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MSW Student Composes CD Based on HIV Genome


Photo by James K. Holder II
Contact: Emily Williams

Posted Nov. 23, 2010

What does HIV sound like? Listen to a sample of Pajak's album.

In addition to working and pursing her MSW degree part-time, Alexandra Pajak is a composer. She recently released an album of music based on the genetic code of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Pajak created the music for the album by assigning musical pitches to every segment of the virus's genetic code. "Sounds of HIV: Music Transcribed from DNA" was released October 26 by Azica Records.

"It's a bizarre hobby, to be honest," she joked. "I've been literally sending stuff out all of the time since I was 14. It feels like a lot of hard work has paid off," she said of her newly released album.

Pajak, who grew up in Athens, started composing music based on DNA when she was a music major at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. She was asked to write a symphony based on the DNA of the namesake of the college, Agnes Irvine Scott, who was the mother of the college's first benefactor. An artist painted a mural of Scott's DNA inside the college's new science center. Pajak's symphony was performed and recorded by the Agnes Scott Orchestra in 2003.

A couple of professors from Georgia State University heard about the symphony and commissioned Pajak to compose a CD to promote their lab. She sent the music, which was based on the HIV genome, to a competition and her arrangement was picked up by Azica Records. Pajak worked with Grammy-nominated producers Alan Bise and Bruce Egre and Sequence Ensemble performed and recorded the piece for the album using the flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and cello.

"The pitches sound really interesting together," Pajak told AOL news. "It was weird because no matter how slow or fast I set the tempo, the songs always came out sounding good. The music is complex and strange, but also has an eerie, spooky kind of vibe to it."

After graduating from Agnes Scott College, Pajak decided to take her career a different direction. She had always enjoyed helping people and was inspired by the volunteer work she did in college. First, she earned a master's degree in sociology from Georgia Tech in 2006 and now she is enrolled in the part-time MSW program at the UGA Gwinnett campus. She also works as a program coordinator for the Communities in Schools of Atlanta Program at Bethune Elementary and has a placement at the Gwinnett County Detention Center as a mental health counselor.

"I work at an inner-city school right now and I have a caseload of students. I think a lot of the students enjoy music whether it's band or popular music they listen to," she said. "It's something I can talk about with them."

Pajak was attracted to the MSW program's mental health component. "When I'm interacting with a lot of people, I feel more creative, so it was just a good fit for me," she said.

A portion of the proceeds from the album will benefit AIDS research at the Emory Vaccine Center and the School of Social Work.