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Stanford biology student’s Mother’s Day tribute song becomes YouTube hit

By Erik Silk | 6 May 2011

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Stanford biology grad Adam Cole's original Mother's Day song became a YouTube hit last year. (Photo courtesy of Adam Cole)

Last year, Adam Cole decided to write an original song to honor his mom on Mother’s Day. Little did the Stanford biology graduate student know, his gift was about to be heard by 100,000 people.

A Biologist’s Mother’s Day Song, inspired by the human behavioral biology class Cole was taking, celebrates the fact that children inherit “slightly more than half” of their genetic traits from their mothers.

Because Cole’s mother lives in Oregon, he posted the original song on YouTube and sent her a link to view it. She did – along with well over 100,000 other YouTube viewers.

Cole said he expected the gift would be a surprise to his mom, but the song’s popularity came as a big surprise to both of them. He said he did not set out to create a viral YouTube video.

In fact, in most years, Cole acknowledged Mother’s Day by making a card or sending a message home. The idea for the song came after a random encounter with a stranger.

“I saw a woman in the grocery store with two mischievous boys,” he recalled. “She looked exhausted, and as I passed her, she looked me in the eye and said ‘You’d better do something nice for your mom on Mother’s Day.”

And so he did. And his composition included lyrics like, “Just like two strands of DNA are spirally entwined, your nature and your nurture inspiringly combine.”

And, “I roomed in your womb for nine months, and I never did pay the rent. Your glucocortocoids helped shape my hypothalmic development.”

“I put [the song] together, it didn’t take too long, and sent it to my mom,” Cole said. “I was used to writing these very niche songs over the past several years that didn’t really make sense or apply to a lot of people, and this was sort of in the same vein.”

Songwriting: The Early Days

Cole began putting words to music in elementary school when poking fun at a friend’s crush on a girl. But his true nerdy songwriting career began in high school.

“Junior year, our calculus teacher held something called The Art of Calculus, where we were invited to explore some aspect of what we had learned through art,” he said.  “Some people did drawings or ceramics, and I wrote this song with my friend called ‘Ooh, Baby, You’re My Derivative.’”

As other teachers caught wind of Cole’s unique skill set, he was asked to write songs for other classes. He also put together impromptu tunes in social situations, like Don’t Close the Locker, Brandon.

When he was a freshman at Stanford, Cole used his talents to break the ice and make friends. Guitar in hand, he wrote songs about people he met and his dorm and found it to be a useful way to connect with people.

“If you write a song about something that people enjoy and can identify with, in general, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy it,” he said.

Although Cole was working toward a master’s degree in biology at Stanford, he continued songwriting. He also sang in a university a cappella group and jammed with friends. The Mother’s Day song gave him an opportunity to merge three of his interests — biology, music and giving creative gifts.

A Viral Video

Based on YouTube diagnostic tools, Cole was able to tell that “A Biologist’s Mother’s Day Song” had about 250 views on the first day it was live, thanks mostly to the fact that he shared it on Facebook. The demographic of viewers was firmly in the 18-25 year-old range. Cole saw similar results on day two.

But by the third day, it was clear to Cole that many of his friends had sent it to their mothers, as the viewer data began to skew toward females who were 20 to 30 years older. From there, it spread further and now has more than 130,000 views.

Today, a year after his breakout YouTube hit, Cole is pursuing a career in science journalism. He graduated from Stanford in June and began working for NPR at its science desk in Washington, D.C. This job inspired a song about his love of public radio.

Cole’s ultimate career goal is to work at a place that lets him tell science stories through words or art. But that doesn’t mean he plans to stop writing scientific songs about holidays. Two months ago, he created A Biologist’s St. Patrick’s Day Song. It already has more than 50,000 views. And he’s thinking about writing a new composition for Valentine’s Day next year.

“It’s not my profession,” Cole said. “But as it comes or doesn’t come, I’d like to keep doing them.”

Watch “A Biologist’s Mother’s Day Song”

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