This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Dr. Brunie Felding. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Dr. Brunie Felding – Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine at Scripps Research
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Adam Greenfield: Ok, so we’ll go ahead and get started. We’ll get some easy questions out of the way. First, can you give us your name and occupation?
Brunie Felding: My name is Brunie Felding and I’m an associate professor at the Scripps Research Institute. I’m a principal investigator in cancer research projects.
A: Do you go by doctor?
A: No Dr. Felding?
B: No, you can call me Brunie.
A: Brunie? Ok, alright. I ask because when I go create the script for the show, I want to find out- I want to make sure people’s titles are correct. So I want to know if I should call you Brunie-
B: You can call me Brunie.
B: I don’t know if you noticed but I have a sign at my door that says Dr. Brunie.
A: I didn’t see that.
B: I mean, I was given that once in a advocacy. You know, I was teaching- like, once a year I teach here in a project called Project Lead with people who are breast cancer survivors who want to become advocates like me. And they get a crash course, so to speak, on science because their backgrounds are very diverse. So I teach there for a week, heavy duty, you know, crash course stuff. And they gave me this nametag that says Dr. Brunie.
A: You wear that with pride, I bet.
B: Yeah! I put it on my door.
A: I don’t blame you. It’s a good title to have. My mom says there’s two kinds of kids: one that grows up to be a lawyer and one that grows up to need a lawyer. My brother’s a lawyer so she got that half and then she’s like, “If only he’ll be a doctor….” Nope. I’m going to be a writer and artist. I want to struggle. But anyway. Are there any areas of science and research communication that you feel needs some work?
B: Absolutely. I guess any type of research communication is always a process. It’s not a stagnant and fully developed faculty or trade. And that’s, I think, is the beauty in it also, is that it evolves- the different types of communications evolve with the need that we see in them and the needs that are being brought to our attention through the type of audiences that we’re addressing through types of communication that we have. And also through subjects, I would say, that we’re discussion. Because the subjects in science, they change with the technical approaches that we have to address scientific questions. That, in turn, opens new avenues for new ways of a addressing a question. Actually, new ways of finding a question. And that way, then you need to find a good way to communicate your findings to your questions, your understanding of the process and maybe the peer discussion that you have and maybe even overreaching the peer boundaries with, let’s say, now you want to discuss research findings with the public that has diverse background of any sort, possibly, so you constantly have to work on communication and trying to find ways which leads to an understanding on both sides.
A: That understanding on both sides is important. Very important. So you talked a little bit about gender gap in science with kids, I read in that article in San Diego Magazine.
B: Hang for a second.
A: Yeah, sure.
B: That question was imposed on me.
A: Oh, was it?
B: Yeah. The triggers for many of those questions were imposed on me. I would not have brought them up, you know, as my own order of preference.
A: I see. Are you willing to talk about that gender gap a little bit? Because I want- I guess my question is kind of leaning towards, is there a communication issue with kids and science and communicating with them how important science is.
B: What does communication with kids have to do with gender gap?
A: Well, there’s a- there seems to be more males than females-
B: In science you mean?
A: In science, yes. I’m just curious if there’s a reason for that and maybe part of it is because science isn’t communicated all that well when they’re kids to get them excited about science and want to pursue that as a career. So I’m just curious if maybe communication is the cause of that or poor communication or lack thereof.
B: You know, that’s an interesting question. If I go back to my own history, like how I got excited about science is, in my case, well, you know, it didn’t have anything to do with- I think it was a very personal issue and I think with everybody’s and individual’s choice or inclination as to what they get excited about, it’s probably a mixture of both. You know, how- in which way they have been primed to respond to triggers of excitement but also internal. I think in science, you must have internal drive. That is something I have learned over the years and it’s something that’s become so clear to me in so many aspects and regards every single time I talk to someone. If I meet a new graduate student- so for example, in February and March I will interview a new graduate student that have sought admission to our school of science and technology. And it’s very interesting what’s the driving motivations are, what they put down as to why they chose this direction, why they want to pursue it so relentlessly. There that thing and then as an interviewer like me, as a mentor, you have to kind of see through the brag sheet of- type of boilerplate that someone puts down and do they really mean it, right? So it comes back to your question of if you’re talking about kids or young individuals, right, how do they get primed? I think they get primed by exposure to subjects that would trigger their excitement. So for instance, if kids are allowed to, with nowadays media and access to just about any type of information, you can choose what you’re reading, you can choose what you’re listening to, you can choose what you’re watching. But if there’s a certain precedence, let’s say in your family, for instance, if the family watches TV and they watch nature shows, documentaries, something that would spark your interest in nature and science, physics, mathematics, chemistry, something, then that individual might respond to something like that, might find excitement. And also, of course, will find excitement in something that their role models seem to get excited about. So in my case, I didn’t, for instance, and I think I was a pretty blank page, so I didn’t grow up in a family that, you know, where everybody was a scientist or people didn’t have a history in this or that. But my parents had an innate curiosity and we would venture out into weekend excursions into nature nearly every single weekend, whether rain or shine or whatever. And so the exposure to nature, questions that came up in hikes, and stuff about, you know, how do things work and whatnot, was something that excited me. And then at school I was naturally drawn to biology, chemistry, and in a sense I think that was something that became then my internal drive, right, overlaid with my internal kind of motivation make-up. So I think people are different in many ways. Again, I’m seeing this from a very subjective standpoint and I’m trying to see how a kid in high school would respond to something like that and it’s probably a spectrum of how people would respond to triggers that spark their curiosity and which way they translate that into action, into decision making of, you know, do they want to pursue this as a professional career in the end and stuff like that. And if you want I can go back to my own example later on, if you like. [13:26]
A: Let’s circle back around, if we need to. I’m kind of curious if- I’m trying to think of how to word this question. You brought up getting kids out there in nature like you did and hopefully that would be a good trigger to raise questions and to kind of push them to pursue that knowledge and gain that information. Do you think today that’s harder because of maybe technology getting in the way, maybe people with their phones, they don’t look up and around. Do you think it’s harder nowadays than when you were a kid?
