This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Ed Boyden. 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 Ed Boyden, Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT Media Lab and McGovern Institute & Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology
TED Talks by Ed Boyden:
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.
Patrick Yurick: Can you tell me your name, title, and what you do here at MIT?
Ed Boyden: My name is Ed Boyden. I am an associate professor here at MIT where I direct a neuro technology group, and I work with people across all different disciplines, science and engineering, on a quest to understand and repair the brain.
P: Great. I was kind of interested in, we were just talking, and I was interested because you do have to communicate with a lot of people. So like, on a daily basis and at different levels. Can you describe the different ways that you have to think about communication?
E: Sure. So in my own research group, we have clinicians, roboticists, chemists, people who are trained in the humanities, people who have trained in mathematics, and everything in between. I spent a lot of time trying to understand and frame problems so that they can be solved. This is a very difficult thing to do because looking at a problem a little bit the wrong way can mean the difference between somebody coming up with a solution and somebody completely missing the boat. So, very often what I think is most important is sort of having empathy for the person you are talking to, and also simultaneously empathy for the world at large. So, if I am trying to convey an idea, like here is a deep problem in the understanding of the brain and I am trying to motivate a chemist and roboticist to develop some new technology together, then I have to sort of think about how do I project the value that is achieved by solving this problem into their reference frame to make it a reality for them basically. That is difficult because you kind of have to understand how a given background perspective or an individual will receive a message. So, I call it extreme empathy. You need to have extreme empathy for your listener, and I think that only comes with a lot of experience. You spend a lot of time trying to understand how somebody might respond. You have a model of their mind in a way. For example, somebody who is a clinician might be motivated by a certain kind of way to help people, where somebody who is more motivated by liking to do a certain kind of skill, like programming a computer, might have a totally different set of motivations. So, it is both important and dangerous to sort of try to understand what people are really motivated by in order to make sure that they can work together and solve some bigger problem.
P: That is interesting. It sounds a lot, I just got out of a leadership program, so it sounds a lot of like leadership skills. There is a little bit of knowing, or at least my reflection is on leadership, which is like knowing how to move individuals around so that they can complement each other and work together.
E: Yeah, it is all about maximizing people’s positive impact on the world. You know, in a lot of graduate students and post-docs come to me with great skills, and I almost think there is a point in one’s life where you have learned all the skills that you want to, at least for now, and now you want to go solve some really big problem. Right? Then the question, though, is how do you find the plan of attack? You have this big mountain and this little crowbar. You have to find some place in the mountain to start prying the rocks apart from each other, and where do you begin? It can be very daunting. So, part of it is trying to also frame the problem from an emotional standpoint, you know, making something sound easy can backfire. Sometimes you really want to point out just how difficult something is and prepare people for failure. I often ask people to think about aiming for a constructive failure. It is probably going to fail, but you will know what you need to do next. I think from that comes wisdom. You know, I think that a lot of people in my own group, for example, spend a year trying things out and learning a lot but not making much progress. But then, all the dots will start to align, and then we can actually start to make new things, actually have a real impact.
P: Did that understanding of constructive failure, did that come naturally to you or did you intuit that when you started doing research and work or was it something that you had to learn?
E: I figured out the constructive failure strategy and other strategies I used to help guide people to solve big problems a bit by trial and error. I would see other people talk about how simple it was to solve a problem. So, join my group and you can solve this problem really fast. I tried that out, but the problems I wanted to work on were much harder, and it backfired. People were like, well, I couldn’t solve it in one day, and I feel bad now. So, I said, alright that didn’t work. So, then I started trying the opposite. I said, alright, this problem is really annoying. We are going to be really frustrated tackling it. We have to bring it down to lots of parts. We are going to really deconstruct them one by one and go after them. It is not going to be fun, but the impact is going to change the world. Then, something amazing happened. People learned how to deal with these problems, and they toughened up and were able to go through the constructive failure process and make their way to the other side and get to the wisdom phase. It is great to see these people as they graduate and move on to start their own jobs, groups, companies, whatever. I feel like, in some ways, in an era where skills can be learned, you know, you can read about things on the internet and so forth, maybe what is most important is this ability to pick really good problems to work on. There are lots of things that people can do, but doing the very most important thing is still very tricky. I often feel that, you know, what is that old saying by, I think, by Marcel Proust, “traveling to new landscapes,” I am going to botch this quote, “is as important, if not more, to see with new eyes.” Right? I feel like that is kind of important. The problem might look intractable from four different points of view, and then through wisdom, struggle, and a little bit of out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration, you find a fifth plan of attack. You can go for it.
