What was your dream job when you were younger and how does it compare to what you are doing now?
had a lot of dream jobs. I originally wanted to be a jazz musician. I did learn how to play jazz, but I wasn’t good enough to be a professional. Although, I did make money as a musician, so you don’t necessarily have to play at the professional level to be a professional in music. Nevertheless, I recognized that there were people who were quite better than me when it came to music. However, in science, I always thought I could compete at the highest level. I thought about being a writer, which is why I was going to be an English major, but now I write all the time – it’s just that I’m not allowed to write fiction, you get in trouble in science if you do that. I also still play music.
You mentioned that you were initially a music major. How do you use your background in music in your research now? What role do you think art and creativity have within STEM?
I think art and science are almost the same thing. One of my great friends is a famous artist. We eat dinner together every Sunday night. The first question we always ask each other when we get together is “What did you learn this week?”. It’s wonderful! She enjoys learning about science, and I like learning about art. It’s all a creative process. It’s not clear to me that one is easier than the other. I certainly couldn’t do what she does, and she couldn’t do what I do. However, you can appreciate the creative process that goes into making a beautiful experiment or making a beautiful sculpture. There are lots of scientists that are musicians, so I think there is a similar creative vein. Someone may have a skillset more directed to the laboratory than to the easel, but creativity is not limited to one of these areas or the other. They are both fields that let you be very creative if you want to be.
Before becoming the president of ISB, you mentioned you were a professor at Caltech. Has your experience in education influenced your approach to research? If so, how?
It does. When you are a professor at a research university, your main job is teaching graduate students. If it’s an undergraduate university, your main job is teaching undergraduates. Both of those exercises are really useful. When you have to explain material to someone, like If you have a chance as an undergrad to TA a course, you will learn the course better. When you have to explain it to someone… When I was a graduate student at Rice University, I was going to teach freshman chemistry. The first time I went, I thought, “This is freshman chemistry, how hard can it be?”. I absolutely had my ass kicked. I never again went to lecture unprepared. That’s how you learn a subject, by teaching it. When you understand it, it has a direct impact on research because then you understand the value of certain experiments relative to others. I taught a small class, a mixture of graduate students and undergraduates, and it was basically ‘chemistry according to Jim Heath’, whatever was interesting. I always taught the first lecture on kBT, which is Boltzmann’s constant multiplied by Temperature. This simple calculation tells you the energy that is available to the system you are studying. If you understand molecular motions and physical properties in terms of kBT , you can understand what is likely to happen at room temperature and what will never happen. It becomes an extremely pragmatic way to look at the physical world. If you’re taking a test, and you’re given these conditions and you’re asked to calculate the answer, you can use little rules of thumb to at least understand what the right order of magnitude is for the answer. At Caltech, if a student put an answer on the test that was physically impossible, they would get hammered. If they put an answer on the test that was physically impossible and said “I appreciate that this is physically impossible and I’m not sure where I made the error”, they would get much less hammered. In other words, the ability to apply a simple physical intuition to understand and frame the problem you are studying is immensely valuable. This is the type of fundamental science that is both fun to teach and extremely rewarding when students ‘get it.’
There are so many directions in science, how do you decide on a path to take after you finish a project?
I have a pretty big laboratory, so I’m able to try multiple things at once. I always have several experiments going on. It could be just a little thing in the corner that might lead somewhere. In the past, when we made that tiny memory circuit, I had a goal, and when it was done, it was done. It was time to do something else.When we started working in biology, we did things that you could certainly publish papers on. However, the impact was really that those initial experiments taught us what was important and what was not important. Eventually, we would be doing less of the important things. As you learn, teach yourself, and get feedback. If you have an area that you are interested in doing something in, for sure read the literature so that you’re not reinventing the wheel, but just start. It’s okay if you do something dumb, something that’s not relevant. As long as you are honest with yourself about that. That’s how you learn.
So, I had a boat and when you get a boat, you have these fenders that keep you from banging into things. You certainly want to have a lot of fenders because you don’t want to bang your boat up. The first time I pulled into a dock that wasn’t my own dock, I banged my boat up, because I didn’t adjust the fenders. I was like “Oh! That’s how you do that!” Science is just like that. You have to always be thinking about “what did I do here that was stupid, what did I do here that was smart,”. You try not to do that dumb thing again and continue going after the things that are important. There’s a lot of problems out there that are worth pursuing, and as long as you have the confidence to just get started, you’re going to be ok. I think the other thing is that people don’t ask enough questions. People are scared to death of asking questions and sounding stupid. When we were working on COVID, I had never done anything in virology before. So, I would call up my friends and show them the data and ask them “are we thinking about this correctly? Are we not thinking about this correctly? I would always ask questions. We ended up publishing some crazy high-profile papers, but it was because we had 500-pound gorillas in the closet who were backing us up and making sure we were doing it right.
One aspect of doing science that is not very highly appreciated is that it is important to do it inefficiently. You need to be able to explore both productive and non-productive avenues. When you meet with someone who has an in-depth knowledge of a problem you are trying to solve, spend the time to understand them. For example, when we were building the architecture to make our broken computer work, I remember this computer architect who was also interested in the same problem. I’m a chemist, so I don’t know a damn thing about computers. He really liked molecules, but he similarly had no intuitive sense of what molecules really are. So, we would meet. I would fly to Palo Alto, and we would get a conference room and spend four hours talking. The first time we did it, after four hours, we walked out with one noun that we agreed upon. Until then, we were just having conversations that were like two ships passing in the dark. We had such different languages and different backgrounds. As you get into science, by definition you don’t have a background. You have to be willing to have those conversations that end by agreeing on a noun or two nouns. Then, the next conversation is a little better. That’s a really inefficient way to learn, it seems, but it is better than any other way.
What is the dumbest way you’ve been injured?
I hurt myself on my bicycle once when I ran into a pedestrian. They actually ran in front of me and hit my bicycle, but still… I broke my collarbone. I ride my bike to work every day, so I’ve been in a few accidents, but that was one. It’s really hard to describe that and come out looking smart.
Was the other person ok?
They actually ran off and left me lying in the road! I was hit and run.
You hit and were run from, I think.
They were running down the steps and ran into me from the side. There’s a hedge, so they couldn’t see me. So they just ran smack into me and kept running into the street like they were being chased by something.
Maybe she was actually being chased by something and that’s why she probably had to keep running!
“ There’s a lot of problems out there that are worth pursuing, and as long as you have the confidence to just get started, you’re going to be ok. ” – Jim Heath