B: It was definitely different then. I mean, in a comical way it’s very different today because people walk around with their cell phones and don’t look up to the point where they hit a lamp post, right? It’s like, whoopsie! Suddenly a reality impact hits and then, “Oh,” and maybe then they have to go to the hospital and get stitches or something. Then they see people running around in white gowns and asking them questions about their health status, you know. Do you have insurance? Stuff like that. Suddenly they get into a whole new world, which is called reality. Now, the other part is reality, too, but it can be virtual. You can think you’re in it, poof, your batter goes dead, you’re out of it. So to what degree do you involve yourself with something? And I can’t really say how it must feel today as opposed to back in the day when I had exposure to nature or whatever triggered me. But I can tell you one thing, which is, so I like to work with young people. I have graduate students but they are, of course, pretty advanced in their development already. But I also have the privilege of something working with high school students or people who are in their beginning stages of college education, they come in here as interns, for example, over the summer. I always love to have some interns. And last year I had- I mean, last summer I had three and I tell you, they are exposed to a completely different type of triggering and information gain but the one thing which I noticed in all three of them that I had, and one was, like, a recurring student, she keeps coming back because she seems to like it and she’s also local so she can do it, the one thing that I notice in all three of them was they weren’t any different than me back then, even though they learn all kinds of things through Google, god knows what, but their questions that they had for me and- their perception of what information will I draw on to make a decision for my life, you know, for my career move or in whichever way, were exactly the same. So I felt really good, you know, connecting with them because I could connect with them. I didn’t feel like I was from a different planet, they didn’t understand me, I didn’t understand them. Quite the contrary. I was very, very happy about that, that we connected so directly and, even though I know they- and I learned from them, too, right? Because I checked in which they draw information, I taught them some ways as to how to use the resources that they have to draw the information that they needed for certain questions that I asked them to address. In a sense, coming back to your original question, which is, how does someone get primed to pursuing what they ultimately do, possibly for a living but also for life fulfillment in a way, if you will, then the questions that they had were exactly the same and the desires to find something meaningful to do were exactly the same. So I was very happy about that.
A: That’s interesting because there’s- usually over the course of time there’s that disconnect between generations and to have something like science tie it together, that’s good. I don’t meet many younger generations than me that I can connect with anymore because I don’t have much in common. My experience is, I remember a rotary phone, you know?
B: Oh yeah, I do, too.
A: But if you say, hey, do you remember rotary phone? They’re like, what’s a rotary phone? Yeah, remember the thing if you do this? And they don’t know what you’re talking about. [18:10]
B: But that’s ok. They might find it cool to get some stuff like a retro thing in their house down the road.
A: Exactly. I’d be like, well, I had it first before you did. I want to talk a little bit about writing, just one quick question about that. You’ve written books and patent requests for things that are highly technical and research specific. And that requires a specific type of audience, to have that background. Is there a certain writing style needed for writing patent requests?
B: Yeah, the patent requests, from the spectrum that you just mentioned, is very different. I have to say, with that, I had a lot of help. What I do is if I would like to throw out the idea that I would seek the opportunity to kind of file on a patent for something, I write what we call a disclosure and the disclosure is more- something like a scientific paper. It’s kind of my style where I present what I have, I make a case for the novelty of what I found in light of the literature that’s out there, the prior art, if you will. So- and I don’t necessarily look at it from that level because, you know, I’m not a lawyer and so for that type of writing you need a lawyer involved, of course. So you write up your disclosure, you make your scientific point, then you meet with a lawyer who will then translate this whole thing into a patent application. Very different from when you write a paper or when you write a grant application. That’s something that you start in your mind with your team and then you write it up and it’s your baby from start to finish. And then it gets peer reviewed, you know, with and by people who are in your field and you get feedback. You polish it or you make your stance for what you don’t want to change. Then you throw it out into the peer community, which is basically the group of people who will understand what you write, if you write it in those terms. In a grant application, you really, really work it hard to make everybody understand what you want to do and how valuable it is to want to do a certain thing. So to me the most valuable- I shouldn’t say valuable. The most important documents that I write are scientific papers and grants and they are like, start to finish, in house type of my own stuff with a team, of course, generating the data.
A: It’s interesting that a lawyer has to translate that into- is it patent language, then? Legalese?
B: Yes. It is not necessarily total legalese at that time because it still has the points that you wrote down in your disclosure but it now becomes broken down into bits and pieces that the patent literature attorneys are looking at. So the development of a patent is like a disclosure than a patent application. Then it gets reviewed by, really, patent lawyers. Their primary look is to whether or not what you propose is [indecipherable] and then all kinds of things happen that I haven’t fully wrapped my head around, right? But it becomes really a piece of document of its own nature and then hopefully it will translate into something that can be valuable for somebody else who wants to license it and take it to a clinic, for example.
A: That’s cool. I like how that- it’s like a language has been repurposed to their own language.
A: That’s kind of cool. So a couple questions as far as ethics are concerned, and feel free to say, “I don’t want to answer this one” because I know we talked a little about this before. Do you feel that the science community is communicating well enough to audiences without a scientific background?
B: It depends on what type of media you are referring to. If you ask in general if the science community is doing a good enough job to inform the general public about what they do, that is a question I cannot fully answer, not because I don’t want to, but because I haven’t really studied what is out there. If you look, for example, at media that are being distributed to the general public, for example, Scientific American or something like that, it’s fantastic. If you look at documentaries on the Discovery Channel, if you look at documentaries on national public television, it’s fantastic material. And people have put, obviously, a lot of emphasis and heart into trying to communicate things to the general public. You have Alan Alda who received a prize recently for being an advocate. You know, he’s an actor. He’s a brilliant actor and he was- I think, this whole thing was trigged by him, I don’t know in which context he ended up being in the cause for the Institute for the Methodology and Distribution of Methodological Knowledge, and so he became an advocate, really, for the translation of scientific information to the general public and that, I thought, was brilliant to take on that mission. And he found it was very important and, obviously, in some of his roles back in the day when he was starring in MASH, for example. He was a medical doctor and he had to inform the audience as to what was going on, what was the problem with the patient. And so I think that probably must’ve been on his mind a lot. So how do we, as bench scientists, for example, or as individual principal investigators or as groups of investigators on a team communicate to the general public sometimes? I think, maybe, not well enough but we’re looking for opportunities and I take opportunities here within my in-house need and I- at the Scripps Research Institute, I think we put a lot of emphasis in trying to reach out as an outreach activity. Because the general public usually does not come to you and ask, “What is it that you do?” They may not even know we exist. If you go out into a study section- so for example, I serve a lot on NIH, National Institutes of Health, study sections where grants are being reviewed, stuff like that, where the scientists come together and review other people’s applications. We do this to each other as a- it’s a non-profit- it’s a service to the community, really, and you give it your best shot. You honest to god give it your best shot to review from the best of your knowledge in the field. When you go out and you expose yourself to the community, everybody knows the Scripps Research Institute. If you go out to a local community even here in San Diego and you start to talk about the Scripps Research Institute, they say, “Oh, it’s either Scripps Health or it’s the Scripps Institute of Oceanography,” they’ve heard about. Very few people have sometimes heard about us and what we do as general scientists. So one thing that was kind of interesting was when I connected- or when we connected with Erin Chambers Smith, the editor of the San Diego Magazine, we invited her and she came and she was, first of all, surprised to learn of our existence and who we were. And suddenly, while we were talking to her, she noticed, oh, she does have a connection with us because one of her kids took a drug and survived because of a drug that was developed here at Scripps. So very few people know, not necessarily that we’re developing drugs, but we are setting the stage for other development of drugs that then go to a clinic. So this was a drug that a newborn, in her case, I think, her daughter or so had taken it and wouldn’t have survived without taking it. So suddenly she knew where this thing came from and that was an eye-opening experience to her, that there’s people out there out of big pharma who are setting the stage for development of new medicine, for example. This is how it starts, right? It starts here with someone discovering something, then writing maybe a disclosure, then writing a patent, then some company, some drug pharma company gets excited in the possibility of licensing this patent because they may see an opportunity for profit in it and then they take and they develop it to clinical application. So in our case here, I think, we have the need and the desire to talk to the general public. Sometimes the way in which we find ways in communicating it may not be sufficient, I think. I think it would great to have more interaction between the general community and us and I think for the most part, we have to do the outreach because the community is apparently oblivious sometimes. So we have to be proactive. [28:02]
A: Do you think reaching out to actors, for example like Alan Alda that isn’t a scientist would be useful?
