You Should Know… Adam Ruben

Comedian and molecular biologist Adam Ruben: on grad school: “I actually liked grading exams because they put you in a little room with the other grad students for six hours with a pizza.” Photo by Marina Koestler Ruben
Comedian and molecular biologist Adam Ruben: on grad school: “I actually liked grading exams because they put you in a little room with the other grad students for six hours with a pizza.” Photo by Marina Koestler Ruben

Writer, storyteller, comedian and … molecular biologist? Yes, you read that correctly. Adam Ruben doesn’t discriminate when it comes to professions, and he’s proven that science and comedy can be symbiotic. The 35-year-old D.C. resident spent seven years studying at Johns Hopkins University to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology, a time period that served as the basis for his 2010 satirical how-to guide, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.

When he’s not working on a cure for malaria at Sanaria, Inc., Ruben brings his schtick to colleges, comedy clubs and synagogues. He also teaches a stand-up comedy class at Hopkins and another on the art of storytelling at SpeakeasyDC, and regularly writes a witty advice column for the journal Science. If you’re a fan of science-themed shows, you may have seen him on the Science Channel’s Head Rush and Discovery’s Outrageous Acts of Science. Ruben talked to WJW about where he finds the time to excel at both careers while raising a family, his not-so-terrible graduate school experience, and that time he went an on evangelical ski trip.

You’re a molecular biologist and a professional comedian. Why did you
decide to pursue both as careers?

Both were things I was always interested in. I always tried to take both paths because I majored in molecular biology in college, but I minored in creative writing and theater. I ended up writing a thesis in each field, one for creative writing and one for biology. In grad school, I was forced to pick. So picked molecular biology but I still did as much as I could with comedy and writing. By the time I got my Ph.D., I was simultaneously a grad student in the biology department and a faculty member in the English department. I always wanted to do both things. Sometimes the two of them collide and sometimes they don’t.

Where do you find the time to pursue stand-up and writing, given the demands of your day job?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I found that people have a lot more time in their lives than they think they do. Like right now, I’m doing an interview in the car with my two kids while we’re driving home from Target. I’m on a headset and at some point I’m going to be carrying groceries upstairs while also talking to you. Someone called this technique selective negligence. I don’t sleep very much but that may also just be from having two kids. I don’t really watch professional sports. From what I’ve seen, that takes up dozens of hours a week.

The biology job is a bit more rigid in terms of when I have to be there. I’m going to the lab 9 to 5, but also longer than that depending on when things happen. The comedy, a lot of it is very flexible with timing. Comedy writing you can do anywhere. On a plane, a train, if you’ve got two hours you can sit down and write something. Comedy performing tends to be late at night and I also do a lot of traveling at unusual times. If I have a gig I have to travel to, I’ll do something ridiculous like take a half day at work, fly there, do a show, fly back to work the next morning and shower in the basement.

A couple months ago you spoke at the Passover-themed Tales of the Unleavened SpeakeasyDC event at Tikvat Israel in Rockville. You told a story about how you were the only Jew on a Christian college’s ski trip. What possessed you to take this trip?

It was freshman year at college. My roommate was an evangelical Christian. He was my best friend, a really nice guy. There was this ski trip that the whole evangelical group he was a part of was taking. Because I was friends with him, I ended up knowing a lot of them. They asked if I wanted to come, but there was a secular ski trip also. It was double the cost and you only got to ski for three days. The evangelical ski trip was cheaper and you got five days.

It was a very strange experience being the only Jew surrounded by evangelical Christians. And I should say I was the only Jew but I was not the only non-Christian. There were maybe two or three others who came on the trip, so I had a little bit of solidarity in being consumed by their prayer sessions.

Does the topic of Judaism factor into a lot of your humor, or only when you perform at synagogues?

That show was a specifically Jewish-themed show for Passover, at a synagogue. I very deliberately styled the story with Jewish themes, and I have a couple of other stories that I’ve told on stage that included Judaism – one was at a Jewish summer camp where I went. I have a few stand-up bits about being Jewish, but it’s not all [Jewish]. It’s good to have some of those things as a performer, so you have a repertoire. I do a lot of performing at grad schools and conferences, so the Jewish stuff can be there but it’s really just a part of it.

Speaking of grad schools, you’re the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, a comedic guide on how to survive grad school. Was your grad school experience really that terrible?

No, it really wasn’t. And that’s a frequent question I get about the book: “Why did you hate grad school?” And I think that I didn’t hate it. I had a good time there, I met a lot of really great people and learned a lot. There were a lot of things I actually enjoyed about it. I actually liked grading exams, which sounds ridiculous, because they put you in a little room with the other grad students for six hours with a pizza, and they say “Here are 300 biochemistry exams. Grade them.” The reason the book is directed negatively toward grad school is because even though I liked grad school in general, there were a lot of aspects I didn’t like. There were a lot of aspects worthy of complaint. And that’s how I could best identify what needs to be fixed about grad school. For example, grad students have very, very small stipends. If you’re a Ph.D. student, you’re getting paid but you’re getting paid a tiny amount – so much that you can’t necessarily survive on it.

I don’t think I really learned seven years’ worth of stuff. I think it was more four or five years. There are a lot of aspects that need to be fixed, and that’s what the book talks about. It’s not a book of serious advice; that’s something I caution people because I’ve gotten a couple one-star reviews on Amazon. People say, “Oh, I thought it was going to be a serious book with real advice.” It’s not. It’s a book about how to get free food, how to stay awake during classes, how to choose the right adviser, things like that.

Say you had the opportunity to turn some of the experiences that you use as the basis for your comedy into a movie. If you could have any actor play yourself, who would it be and why?

I had an ex-girlfriend who thought I looked like Alan Cummings. Maybe Jason Schwartzman? I don’t know why he comes to mind. Let’s see. My wife is coming up the stairs with our 3-year-old, maybe she can answer it. [Asks wife] Oh, Rowan Atkinson! Maybe Rowan Atkinson.

Are you hoping to write another book anytime soon?

Yes, I’m hoping to. I have a book I’m working on, I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about it. It’s still in the pitching stage. Ever since the grad-school book came out, I’ve been trying to pitch other book ideas to my agent and see what she thinks, if it’s worthy sending around to publishers. A month or two ago, I sent one along and she liked it, and I’m actually now trying to work on a proposal for that, and hoping very much that she continues to like it and that the publisher will like it. That may be a few weeks or months into the future.

When will we see you perform in the area next?

I deliberately eased off on shows for the next couple of months, because my son was just born a week ago. But I’ll be performing at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, in September. One big one on Dec. 18 is Speakeasy’s “My So-Called Jewish Life,” at Sixth & I. I’m co-directing that and it’s going to be a bunch of storytellers telling Jewish-themed stories. That’s always a really great show; we get a really great turnout for that.

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