P: Kind of going back to empathy for a minute, was there, I mean, I am an analytical guy. I sometimes have problems with empathy because I tend to assume things that might not be true. I wonder if you have run into surprises around that with people or strategies to develop empathy?
E: Yeah. I also do a lot of volunteer work outside of my MIT duties. For example, I am one of the four interviewers for the Hertz Foundation. What that means is they award five-year PhD fellowships to people who want to go do applied sciences. So, over the years, I have done this interviewing for a decade now. I have learned how to ask questions to learn what really people are interested in, and a lot of it means listening. So, I will often start an interview just by asking somebody, you know, how did you get to where you are? Where do you want to go next? I will sit there. I feel like it is very easy to want to say something, but sometimes just sort of sitting back and listening, people will tell you things. A big part of communication, I think, is knowing when not to communicate and when to listen and also knowing what is important. Not all information is equally important. You both have to convey what you think is most important and also listen and acquire what you think is most important. It is like a game of tennis where you hit the ball back and forth in a conversation. The goal is not simply to have a random [9:17 ____________], although sometimes it is, most of the time
you are trying to figure something out. Like, hey, is this the right path to go down? Or, will this person really enjoy this job? Or, is this the right direction that science should be headed as a whole?
P: I kind of want to talk about your TED Talk because I think a lot of our audience for the course are going to be interested in that. I would assume, well I don’t know, maybe that is a wrong assumption. I am new to MIT, so I have no idea. I would assume that is kind of like a great avenue to start disseminating your work. Could you talk to me a little bit about the process, and then I’ll talk to you a little bit about how that has implications to the rest of the field of your work.
E: Sure. Let’s see, so I was invited to a small conference at Google, of all places, and I gave a little talk about one of our areas of research, which is that we have invented a way to control brain cells with light. This is really powerful because you can understand how the brain computes by activating cells in the brain, and thousands and thousands of researchers in academia and the industry are using this now to study the brain. Recently, therapeutic trials in humans began also to use these tools and help cure people. So, I gave this talk. This gentleman came to me afterwards and said, “That was about 90% of a TED Talk. Do you want to give one?” Which later, I found out was about 2% of a TED Talk. Of course, if he had said that, I would probably not have signed up. That was about several months before TED. About two to three months beforehand, I started to work on it. I was lucky to have a lot of help from people here at the MIT McGovern Institute, Julie Pryor and Charles Jennings for example, and we decided to make some animations to tell the story. You know, we work in little, tiny, nanoscale things that we put into neurons to make them light controlled. You cannot just hold that up in your hand, you know, it would be invisible. You have to kind of find a way to convey this three-dimensional dynamic story to an audience, and to us, we finally decided that required animation. So, we started working on a script and took a lot of time to figure out what the story should be. I really wanted to lose nothing of the hard science, but I also wanted people to be understanding of it and also wanted people to be, at least to some extent, entertained or interested. That is difficult to balance all three. In fact, I had to resist a lot of pressure from different angles. People had different things they wanted to see. “Oh, if you did this, it would get millions of views.” But that is not exactly scientifically accurate. Or some people would be, the flipside would happen as well. There were points in time where we wanted to show neuro networks of the brain, but to actually draw them as densely as they actually are in the brain, it would look like a gigantic mess, right? You know, in a cubic millimeter in the brain, you are going to have a million connections between cells. So, it is just not graphically feasible to show that. So, we had to constantly balance aesthetics, accuracy, clarity, and serve conciseness as well because you only get fifteen or twenty minutes to give these talks. We spent a lot of time thinking about what is necessary. I mean, every sentence of that talk was scripted. I memorized it. Again, my talk was only eighteen minutes. There is not thirty seconds to pause and think about what you are going to say next. It has to be basically delivered from memory, or if you are really