B: Yes, absolutely. I would say some people who has a public persona, anybody with a public persona, I think would be super important to come because that person could be a medium for us, for example, to express ourselves and connect with the community. It could be- because the community would know the public persona person. The public persona person would get to know us, we would be talking to each other. So then, through that interaction, a dialogue would start. I would love to do that.
A: That would be a good idea. I think there’s a corporate word for it, where you learn all different kinds of jobs within the company even though you only do that one job.
A: You know them all and it makes your job easier.
B: Mm hmm.
A: So I feel like more scientists and even just the scientific community should be reaching out to other people, as well.
A: Now, I want to, along those lines and we talked briefly about this earlier, unfortunately science can be kind of political. We’ve got people out there who are kind of saying things that aren’t actually accurate. They’re doing it for a personal agenda, so to speak. So I want to talk a little bit- I know doctors in the hospital sense have a Hippocratic Oath.
A: Do scientists have that and if not, do you think that would be useful in keeping that- sort of the moral and ethical and factual scientific research out there and available?
B: You know, that’s a very interesting point that you bring up, Adam. My immediate inclination to this question is we don’t need it, we have it. We don’t need a Hippocratic Oath. From all I know of my many years in basic science, and I’m talking about basic science in the academia, which is non-profit science, academic science, I have not met one person where I felt like this person wasn’t fully devoted to finding, if you want to boil it down to, the truth. I mean, the truth is something that is- I don’t know if it exists or not. But you want to find a meaning in something. You want to understand something. That’s your innate curiosity. That’s your drive. You’re not out there to find something that you’re purposefully looking for. You’re purposefully looking for an answer but you’re not purposefully looking for a particular answer that will advance you as a person that would, you know, cross your ethic or where you might run into ethics problems because now you mixing your personal agenda, for example, of getting rich or getting out of a certain situation that you find difficult or something, that’s not the person you find in academia. I have not found one. I have not found one. So I think it is- we have education, we have formal education on ethics, and we can come back to that if you like, but I have to say that there’s a certain kind of person that is drawn to academic science and I watch out for that when I interview the graduate students. I get the vibes as to where they’re coming from. I get the vibes as to where the boiler- the brag sheet boilerplate type of stuff. I get the vibe of who this person is, you know, in terms of what are they driven by. At that point, they’re very young. They’re not driven by, I don’t know, profit or something. Of course everybody in the end has to think about, will I be able to make a living with what I do? And academic science traditionally has been a very difficult choice in that regard because it doesn’t provide you a lot- with a lot of personal wealth opportunities. It provides you with something else. And if people see that- and we can come back to what that is- but if people see that then they’re so drawn to it that they throw away the idea of, gosh, will I be able to make a living on it? And that might even be a healthy concept but that’s the drive. [32:50]
A: So how do you get the- how do you make sure the up and coming scientists are sticking with that, “I want this scientific answer” and not so much personal gain? I’m trying to figure out what can be done to ensure that they’re sticking with science driven work instead of emotion driven or money driven work. So how do we effectively communicate that to the grad students so they can factually communicate to society?
B: Yeah. There’s different levels in which you do that and that’s a very, very, very important task and the task lies primarily with a mentor, I think, with a mentor and with an educational program that they’re kind of being reared in, that they’re being exposed to. As a mentor, I think you have your ethical standards that you have developed over time, that you have subscribed to. Really, that’s who you are. You try to convey to your students the values that are dear to you at all levels and the ethics part is a very important one in that regard. You don’t go in and look at- well, you find if there’s an inclination in a person not to pursue the finding of information as it presents itself to you, through the glasses that you look at it, through the types of assays that you throw at it, through the readouts that you get. If you find that raw values that come out of a primary analysis like that are not being used in that way, then that’s a really, really big red flag. And how do you respond to that? You talk to that person and then you observe that person very closely. And I will not say you start now to judge but it- I found that it’s also a very important part of the job that I have as a mentor is to find if a person really wants to go in the direction that they’re seeking to go into. If I find, and I have had several examples, not because of ethical issues but of other issues I wasn’t aware of in the person itself or themselves weren’t aware of, but when I find that a person doesn’t really want to go in the direction that they have chosen to formally pursue, then I take them heart very, very sternly. I mean, not that I impose myself on them but I ask and there was one person in my group, for example, that I called in and I asked her in that case if she really knew what she wanted to do with her life after being a post-doctorate fellow and it turned out for the first time I thought I was connecting with that person really deeply and she broke down and said, I don’t really know. So I said, I want you to take a week off and walk on the beach or do something where you don’t necessarily do a lot of activity but just connect with yourself and find out what you want to do and then come back to me. And I also asked her whether or not she was stable enough to do that, to be on her own during that week, and she said yes, and I believe she was. For a while I thought she might not but she was. And after that week she came back and her face looked different and she found something and she came back to me and she said that she had really reflected on this and she felt like the career she moves that she had made so far were brilliant moves and she went from Ivy League school to Ivy League school, right? She now went to Scripps from Ivy League school and Scripps is a very prestigious place for a graduate program, as well. So she was kind of set up in this very Ivy League-oriented type of career movement. And then I asked her, what do you really want to do? And she comes to me and says, I would like to become a college teacher and not the Noble Laureate scientist. And I said, congratulations, I think you found yourself, possibly. I think you find yourself. Go do it! And I threw her out after that because she wasn’t wanting to do the post-doc. But I threw her out in a loving way, right, because I wanted her to pursue what she wanted to pursue. Later on I did a little Google search on her and she’s now a college teacher up in Oregon somewhere so she did she what she wanted to do and I hope she’s happy.
