This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Eric Lander. 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 Erica Lander, Ph.D., President & Founding Director of the Broad Institute
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: We are forming these ideas around how do, it’s not technically how do you communicate? It’s more like, what are the things you need to be thinking about. Some of the places we have identified areas where students should be thinking is, connecting to an audience. So, once of the questions that Tony had formulated that would be great from you was, can you explain the same technique that you have worked on in two different ways, one for a student or a lay audience and the other one for more of a technical audience. He said, maybe HMMs if you wanted to.
Eric Lander: I do not know that HMMs would connect.
P: It could be anything. You can choose. I am the lay audience, by the way. Or, PCR, he said. The big thing is that I kind of want to hear what you think about how you would explain it differently, depending on who you are talking to.
E: I do not think it is a question of explaining it differently depending on who you are talking to. I think it is a question in every single place, a conversation with a person, a freshman course, or meeting with the President of the United States. You are trying to understand who the listener is and what they are bringing to the conversation. Far too many people simply give some canned description and canned talk. When you are having a conversation, you are looking at the person. You are forming a mental model of what is in their head, what they are bringing to the conversation, what terms they are comfortable with. Then, you are getting continuous feedback about it. They are nodding, they are paying attention, they are falling asleep, they are bored, whatever. So, it is not entirely that you are preparing the magic thing to teach freshman. This is actually a continuous feedback. Most of the lessons are ignore jargon. Jargon does not even help in technical presentations. It sometimes is useful if you have a set of people who all share a common language. If you are sure they share that common language, use it. But, people far too often assume that they can rely on jargon to carry meaning. Simplicity. The thing that I have seen most is that the smartest people in the world and the best communicators distill things down to their essence. I watched Nobel laureate physicists talk to the Dalai Lama in northern India during a science week that the Dalai Lama had organized where this Nobel laureate, Steve Chu, I, and a few others came. You could have expected that he would be trying to impress the Dalai Lama with all sorts of fancy physical things. He started by putting up a slide and says, “Your Holiness, this is a technical thing I am going to use in my discussion. This is a rubber ducky, next slide, this is two rubber duckies.” The Dalai Lama is really smart. Steve Chu is really smart. But, he wanted to talk about discreteness in certain ways, and he was not above using rubber duckies to do it. It makes an impact. When you go to a scientific meeting and you hear talk after talk, they are so often monotone. People do not modulate their voice. They do not say things that are memorable. They are afraid to do that. They think the right way to communicate is to blandly describe the data, to go on and on about we did this, we did this, we hypothesized that, etc. If it is in a general monotone, you really lose the listener because it is really tough to follow. Stop, modulate, grab people’s attention, sound different than the next person, sound passionate about things because you are trying to form a memory. There is this crazy notion in science that you hear, “The data should speak for themselves.” The date are mute. They do not speak for themselves. You speak for the date. Science is a human activity. It is about one human convincing another human that we have a good explanation for the world. If you can’t convince somebody, both in your writing and in your speaking, that what you found makes sense, you have lost. The data can be as good as you want, but the job of a scientist is not done until they have managed to make a human connection and convince somebody. You might think, oh it’s like machine-readable mathematical proof. There are machine-readable mathematical proofs. There are proof-writing systems and proof-reading systems, but they are not the interesting thing about mathematics or the interesting thing about science. Those, you can have a machine produce a proof and another machine check the proof, and the two machines would be happy I suppose or whatever machines are. But no, that is just not what science is. Science is one human being satisfied that someone else has a good explanation for something and also, by the way, that the thing is interesting enough to care. If it is not interesting enough to care about, life is short, lives are busy, why pay attention? The job of a scientist is to communicate why something matters and what you have discovered about it. You are a teacher, you are a teacher whether you are talking to your professional colleagues. You may think those professional colleagues are all up on every detail with the literature. Trust me, they are not. You may think you have to assume everything, but no. They have really not followed all the literature. Explain it. Nobody ever minds if you slow down and make an explanation and give a solid foundation. If the train is leaving the station, let it leave slowly so that people can hop on board along the way. If the train leaves at super speed when you start a talk, people just miss the train. Also, when you are trying to explain something, have the train stop at intermediate stations, slow down so people can digest, so people can get back on. It is connecting and teaching. So, I do not think it is very different. I serve as the co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for President Obama. So, on occasions, I have to go explain things to President Obama. He is super smart. This is the one of the smartest people I have ever met. We get along well because I can take complicated things and explain them simply without in any way talking down or oversimplifying. In fact, distilling the essence of something is not over-simplification. It is getting to the heart of the matter. We have a lot of sound, go do something with it.