good at improvising, which I was not at the time, then you can do it. We had lots of practice. Juan Enriquez, the curator of Ted, who invited me to give a talk, he is here in Boston. He would invite us to come to his house or his company. We would have to give a talk for a bunch of people, a lot of whom we did not know. They all had to understand it and had to agree it was accurate and say they liked it. That was interesting and a little tense at times because you are trying to deliver a story and juggling so many different variables. Right? There is the health aspect. There is the brain is interesting from a philosophical standpoint aspect. There is the how do you motivate more people to get interested in the science aspect. Somehow, you have to get all those messages projected, again like we talked about earlier, into the value frame, the value reference frame of the listener. But, it paid off. A lot of people have seen the talk. It has been used by many people to teach. It has been used for science exculpation purposes to the public. It has been used to present to congress, I heard. When people needed to explain something about neuroscience to representatives in the US Congress, people have been using it a lot because you can get a lot of mileage out of a well-done communication piece. I also learned a lot about just how to communicate in general. I look back at talks I gave before that and thought, “wow, that was not very good.”
P: That is kind of what I wanted to talk about next. Implications. I mean, one of the things we have noticed in talking to different researchers and faculty here is that, and the whole reason this course is getting made is because this is a very under-represented part of what is taught to in professional development. Alumni cited communication as one of the most important things or skills that they needed going into the professional world. Students were talking about how they would like more teaching to it. I am really curious because of your TED Talk piece, going through that and having knowing what you presented before and then having gone through that, I wonder what kind of connections you made to, how communication, well, I guess, how did your communication change since then?
E: Well, it really reinforced a lot of stuff that I knew at a cognitive level but was able to make more part of everyday life. For example, as a professor with a large group at MIT, I spent a lot of my time writing papers, analyzing data, and planning experiments with people in the group. If you try to plan out an experiment, logical step by logical step, or trying to write a publication, here is where we began, we did this first, we did this second, these are all communication efforts, right? I think good communication is good thinking is good science in a way. In some ways, when you are trying to think through an experiment or think about data analysis or whatever, you are communicating to yourself in a way. If you are not communicating to yourself clearly, then you might be actually going down the wrong path. Are you doing the right things for the right reasons? So, I covered all sorts of different exercises and strategies to help people get good at communicating. You know, when we write publications in my group, sometimes people will have writers block, but everybody can talk about their work. So, I would say, just write the way you talk. Start talking. They would start talking, and bam. Sometimes I would just wish we could record everything they say and then just type it up later. Then, people would get a little uncomfortable sometimes. So, you try to get people to talk, and then they start making sense. I think different communication modalities are very tricky to juggle for some people. Some people are better at writing than talking. Most people are better at talking than writing, I think. In writing, of course, you have a great privilege. You get to craft your words and reflect on them before somebody else sees them. That is something that is really kind of a reason why it is a good place to practice. You know, another thing that I do a lot of now is to really try to help people with logical flow. I will start people just by writing in almost a formulaic model. If A, then B. Since B then C. Because C, then D and so forth. You know it is funny, although the model of writing is formulaic, the text that comes out sounds beautiful because it flows logically. People are like, “wow, of course. Duh. Of course I should do that. That is the best idea ever.” It can be very compelling to have sentences that flow one to the next like a force of inevitability so that you get to the conclusion at the end, and it is compelling, accurate, and interesting. So, I work a lot on trying to find almost algorithms to help people communicate. Although the algorithms sometimes seem formal, the outcomes are usually better than if one tries to just write or communicate in some random way, like pulling sentences out of a hat.