A: That’s good. So she found her moral compass, I guess. Or her ethical direction?
B: She found her own direction.
A: Her own direction, yeah.
B: And not necessarily what her Ivy League career and maybe her parents or god knows how was expecting of her. And I had to give her the kick in the butt really hard to go kind of connect with herself so…. But that’s what I’m saying, back to this ethics question that you had. If you find, and I didn’t have that- I have one example where it was a little different and that person’s no longer here. But if you find that somebody is kind of struggling with that issue, because it can be a struggle- because what comes out, let’s say, the temptation- I give you just one example, right, but it boils down to this very ethical question- what comes out of the temptation of manipulating a dataset, for example, in your favor, whatever inclination you may have. You are now manipulating something that nature apparently threw the set of analysis that you threw at it did not tell you. If you have that inclination, maybe it’s better to do something else because if you want to stay in academic science, you have to have the absolute desire to live with what you see, to try to find what you can see in the natural result, which may be negative result in your opinion at the time, right, because you had expected something else. So now you have different options. You go ahead and falsify it in your way, and that is not- if somebody wants to do that, it’s not a person who needs to pursue this career. They can pursue something else which makes them happier and maybe is better for society. It could be but not for academic science. It doesn’t belong.
A: I actually want to kind of take that and sort of run with that a little bit, if you don’t mind. I’m kinda curious about- when you said data manipulation, if you’re a scientist out there and you’re trying to get research funding-
A: -how tempting is it to sort of say, look where I’m going and just sort of- I’ll use pie charts and graphs, for example. Those are easily manipulated to get a point across, a specific point across. You’re only showing a specific dataset that shows only what you want people to know. How tempting is it to do that to get funding?
B: You know, this is a very important point these days because to get funding these days has become very hard. So the possible temptation level could rise when you do that. There’s a couple of issues that you address. First of all, you have a page limit so you could not possibly put everything in. So you would not necessarily overload your peer review group with a bunch of negative data that you’ve had. You sit there and you sort out with yourself, what would I like to do if I had this pot of money available to me, what would I like to do with that pot of money based on what I know to generate valuable information for the betterment of human health, for example, in the particular field you’re studying, in my case, cancer research. What can I do with that pot of money to help a cancer patient in the field I’m studying. It’s not that I’m sitting here thinking- of course I’m thinking, how can I possibly survive- but the drive, as to how can I possible survive, comes out of starting from the top down, right? And that’s- I think that should be really your- at least that’s the way I address it. So resources are limited and finite, and your own time is limited and finite. What can- how can I best invest my own time, my own life drive, and possibly, hopefully some money that I get to execute a certain program. How can I best apply that to reach a goal, to make somebody who’s now lying in bed and has no chance of a cure, to having a better life, maybe a longer life, maybe even a cure? What can I do? And I think that’s what needs to drive you. Not necessarily, how can this pie chart best present it or something. You present your preliminary data in a sense that it makes sense that you can pursue- I mean, unless you are somebody who is, like, super well known in the field, you can throw out a new concept without necessarily showing the individual data for that because people will grant you that you can do it because you’ve done it before, right? So the majority of the mere mortals have to show preliminary data. So you have to then walk a fine line between, ok, what is my dream goal, I want to help this this person in the bed who’s dying. What is it that I have that I can do and what is it that I can do to get from what I can currently do to get to help the person who’s dying. And that often involves something that is super fulfilling, I would say. It is a challenge- I think the challenge- it depends- let’s say you have this initial temptation type of scenario going, right? So then I think my recommendation, or my personal approach, is to start from the top down. How can I help this person who is dying? And I have had scenarios- and many people have had that scenario- where they look at somebody who is in that situation and you go, like, whoops, this is what I’m here for, right? This is my goal in life, really, to help, and not as a physician but as a basic researcher that you are. So then you go from what can I do right now, right here from reaching this goal and you walk this line and in the middle you see, I cannot do this alone, I have to reach out and I have to build collaborative efforts. Then you try to find which collaborative efforts do I need. What are the procedures that I need to get from where I am to where I want to be? What is the expertise that I don’t personally have, the stack of technical approaches that I don’t have- and I have a really good example for that right now that I’m pursuing- and then I reach out, right? And I feel like this is why I’m so happy in this environment because I find most of what I need right across the street, right around within my own microenvironment. And that’s the beauty of a free academic research institute like we are. Really, that’s what I value so much here, because you have diversity, you have a lot of diversity. You find yourself, ok, I’m a cancer researcher, I have this and this and that going, I need genomix, I need proteomix, I need structural biology, I need chemistry, I have the best people in the world right around me to address those issues. I reach out to them. I’ve never had somebody close the door on me, not here. So that’s what I love and this is where I see the opportunity when the challenge comes, when I want to write a grant, and I don’t have everything to answer the question- I mean, back in the day, possibly people were sitting in their offices and philosophizing about their- the question that they were addressing. And maybe that was the best they could do sometimes because they didn’t have email, they didn’t have all these social media going on. But they could walk across the street if they had another scientist sitting there or they even traveled by train, by boat, by whatever to reach out to find other people in the world to help.
A: That must’ve been interesting, to say, I need to talk to this person, he’s in another state, it’s going to take me two days by carriage. That- and now, just get on the phone… totally different. But it’s good that- it almost sounds like your moral compass can be driven by that funding you’re trying to get. It’ll keep you in check- it almost, in a way, now that I think about it, seems like there’s sort of a dual dance going on, where it’ll- that funding will keep your moral compass in check but you need to make sure your own moral compass is already in check going into trying to get funding.
B: Yes. Oh, that’s an absolute must. You go in with your moral compass totally intact.
A: You have to.
B: You have to because there will be challenges in every which way coming at you, you know? And that is something- and this is why I was saying when you asked me about students and you probe them, you probe them really hard, because this is, not necessarily that you want to become- that you want to have every student you mentor to become an academic scientist because that’s not the reality and maybe in the future that may not be the opportunity but to set them up with your current set of values. Like if- you know, we had this at the last commencement ceremony, Dr. Schulz actually said that in- the mentoring group of people is like a family to you and I have perceived it always like that. They are kind of like your academic parents in a way and they hold you by the standards, they show you the values, they try to live the values, and guide you into the finding the values for yourself. And then, of course, there’s reality as to, do you really want to subject yourself to this? Because like you said in the beginning, there’s all kinds of things and that is basically- doesn’t necessarily apply only for academic sense but in any situation in life, I think. When you have your moral compass and your moral compass tells you a certain thing and you’re very clear on that. Then, of course, to reach a certain goal in your job or in your life, you encounter obstacles all the time, all the time. And so here’s this moral compass that goes with you and that helps you to find ways. Like I said, you look at this person in the hospital bed, you now find ways in which you connect with your peers, you collaborate this or that, instead of modifying your pie chart and saying, I want this amount of money and then I go to town with whatever. So, you know, I think you brought it up really clearly, Adam. I think the moral compass is a- yeah, it’s a guide, it’s a compass. You must have it- you must be able to read it clearly and then you basically find ways to address the questions that are being thrown at you to find ways to survive, to help the patient in the hospital bed, if you can. You try as hard as you can and you don’t violate your moral compass.