P: I have a couple questions coming out of that. First, I think of the way that students kind of come in and interact with communication or anything because I taught high school. It is the same way. We have mental models that we are coming into and logical patterns. Why are they making these logical fallacies that you kind of just talk to, like they are not slowing down. They are not doing these things. Is it that they think science is one thing?
E: There are a couple things. One, teaching is an art. You perfect it. If we think you can just magically be a good teacher without studying it and practicing it, we are kidding ourselves. So, the idea that you can just come in and teach and you will have these concepts of a mental model of what is in somebody else’s mind that you are constantly updating, and you are updating it based on the questions they are asking, the language they are using. You learn how to do that. You learn how to observe. I think one of the problems with students is they are still so busy in their own mind. They are grabbing onto the bits of science. They do not feel secure about those bits of science. When they prepare a talk, they are focusing on the next sentence, the next slide, the next thing, and they may not have any headspace to be focusing on their listener. So, it is a mentally taxing thing, to both know what your next point and your next slide are going to be and to be reading the faces of your audience and anticipating where they might get confused or something like that. It is work. It is practice. Do it. The best way to learn how to go give a talk at a scientific meeting is try to give a talk to a lay person. The best way to learn how to teach is teach freshman. Freshman, they are not going to cut you any slack about this. If they do not understand, they will tell you they don’t understand. The worst thing sometimes is to go give a talk to your lab mate. You should do it; it is a good thing to give a talk to your lab mate, but your lab mate is least likely to say, “I’m confused by that. What are you talking about?” So, you need people who are going to be able to look at your slides and say, “I am confused, why are all those words there? All those numbers there? All those things? How do you expect me to make sense of this slide with seven moving parts going on? Why isn’t there a title at the top that says in the simplest possible terms what the point is? Why aren’t the axis labeled in some way where I could read them without a microscope?” These are the sorts of very simple things that a lay listener, and then of course an expert listener who has learned how to teach, I try to do this in my own lab with my own students. There is an art to it. If you said, “I am going to become a sculptor overnight”, you wouldn’t believe somebody could do that. If you say, “I am going to become an airplane pilot.” No, becoming a teacher or becoming a communicator, whether it’s verbally in a class teaching or written text in a scientific journal or in some other form, it is an art that you hone again and again, you edit, you learn, you pay attention, and you look at masters. It is something where you apprentice yourself to great people who do it, just like you apprentice yourself as a scientist to your advisor, go find the best communicators and apprentice yourself to them. Listen to what they do. Pay attention and care. So often in science, we train people to do science without training them to do the other jobs that come along with being a scientist. Those jobs are to be a communicator. Those jobs are to be an educator. Those jobs are to be a lab manager, too. You can’t succeed in science without learning those other skills, and you can’t succeed unless you respect those other skills. If you think the only skill that matters is being a great scientist, you will quickly find that your lab falls apart or nobody hears what you are saying. Respect all the skills of the job.
P: I am guessing there was a time early, I mean I’m assuming, there was a time earlier in your career where you learned what you needed to work on. I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about that.
E: Yep. I was really lucky. I was a high school student in New York City, and I went to Stuyvesant High School, a specialized math and science school. I joined the math team. I loved the math team. I came an hour early on the subway and got in at 8:00 to Stuyvesant for the one-hour math team. My senior year, I was the captain of the math team. The job of the captain of the math team was to run that one hour. So, I actually taught every day for a year my senior year in high school. When I went to college, I taught at a National Science Foundation summer program in mathematics that I had taken as a student between my junior and senior years of high school. It was a fabulous NSF-funded course that was run at Hampshire College over the summer. As a teacher there, I taught six hours a day, six days a week for six weeks that summer. You could not prepare lesson plans for all that. You had to be able to wing it. So, I did that for three summers. I got, each year, more than 200 hours of teaching experience over the course of each of those three summers. It is incredibly valuable to have all that practice. What I think is too bad often, students don’t get that experience. So, by the time I actually came to teach, I had made lots of mistakes. I had learned lots of things. There is a famous observation that is quoted by a popular science writer, I am blocking out his name right now. We will not go there. Anyway, mastery, it is said that true mastery takes 10,000 hours. I think that is right. If you think you are going to get it overnight, forget it. If you want to be a master, start practicing. This is the only way to get it. I was really lucky early in my career. That is, as a high school student and as a college student, I got the chance to teach. It has stood me in such good stead. As a college student, I took a fabulous writing course from the great nonfiction writer, John McPhee, and my main extracurricular activity in college was I worked for the college newspaper, The Daily Princetonian at Princeton. I did daily journalism. The experience of a lot of teaching and a lot of writing has been invaluable for me as a scientist. When I sit down to write a paper, I have a lot of words under my belt. I have a lot of experience writing for different audiences. It helps. So, you might think that you should devote every waking hour to the lab bench. No, devote 80% of the hours to the lab bench and devote 20% of the hours to collecting these experiences with connecting.