P: You just triggered something. I am a trained educator; that is my background. It is common to understand learning styles, right? Or whatever that is, and there is always science coming out about that. I never really thought about communicating styles and how you can generate, like there are different ways that we kind of prefer to start thinking about communication and that that might lead to being able to better communicate in other styles. So, that is really interesting. I like that. That was cool to think about. The question I have after this in regards to the TED Talk, do you have any thoughts on how it might have expanded your broader understanding of communication in the STEM field? Like, maybe not your own but just, would this be a process that a lot of researchers could actually learn from? Or is it more like there are parts of it that you think would have been good to know in your own training prior to going through that?
E: Hmm. I think what I learned through the TED process, there were lots of little things. There was not like, do this one thing and everything will be easy. You know, I think a lot of us do not like to practice talks because it is boring, laborious, and sometimes scary. But, forcing myself to practice many times actually really helped. That is the one thing that I think I learned the most. I have always been the kind of like, write the talk the morning of or the night before. But practicing many times, I actually found myself rethinking things, like, wait, that sentence doesn’t really quite follow there. Then, I would reorder everything. So, nowadays, I gave a talk at the World Economic Forum earlier this year on engineering revolutions, how to help revolutionize a scientific discipline or a field, an inventive area, or some other area when it got stuck. How do you overturn something for the better? After the talk, people would bring up all these questions like, Oh, I’m in this war-torn part of the globe and I want to galvanize humanitarian efforts, and this sounds like it could help. I thought, really, wow. I didn’t think about that because I was thinking about the scientific and engineering implications. That one, I practiced that every day for like a week. I have given now, I don’t know, well over three hundred talks, not including all my classes that I teach, but every time I practice it, I would change it just a little bit. Over a period of four, five, or six practices, I found myself really almost converging upon an ideal message, at least at the time. Now, looking back at the script, it is like, wow, I could have improved a bit more. So, that is the thing I learned most; communication that is experienced can be stressful because you are critiquing, you are finding flaws, but it is better to find them early and catch them, you know, be your own critic before the world is your critic. That is one thing I learned a lot through that process.
P: Yeah. It is interesting. Through our interviews with different faculty members studying very different kinds of scientific things, my background is in art, so I am getting more of a mental picture of what STEM is as opposed to what I thought it was before I came to MIT. I am not a scientific researcher. But one of the things that I keep thinking about is, like, and you started talking about the role of communication in your work, and it is funny because Yang brought up this idea that audience, you have to be careful with creating foreign audience with the scientific method because that can actually have detrimental effects on uncovering the truth. Sometimes the truth is not entertaining. I did not know if you had any thoughts on that because I do see TED Talks, and there is criticism on what TED Talks are from different people because it does boil down really complex ideas. I did not know if you had any thoughts on that. Like, the entertainment factor versus, especially for grad students who are just starting or potentially just starting in their journey as professionals.
E: That is a good question. I have a half-joking principle that I call the principle of applied laziness, which is if something is too difficult to do, it is probably not worth doing. For example, to try to take a really complex topic and force it into a TED Talk, and it just does not fit and you end up ruining the science. You know, well, that is too hard to do, you should not try it, right? It is going to ruin the science and backfire in the long run. So, when I agreed to do that TED Talk and now am writing a second one, these were topics I thought could fit in that format and that could be clearly communicated without losing any of the science, but there are certainly topics where to squeeze it in would cause you to lose too much of the science or you would work so hard to get it into that time limit. It could take many, many years to try to force it in, and it might not still work. Maybe that should not be tried. So, yeah, I have a sort of way at looking at things where things that naturally seem to fit, go with those. If something just does not work, then you know, as long as you have good skills, you tried hard, and it was not for lack of trial or judgement, then that is that.
P: Yeah. I keep thinking about how much the role of communication lays in success within a research profession. I am wondering if you have any thoughts on that?