A: Yeah, moral compass. It’s gone out the window these days, it seems. Anyway. I want to talk- you brought up obstacles so I want to ask a couple more questions about process and failure, if you have time…. Ok. Have there ever been any sort of harrowing experiences in your life or even your career that taught you a lesson on how to communicate your research and work to audiences without losing them? [49:40]
B: In many different ways and also at many different levels. And I don’t want to write the levels against each other but one example is your peer group, right? You give a talk, you get answers back, you get people writing you, you get students reaching out to you who want to work in your group, and that is very gratifying and you engage in a conversation. And sometimes you engage in a discussion when everybody has the same opinion, obviously, and that is challenging and kind of enlightening and enriching in its own way because it pushes you to consider different viewpoints, right? You expose yourself when you communicate, you bring out information and you bring it out in your way. We all have perceptions. One person may look at a tree and say it’s green and another person may look at it and say it’s blue and it could be a cultural thing. And there’s nothing wrong with blue or green. You just have to realize that what you throw out is your personal viewpoint, in a sense- in the context of your scientific findings, in this case. But to then have somebody else to look at it in a different way and throw a question at you, it enriches you and sometimes it enhances- it kind of reinforces what you were already thinking. Or it throws you off balance for a moment and you think, whoopsie, what do I need to consider here to address this question that this person had. And may I give you one example?
B: And this is at a different “ level,” if you will, and I come back to this level because it is something that has tremendously enriched me. And this is why I’m looking at the person in the hospital bed because, you know, I’m not a physician, I’m a PhD and I shouldn’t- I’m not obliged to ask how is this person in the hospital bed is doing. But that’s my mission. And so the level that I was referring to is the level of, in my case, advocacy involvement. So one time I had my first grant from the California Breast Cancer Research Foundation. I was very proud of it. I had my molecular mechanism all- I wouldn’t say all figured out, but I had it all going and I was thinking at the scientific level I have really made a discovery here. So I go to this conference where I was invited to give my results and I stand there and I give my little talk, and a person walks up to me later on and she’s a breast cancer survivor, obviously, right, because this type of conference included the scientists and the stake holders, meaning the patients and patient-related people. You know, healthcare givers and persons like that. So this person walks up to me and she has a head scarf on and I look at her and I think, whoopsie, she’s in chemotherapy, or has just come out of it or something. She doesn’t look good, she doesn’t have any hair, she doesn’t feel good, and she walks up to me and says, “You know, Brunie, what you just told us is very interesting but what does it do for me?” And suddenly I saw her and I saw the clock. I saw the clock, tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock and I thought, what can I tell this woman because her clock is not looking at infinity or possibly years. It may be looking at I don’t know what. I don’t know what the status of her health was but she could be looking at months. And I don’t know what I told her but I totally broke down completely. It was an experience that I will never forget and I flew home that night crying because I thought, what have I done now? I won this grant, I have this molecular mechanism, I was proud, standing up for it, telling everybody, and then she walks up to me and says, “what can you do for me,” and I realize I could probably not do anything on her timescale. So then I realized, whoopsie, what is my purpose in life here? You know, going back to the top down approach and it became very difficult and it has become very difficult recently for me here because a couple of people that were dear to me died of cancer recently, including one of my grad students.
A: Sorry to hear that.
B: 28 years old, in my lab, gets diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and I learned so much from that person because I mentored him all the way up to the point where he then died. Other people, and I mean it shouldn’t be my- I don’t know why I’m saying shouldn’t be. Can it be my purpose in life to help someone like that? Can it be my purpose in life to help this woman with a headscarf? In the end, I think it must because that’s really what drives me. And I think it’s also what drives me nuts because I see my limitations but then you stretch as hard as you can to reach your goal so I am stretching a lot and I’m stretching in a sense of trying to connect with collaborators to ramp up a program to really do something.
A: So that one experience you communicated almost enough for this one individual and because you couldn’t communicate more, it kind of drove you to do more.
B: Yes. She changed my life.
A: How long ago was this, if you don’t mind me asking?
B: Oh, I don’t’ know exactly but I would say 15 years, something like that, in that neighborhood. Or even longer.
A: And the science is different now since then, I would think. So if she asked now, would it have been- would have maybe been closer to an answer for her?
B: She came back to me, I mean not she as a person, but she came back to me in different people who reached out. So she keeps coming back to me. I don’t know what her personal history is, if she survived this or not, but having people come back to me and looking at- and I’m not going through this life turning my head away. I’m looking and I’m seeing them and sometimes they reach out and sometimes I reach out when I see them, you know. It becomes kind of a bi-directional type of opportunity. So yeah, and- yes, I think these days, with nowadays technology, for instance- and also, my grown experience and my realization as to what the goals are and that made a huge change, I tell you that. I mean, I cannot- I just told you it was a life change experience and that’s really what it was. So that made me think away from my- because I was so, you know, in my molecular mechanism and it could’ve- I don’t know if it could’ve determined my career going from there, like, being in that type of research all the time. And maybe it’s a danger also because you expose yourself to trying something new and it exposes yourself to reaching out a little bit beyond your own, you know, this particular expertise but then again, you have to bring in the collaborative efforts. And I think the value that we now- that I see in myself, for example, and I ask myself- actually I don’t ask myself but I was kind of asking myself or was asked by a colleague recently, who also found it very, very difficult to get finding, and he said, “Brunie, what do you think? My expertise lies in this, this, this, and that,” and I don’t think I was completely honest with him but I- my inclination was, man, think about something new. Not necessarily don’t forget what you know but look at other ways of using the information that you have and it’s a very valuable skillset and information set that you have to generate new information, it’s really groundbreaking, not so incremental and pedestrian. And I tell you one other kind of thought changing experience that I had, and it’s also a communication issue, really, which I very much value and it sort of goes along with getting a grant, if you will, at least in my case. I had this opportunity to meet this woman who then, in many phases, would turn back to me and kind of set up my moral compass and my goals but also, when I received my first NIH grant, like a RO1, which is the more sizable grant, I had little smaller grants before, but when I first received my first RO1, the NIH and the National Cancer Institute had a habit, I don’t’ know if they still have it, of bringing together the new grantees. And our program director had us all sit there in a room and a couple of people from the NIH were telling us- were giving us moral compass information, which I really liked, but what they also told us- and that is something, again, you know, you sometimes have this experience that you don’t forget, they kind of set you up to think in a new way- so what this person said to me, or to us as a group, was, ok, here’s this one paper, if I were asking you to read this paper, every one of you would come back telling me something different about this paper in the end. And naturally so because you all look at it through the glasses of your experience, through the glasses of your desire, where you want to go. So you look at it from your viewpoint and so therefore- but he put it out in a very positive way. He said, “It’s your secret weapon. It’s your secret and unique weapon.” And this is why I was telling my colleague- I don’t know if he got my drift or not but- it’s your secret weapon that you can be proud of what you know and understand but you use it in a contemporary way. Don’t get stuck in your old ways and make what you have and how you can see certain things a value that you can then communicate to other people and then they throw back stuff at you, and then you realize, ooh, I haven’t thought about that and then it becomes interesting and fun.