P: Yeah, it sounds like you were putting together time towards connecting with people alongside your time researching the field that you were really studying.
P: I am thinking about a couple different things. One of the things I’m thinking about is, not every grad student is going to run a giant lab. Right?
E: Of course not.
P: Right, there is not enough suits because then there would have to be people to work in the labs. I am even wondering on a minimal level, it sounds like you did the maximum level of communications professional development for yourself that you could do in exposing yourself to teaching, talking, and managing people. What would you think at the very minimum there should be? Like, you said 80/20. Is that what you think is the minimum?
E: Yeah. I think since science doesn’t speak for itself, your job as a scientist is to speak for the science. You should devote 20% of your time to learning how to do that job well. I think that is enough of a commitment that you will learn a lot. I think if you are to try to do this with 2% of your time, you are not going to learn it. I think if you were to take 50% of your time on that, you [16:08 ]. The difference between what you can get done with 80% of the time and 100% of the time [16:13 ] is small. In fact, the discipline that you should be learning other things in addition to the specific narrow scientific area is very healthy. You should master these other things. You may not run a large lab. You may not be the master teacher, but whatever you do, whatever career you are in, however you use your science or your engineering, you will benefit from the ability to communicate verbally and to communicate in writing. Just in the most selfish sense, it will advance your own career. It will in a much less selfish sense help your listener a tremendous amount.
P: Yeah. You also mentioned a diversity of things that you did do, and I am wondering which one of those…when you think back to one of them that was pivotal. I am thinking, if you only 20% of your time economically, you went right for the teaching. Is that what you would say is maybe one of the more important experiences a grad student could force themselves into, is teaching?
E: Yeah, but real teacher. Really engaging with another human being and teaching with them, not teaching at them. Some teaching is you talk and you hope. You hope something got through. But as with any experiment, if you just set up the experiment and do it and you don’t measure the result, you haven’t learned much. The same is true for communication. If you sit there and you communicate at someone and you have no way to measure the result, well you’re not going to get any better at it, just like your science won’t get any better with that, actually, assaying the result at the end. Get yourself in situations where you can communicate and found out if the message coming through, if anybody is getting excited by it, if anybody understands it. See what questions you get. The questions will tell you a lot. You may try to communicate at somebody and then get a whole set of questions, and you realize, “Oh my God, they have no clue what I am talking about. I accomplished nothing.” Instead of getting frustrated, you should get technical. You should say what failed about that experiment? What variable needs to change?
P: Last question. Is there anything, and before you go I want you to definitely state your name and what you do here.
E: I am Eric Lander. I am the director of The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. I am a geneticist and a mathematician, and I love what I do.
P: Last question. Is there anything you’re currently struggling to communicate with? Like, an idea, I mean it could be anything, but I’m wondering.
E: I am constantly struggling with how to communicate ideas. Right now, I am working on a paper, and I am working on a memo for the White House. In both of them, I have drafts and hate them. I am going back, and I am editing them. I am simplifying them. Every single time I write, I am struggling. Writing is a struggle. I hate writing. I love having written, but I hate writing because it is so much work. Most of what comes out isn’t good enough. If you want to succeed, get something down, realize why it’s not good, delete it, edit it, and keep going. You know, the things I’m proud of have gone through 40 drafts. That is what writing is. So, if you ask, am I struggling with communicating? Every minute of every day. When I am teaching, I am constantly struggling with, “Am I getting this thing across?” When I try to write a scientific paper, I am struggling with a terrible balance between a coherent narrative and needing to dive deep into certain facts along the way. How do you keep the narrative thread while getting the details in there? That is a struggle. When I am writing something for the White House, how do we get this to a simple, clear idea that will drive policy and not get just lost in a whole set of facts. Communication is a struggle, but it’s worth it. If you can actually get an idea from your head into another head, wow, that’s one of the most powerful viral forces there are.
P: Great. That was awesome.