E: Yeah. Let’s talk about two examples. One is communication to others. The second one is what I earlier called communication to yourself. So, somebody might be doing an experiment or doing science, doing engineering, or doing whatever and they do not stop and try to explain back to themselves what they have done, they might actually miss out on something important that they have done. I have seen people start a project and achieve something really cool, and they kept plowing on and never got what they had done out into the world because they had not appreciated themselves what the importance was. There are so many examples, especially in biology and medicine where somebody discovered something or invented something, and they did not stop and appreciate what it was and realize the importance of it. They just kept going, and that not only is bad for one’s career but it can hold back science and health as a whole if people do not stop, pause, and think about things. So, I spend a lot of time where I will actually meet with people and have conversations, and I will take notes. I will go back and re-read those notes. Even if something hit a brick wall and was a failure, I will go back and re-read them. I call it failure mining. That is me communicating to myself. I think it is one of the most important things I do. We had a project that we thought up back in 2007 or so, but we did not think it was very important at the time. Then, five years later, some new graduate students joined my group, and we decided to give it a go. It worked great. Now, we have a new way of imaging things like the brain that is growing very rapidly in the scientific and medical community. I think sort of reflection, introspection, and kind of communicating to one’s self is really important. Communicating to others, of course, is also very important. Again, you can find examples where something did not have the impact that it could have because it was not appreciated by others. I do not think that is important. So, for example, when we publish technology, we think very much about different story elements, like validation, we want people to trust it. Demonstration, it sends a sense of urgency because it is powerful and people look at the technology and say, “wow, I got to do that, that is going to help me.” There are so many examples of people inventing something but they did not do a demonstration that conveyed a sense of urgency, and people said, “Eh, that seems optional.” Or somebody did a cool demo but did not validate it, and people say, “Eh, it seems like it is not very trustworthy.” So, again, it goes back to say that good communication is good science. If you think about what impact really comes from, which is an idea, an extenuation, a demonstration, and a dissemination, you know, communication actually is happening at every one of those stages.
P: That is fascinating. Yeah. Also, I like the fact that you mentioned people and other people as a big role in that, almost like a collaborative nature helps having different points of checks and reflection. I imagine going back to empathy, that plays a big role in collaboration.
E: Yeah, it does. In fact, I gave a little seminar a while back on what I called architecting innovation: The idea that problem experts want to solve their problem and solution experts want to apply their skills to something. By catalyzing connections, starting with trusted, paralyzed interactions and then building to larger groups from thereon, I am not a big believer of throwing thirty people in a room and having a workshop, I do not think that works. People do not share their best ideas so they do not collaborate well when you do that. But, if you start building these trusted, paralyzed interactions and then they can increase in scale, then you can actually, in that fashion, build collaborations that can solve problems.
P: Totally. There is this funny Dilbert comic where they had, well, we have determined that this project is going to take three-hundred days to complete. So, we have hired 300 of you, and you all have a day to complete it. And, you are all fired at the end of the day. It was this logical fallacy about management, right? Like, you cannot always throw money at a problem to solve it. Like, there are other things that go into it that are very important. I guess, finishing up, I do not want to take too much more of your time, but is there is anything you have noticed
that you could say to anybody in the STEM field, you know, as you have noticed things progressing in the last couple years. The last decade has been a big change in communication period. I am wondering if you have any like advice that we have not covered?
E: Hmm. You know, it is hard to give advice in general because I think everybody is so different. The advice that I give even people in my own group can differ quite a bit because sometimes people need different things. You know? You know, there are some people who I think are too cautious and should say more. Then, there are those that say too much and should think more about what they are going to say. I think that there is no general rule. But again, I am a firm believer that if you really think backwards from the end goal and if you really work backwards from the outcome you want to achieve and then survey all the possible paths, or at least as many as you have patience for, then you make your strategy or plan after that. That is sort of a general meta rule that can help with communication and with life in general, frankly. So, yeah, whether somebody is crafting an advertisement to try to sell a product or a manuscript to a scientific journal, you want to be thinking about what you want the outcome to be and then anticipate other outcomes as well. Oops, this may have a side effect. People might interpret this the wrong way. This is not quite what I wanted to say. This is not accurate. You should anticipate those things early on. What is the old saying? All great battles are won before they are ever fought? I think that is especially true with things like communication.