A: So it’s evolving.
B: Yeah. Always.
A: Ok. So how much does communicating your work and research play a role in your success as a scientist?
B: It’s an absolute must. Without communication, it’s even a logistical thing. If you just sit there and think and never tell anybody about your thoughts, you could probably do that only if you’re independently wealthy. You know, if you find pleasure in that. But if you- your success lies in trying to enrich your field, trying to survive as a person, trying to survive as a group leader to have funds, for instance, for your team to build, maintain a team, and to do the work that you like to do. The communication is an absolute must and it has to be effective and it has to be really good. That is something also that you learn with time, that I learned with time, and it is also, you know- communication is one thing, and then the way in which you communicate, then you are- funding agencies, for example, empowers on you formats in which you can communicate, and you have to learn to do that effectively within the guidelines given. And so yeah, communication is, next to actually doing the work, the most important, I think.
A: Do you think that it’s- there are other professions where it’s like that? Outside of news broadcasting or things like that, is communicate, at least in science compared to another field, do you think- do other fields have that level of importance with communication than science does? Might be difficult to answer because you’re not in those fields.
B: Well, I’m thinking and I will give you an immediate thought that came to my mind is this. So I think communication is a very important aspect in just about any profession, I would think. Even if you are, in an extreme case scenario, you are an astronaut out in a space station by yourself, right? If you lose connection with ground control, you start to wonder. You know, you go to the Major Tom type of scenario. Where are they? Where am I? What is my purpose up here? Can I communicate my findings back to them in some way? You want to communicate. That’s- because what you might find- as an individual, you might find it fulfilling to answer your question up there but if you can’t communicate them with ground control, part of your mission is not fulfilled, right? So how about other comparable professions, let’s say? In the first example that came to my mind was medicine, medical care, health care, and I think there is a really, really big gap to fill and the gap to fill is the communication with the patient. I don’t know if you have had a chance to talk to Eric Topol or to read his books. Go and look up this book. It’s called “The Patient Will Now See You.” It’s an interesting one, it’s an interesting one.
A: It comes from a different angle, doesn’t it?
B: It’s a very different angle and he takes it to the extreme but look at that just for enlightenment or provocation or whatever. What I see is, of course in a hospital, what I see- so for example, and you, I can see it from both the “outsider colleague” standpoint when collaborate with medical people and I can see it from the patient standpoint and I’m looking at totally different levels of communication- and so now the patient has become more independent and you see that in Eric Topol’s book, “The Patient Will Now See You,” because the patient can now go to Google and look up things that the medical doctor may not tell them, may not have the time to tell them.
A: Well, that’s another communication issue, though, because I can go to Google, say I’ve got a little spot on my arm, I go to Google and it’ll either tell me it’s a zit or I’m going to die. It’s so hard. The internet can’t communicate succinctly enough, sometimes, it seems, especially when it comes to medical stuff. And then you go to a doctor and you just hope they give you the information you need. So it’s- I’m afraid of going to Google and internetting medical stuff.
B: Yeah, you should not be afraid but you have to look at your limitations and your decisions based on what you see, right? And I think you as a person that is so strongly aware of communication and what it means will not really have a problem with that because you can filter. You can read the information, you can say, ok, now I have read that, it could be this, it could be that. It has enlightened you to a degree, right? So you have advanced your knowledge and the possible scenario. Can you make a decision or not now? Do you need to go have the thing cut out? Probably not. So you may want to go see your dermatologist and say, hey, do I need to have this thing cut out or not? The dermatologist has various ways of looking at that. Then you look at- and I really want to motivate to read up on Eric Topol’s- not only that book but other books and his overall drive- because he’s trying to do that, he’s trying to empower and not necessarily by making everybody sit there and read day and night and become the medical expert on their own condition but to empower every one of us, basically with devices that can help us find that out. So for example, there are now devices that are being in the development which you can take your own little skin sample, you can run your whole genome sequencing in the thing. Boom!
A: At home?
B: That’s the goal.
A: That’s the goal.
B: Yeah, even if you’re out there in your space station, you see your spot suddenly, you know you will have osteoporosis because you don’t have gravity stuff like that so you work on that, right? But Eric Topol takes it to the extreme and the extreme is the “The Patient Will See You Now” scenario, right? So one has to be careful because- but it is- it’s an exercise to read up on his viewpoints and his books and whatnot. An exercise of trying to see what the age of information technology can provide us with and how to deal with it to help us live a better life, not to become totally neurotic, which you can easily, if you read up on all these stuff that could happen to you, you may not want to get out of the house in the morning.
A: That’s what I was getting at. Because if I keep reading, I’m gonna put tape on the windows, I’m not going to go anywhere, there’s germs everywhere.
B: This is bad.
A: Yeah. The outside is scary. What- can you spell his last name?
B: Topol. T-O-P-O-L, Eric.
A: Ok, I’m going to look up this book.
B: Check him out.
A: Yeah, because I’ve been wanting to take control of my medical knowledge, because I have my own issues, my own medical issues, and I do research online and then I go to a doctor and I’m- they tell me something else and I’m like, I need to get better control of this. I need to understand it so I can-
B: You want to understand it and then based on that you may not be able to be on a doctor but then you can seek out the help you need in a more efficient way, maybe.
A: I guess my concern, then, is getting research from the internet and kind of running with the wrong information and that’s the danger. [1:09:52]
B: That is true and if you follow a little bit about the Topol mission, I just frame it like this now, right? Because it’s kind of a desire to empower people more, to use the information technology that’s existing these days and being developed for them, for us, for every one of us, to use that in a more efficient way but also cut down on costs, for example. Eric gave a talk sometime ago to a mixed audience here. Are you a local here?
