combining the harsh, darker elements of black metal with the ethereal, haunting psychedelic nature of Pink Floyd.
Masongsong also has toured the world with renowned Indian classical sitar musician Nishat Khan since 2002. With Khan, he has performed at such legendary venues as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall in London. “Khan is the master of the sitar, descended from 500 years of ancestry in India,” Masongsong says.
Masongsong sees a connection between his two passions. “Music is related to science because they are both adaptive, you have to be aware of your surroundings and it's constantly changing, so you have to be able to take in new information,” he says. “Science, like music, is also a universal language, but people need to learn the language to understand it. All people have the capacity to respond to music; music transcends all barriers.”