P: Yeah. Totally. I think that has been a through line within all of our interviews. There has been this idea of what you called constructive failure. This idea that humility and letting go of what you expected to happen when something else occurs and figuring out how to roll with that but still achieve what you were setting out to do.
E: Yeah, you also craft a culture where constructive failures are celebrated. I think sometimes that takes a bit of work, but yeah, I mean, I often tell people, “Look, if it is working perfectly, you know, I cannot help you anymore because it is already done, right?” I want to help the problems. I want to see the chaotic destruction and the issues that people are struggling with. That is where I can help. Yeah, it is hard sometimes to get people to do that.
P: I know we were talking about that earlier with the whole concept of this podcast series and communication, which is like, well if it was something that was like breathing, we do not need to think about breathing. It is already something we do. But no, there is work needing to be done with professional communication at MIT. That is why we are hired to work on this project because it is a problem, and that is kind of fascinating in and of itself trying to figure out what that problem is.
E: What’s fun, I think, I mean, we have been talking a bit about my TED Talk, and I think the real trial by fire that taught me communication is being near my home department, the school where I am faculty. I am in the School of Architecture at MIT. You might ask what is a neuro engineer doing at the School of Architecture. Well, it was because when I first was looking for a faculty job, neuroscience was not necessarily as appreciative as engineering. So, I was hired by the MIT media lab. Now, neuro engineering is cool and all, so it spread. I had to spend many years where I was surrounded by people who [32:48 _______________] case and everything, and none of them were experts in neuro engineering. Frankly, nobody was, not even me at the time. We were making up the field as we went along. So, I think that is where I learned most how to communicate. In the media lab, there are about seventy corporate sponsors that fund the lab, and they come by. You have to explain to an executive who works on cell phones or a person who works on environmental cleanup or something else why you are relevant. I was an undergraduate at MIT, and I did my undergraduate research at the lab. So, you would have Martha Stewart or the Duke of York or somebody come back, and you would have to explain in three minutes how you were changing the world. This was good training. But, it has been fun because I have been in such a communication-intensive environment having been an undergrad researcher and a masters student in the media lab in the late 1990s and then being faculty at the media lab during, getting the neuro engineering going phase of things. Once you have done it a lot, you actually can start to improvise. So, that is a lot of fun because you can start to connect with people and motivate people. In the end, it is improvisational. You are trying to connect with somebody, motivate them to solve some problem, let’s say, or to change the world in some way. Whether you are a professor or starting a company or whatever, that is kind of your job, to take people who have skills but need to be directed towards some goal and to collectively achieve that goal. I still remember, it was probably a couple years after my TED Talk and also after doing all the Hertz interviewing and the media lab faculty thing and so forth where I realized I was actually not that bad at improvising, but that was after thousands and thousands of hours of this.
P: I do not want to give Malcolm Gladwell all the credit, but that concept of you have to work at it and expose yourself for a lot of hours, it is very rare to just be talented at something without putting work into it.
E: It is not just the time, though. It is having the context, right? I think 10,000 hours or whatever the number everybody quotes of communicating to other physicists studying engineering could be good, but if your goal is to motivate new people to enter the field and to galvanize a movement that is going to start a new discipline, then you have to communicate to people who are not in that field.
P: I really appreciate that. You are the first person to bring up culture in interviewing, and that echoes a lot of what I feel. I teach art. I think if you want people to be creative, they have to feel safe to be creative because creativity is potential failure. Well, what they would consider failure. It is not what they want it to be. It is similar. I always tell teachers that it is less about the skills that I am teaching the students technically and more about creating safety for them to play with new ideas. Learning has expediential growth when people feel safe to learn. That is where I think setting up that culture is really important, so I am really glad you said that.
E: Great. It was really good talking to you.