A: For the last eight or nine years.
B: Yeah. If he ever gives a talk again, go, and listen to it. And he has- he’s super provocative. At this I feel provoked a lot, you know, and to my benefit. Really, to my benefit because sometimes I walk out of talks that he gives with key insights that drive me to the next step. And at some point in time, not now, but we can talk about a program that I’m planning to run and how I arrive at the checkpoints as to where is it that I wanted to run, what is that I was looking for, what is it that I was seeing, from what I was seeing where- did I find a new direction to run? Yes, I found a new direction to run. How did I then identify the goal that I have and how do I run to reach that goal. And Eric- going to one of Eric’s talks was a very provocative checkpoint to me, you know, where I suddenly realized, oh, thank you, Eric, this is where I have to run. And I’m going to actually see him- actually, I was supposed to see him today but he couldn’t because he was traveling. But I’m going to see him next week. I’m going to throw out my plan- throw out to him my plan. And- because he is a visionary, in a sense, and not only a visionary but somebody who implements stuff.
A: Is he from here?
B: He has been living here for a while.
A: Oh, he lives here?
B: Yeah, he lives here. I mean, he is part of Scripps.
A: Oh, really? He’s part of Scripps. Ok. I thought he was just a scientist in the area. I didn’t know he actually-
B: No, he’s here. And he was actually in the Cleveland Clinic. He’s a cardiologist by training and wherever he has gone he has really left his footprints in various kind of groundbreaking new ways. And communication is a super important issue in his strategy.
A: It got you to- in answered your questions and in a way, isn’t that what communication is? It’s answering questions an audience may have or filling them with information that they want or need.
B: But here’s a point that I would like to get across, too. It’s not necessarily- answering questions, yes, it’s a good thing. But being provoked to think in a different way is another very important point you take away from a communication and that’s what- Eric didn’t give me any answers, he gave me a new question that I realize- he didn’t spell out a question- but I realize, whoop, there’s a question right here. That’s where we need to make a difference because he has all this information, and there’s a void. There is definitely a void after that. So how to process all this to help people.
A: Right. We spoke with a professor who- he is a cultural anthropologist and he did journalism before this. We talked a lot about being engaged with your audience and how to do that, and he talked about shock value, and how sometimes if you do it right, and don’t do it too often, it’ll get your audience back with you.
B: Give me an example.
A: So he would be talking and he can see sometimes in the audience people fidgeting, people coughing or see the blue glow of the phone on their face, you know?
A: And in a way to get them back, he would sometimes say, “You know what’s really interesting?” and people would go, oh, he’s going to say something interesting now. So there’s ways of- but he also told kind of a racy story that I won’t relay and I can’t include in this series- but it was very interesting because it got attention. And so I’m curious if that provocation should be used more often by communicators. How do you provoke them in a way that is positive, you know, as opposed to turning them away? But it sounds like Eric Topol knows what he’s doing.
B: Let me just put it this way. Eric Topol does what Eric Topol does. And how you perceive it as the audience is your thing. You know, people resonate in different ways. See how I resonated to this woman who was coming to ask me with her head scarf on? I could’ve completely closed up and thought, you know, this is not my field, or something like that. It depends who you are, how it resonates with you. I really, really believe very strongly that most things are determined by individual- responses by individual choices. I cannot emphasize that enough. Even at a grand scale, you have- for instance, you are looking for something, and I come back to this communication thing, how you spark someone’s interest. But let’s say there is a really big problem that you need to solve and you need to solve it within a short period of time. I have experienced- and I think many of us- but I have become a complete- completely convinced that it is key to find the right individuals to help you or to achieve your goal, you know, if you have your goal set. It’s not necessarily saying, oh, this individual, I don’t like them because they couldn’t help me or something. It’s not that. It’s that you just have to find somebody that is willing and capable. And willing and capable are two different things and in the case of making a true difference, the person has to be willing, otherwise it doesn’t work. I mean, you can ask somebody for a fact check, for example. You ask somebody for their advice on, let’s see, “I see this change here in this molecule. Will that translate into a certain reactivity of the molecule in the context of its functioning cell?” You go and you ask and expert on that and they give you the advice or an opinion based on their knowledge, and that’s valuable. If you are in a situation where it is critical that you must hae the right knowledge and possibly some support from this person, then you go and you ask and maybe get the valuable information but then you find this individual who behind that says, “You know, I see your point and I see your need here and I will help you to implement this. I will give you a key reagent” or “Come back to me and tell me what you found and I will help you to make sense of what you’ve seen.” Those are critical issues. And your audience that you have- I don’t know, you have, maybe 20 people, 200 people, you have a large audience- and you are trying to get a point across. So you have various- of course, now you can draw on several strategic means to engage your audience and today you see this bleu glare of the screen, right, but back in the day, and still, you could look at someone and can see whether or not you have engaged that person. You can see it in their eyes. Are they kind of spaced or something, or are they with you? You can kind of see that. And even in a 200 person audience you can look at individual people, and that’s what I do. For example, you cannot see the person in the last row but you can look at individual people. And that is one way of engaging, too. You don’t just go, like, “I’m out here somewhere.” You look at individual people. You look them in the eye and you make eye contact. That’s already an engagement right there and then they feel like, “Oh, somebody’s looking at me.”
A: “I better pay attention.”
B: That, you know, was your own thought but was also the intention and you have it. And then I have done this. In a very stupid way once in a small audience- can I give you that example?
B: I did it in a completely stupid way but to me it was a great learning experience and it was filtered back to me by a junior colleague who as in the audience. I had a small audience, let’s say, 20 people or something like that. And I knew most of them and many of them were colleagues, right? Some of them I had worked with very closely. And I gave my little spiel there and this was years back, right? And one of my colleagues and friends has this glazed look. I see it, you know? And I make this cardinal mistake of addressing him. I did not address him by just looking at him. I called out his name, right, because I felt like this was a group of friends and I called out his name and I said, “David, are you still with me?” And he said, “Brunie, tell me something new.” There. I had it right back, right? It flew in my face. It was like I lost him because he thought it wasn’t new enough, what I was telling him. This was a level of trust that we had with each other but it hit me hard, it hit me hard. And after that I didn’t make that mistake anymore by addressing someone directly like in a school setting where you would point out a pupil and say, “Pay attention, Roger,” or something like that in a reprimanding way. It was a stupid. It was super stupid. And I set myself up for the- hahaha.
A: Don’t address the audience.
B: Don’t address the audience! And you better tell them something new. You tell them something new, is one of the key issues, right? I mean, and so then you don’t lose their attention so much and the way to communicate, you have to try and work hard on that.
A: We spoke with another MIT professor and she relayed her own story where she was giving at talk in front of 5000 people, the American Physical Society, I think it was. And she was giving this talk on kinetics, or it was chemistry based, and- but the audience thought she was there to talk about something else.
A: So she went, she gave this talk, and by the time she was done, almost half of the crowd had left before she had finished. So she was like, “Ok, I need to know who my audience is. Make sure that I’m telling them something new, that they’re there to hear something I want to say. They’re there to hear what I’m talking about and I need to tell them something they don’t know.” And that engages them. So when you brought that up, it just reminded me of that, where she had the same thing. She didn’t address the audience directly but telling them something new is important.
B: But, you know, also two key things that I’m hearing from what you just told me. She was in a scenario where, obviously, there was a big meeting and there were 2000, 5000 people, something like that. If you lose half of them, you still have 2500 people, right? I mean, that’s a big success right here. Because you cannot possibly expect- that’s one thing, the expectation- you cannot possibly expect that, you go to- you give a talk at a meeting, especially if it’s a meeting that has multiple choices of talks going on simultaneously- you just live with the fact that a good portion of your audience drifted out because they find that the other talk they really wanted to hear was probably what they should be hearing right now and so you just let them go because they have another agenda in life and that’s not your thing, right? You go for your thing and you engage the 2500 that are there. But then there was another key thing that you told me. She told them something that they did not expect she would be telling them. How come? Was the title different?
A: It could’ve been. Maybe they might’ve misunderstood the, sort of, description of the talk that was out there. Another communication issue? So yeah, I don’t know. I don’t exactly what they were expecting.
B: The thing is also, you know, if you do that, if you give a talk, and I’m sure you have your own experiences in many different ways, the one thing I think you have to free yourself of is also to try and enlighten everybody in the room because they may not be there for the enlightenment at that given point in time or day or whatnot and they may looking for something else and that’s entirely their thing. Your thing is your thing and you communicate it the best you can. And if you enlighten- you know, I don’t know how many within your audience- then you have achieved a huge amount of success of yourself.
A: I moderate panels at conventions.
A: And there have times where people get up, you know, and I’m always been tempted to be like, “Don’t leave. We’re giving away free TVs.”
B: Don’t ever do that. It’s like my thing just telling David-
A: They’re going to turn around and sit down and at the end say, “Well, you’re not giving away free TVs so why am I here?”
B: Or go knock yourself out on your free TV.
A: Right, exactly. Saturday night I was up in Los Angeles- well, near Los Angeles. I do poetry readings and I was doing a poetry reading in front of maybe 20 people. And I could tell they were getting fidgety because it was sort of towards the end of the night. So I got up there and I’m not much of a performer but I was like, all the things I’m doing here I have to engage my audience, I learned this. So I got up there and I was just very physically open and sort of very- used my hands, used my feet, I was walking, body movement. And they were engaged and I could see when I got off stage they were looking at me as opposed to looking around, checking their phone. So yeah, you have to really engage that audience and try to come up with ways to keep them in front of you, so to speak.
B: Yeah, and everybody has their own style in a sense, right? And it depends on what you talk about. But usually, if you have a choice- and for the most part you have a choice of what you’re talking about. For instance, in poetry reading, you chose what you were reading and so you chose something that you felt passionate about and you let out your passion on stage. You read it with emphasis and you read it with your body language and everything. And people who resonated to that, they resonated, and you had pretty much everybody engaged so yeah. And there could be people who are taking on a completely different wavelength entirely at that moment in time so you can’t get any resonance and that’s fine.
A: Yeah. Be passionate about what you’re doing.
B: Be yourself. Yeah. And passion comes out naturally so yeah, be yourself.
A: Ok, final question. I know we’ve been here a little while. I’ve enjoyed this. Thank you for talking with me. What advice do you have for MIT grad students in regards to research communication and professional growth?
B: I would say learn to communicate effectively. Realize that communication is a very important aspect of research, of science, of discovery. It really is. And if you feel for a while you have to sit and be by yourself and mull over a certain data set or thought or concept that starts to develop a new mind and you need that time for yourself and with yourself only, do it. Give yourself that time and space. But then reach out and communicate. Expose your new ideas to feedback and be open to whatever feedback comes back and then use the feedback that you can understand and that you think can bring you forward in your research question, in your career advancement, in your personal growth. After you have made the choices of filtering the feedback, run that again by other people to see how your filtering is going and in the meantime, always work on your inner compass. Check it back, check to see if you have a clear idea as to where your inner compass is morally, ethically, with respect to others. And I think ethics includes, to a large degree, respect for yourself and respect for others and respect for information that’s out there that other people have generated in the past based on the best of their knowledge and at this point in time you just trust that they did this ethically. And enjoy the experience, enjoy the personal growth, and try to realize where you grow and own it. Own that growth. Do enjoy it. Be proud. And this is an important point. There is actually never anything stopping you in your entire career that you also watch out for people whom you can trust and seek advice from. And with that I mean not only the research community in terms of expertise for a certain scientific question but also for making choices. If you are in a crossroads situation where you have to make a choice, either this way, that way, and your moral compass or whatever, your knowledge at the time, doesn’t tell you clearly which way to go, it is very, very important to have and be able to rely on certain people whom you can ask for advice. I have such people here at Scripps and it doesn’t take long sometimes to get that advice. I had a very, very important support once in a situation that was very difficult for me to make a decision and I had, I would say, that conversation with that person whom I deeply trust, I must say, whom I really, deeply trust. I had maybe ten minutes of a conversation with that person, I would say five minutes where I laid out my problem. And here is the communication part. You have to be- when you go into a conversation like that, try to be very clear as to what you want to ask or at least that the person has a chance to read you and find what you need. Then I had another five minutes where that person gave me the advice that I needed. And that is the beauty of, and the importance also, of trying to find people whom you can trust and who can give you advice that’s so poignant that it helps you immediately. So that person gave me five minutes worth of advice and then offered to check back on me after I had implemented, or at least partly implemented. And it was super important to me to have that. So I partly implemented, did my check back with that person, that person gave me that okay, I went, boom, I’ve never regretted what I did. So, I mean, don’t feel you’re out there by yourself but check very carefully for people within your physical environment, really, if you can, or even later on, maybe it would be a distant environment, but your mentors, your academic family is a strong-knit group, usually, and you will find individuals there that you can come back with career questions or any kind of questions in your life and they are willing to help you to the best of their knowledge. I think that’s very important.
A: Alright. Great. I appreciate it. Thank you very much.
B: Thank you. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.