The Night Science Podcast

Where do ideas come from? In each episode, scientists Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher explore science’s creative side with a leading colleague.
 

S1 E1: In this 5-minute trailer, your hosts Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher explain what the Night Science Podcast is all about: conversations with great scientists about the creativity in their scientific process.

 

S1 E2: In this first episode, your hosts Itai and Martin talk with Ellen Rothenberg, a Distinguished Professor of Biology at Caltech, who always wanted to be Beethoven when she grew up and who feels claustrophobic when doing something that other people are doing. Ellen is one of the leading scientists of our time, and her infectious energy and enthusiasm for science make her an amazing guest. Ellen loves to use metaphors and likes to imagine that she’s a transcription factor in a cell’s nucleus. She stresses how a detailed and explicit knowledge structure is crucial, so that you can recognize an interesting piece of data when it hits you. 

Ellen researches the molecular mechanisms responsible for the decisions made by stem cells as they develop into a type of immune cells. This is a complex process that offers unique insights into the nature of “stem cell-ness”. Ellen has won many awards, including the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

 

S1 E3: In this episode, your hosts Itai and Martin talk with Tzachi Pilpel, Professor of Genome and Systems Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Tzachi eloquently describes his creative process, the role of language, the freedom of data analysis, the imagined channeling of other people’s minds for new ideas, and scientific fearlessness. 

Tzachi’s research focuses on complex networks within cells. His lab applies systems biology and genomics experimental strategies to the study of genetic circuits that process and transmit information in cells. A central goal in his lab is to define entire pathways through which proteins affect changes in gene expression. Among his many awards are an IBM Faculty Award, the Michael Bruno Memorial Award, the Hestrin Prize of the Israel Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Morris Levinson Prize in Biology, and the James Heineman Research Award. In 2011, Tzachi was elected a member of the prestigious European Molecular Biology Organization.

S1 E4: In this episode, Itai and Martin talk with Arjun Raj, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania. Arjun understands the functioning of biological cells using a bag of tricks that he carries from problem to problem; the art of science, he posits, lies in figuring out what tricks will tell you what answers to what problems. Arjun thinks that we are all born night scientists, and that it’s day science that needs to be learned. The ultimate goal of life as a scientist, he believes, is not so much writing papers, but building people. Arjun has received many prizes, including the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. His lab pioneered tools for studying biological processes using state of the art imaging and sequencing technologies. 

S1 E5: In this episode, Itai and Martin talk to Oded Rechavi, Professor of Radical Science at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Having watched Indiana Jones as a kid, Oded jumped on the opportunity to sequence the DNA of the skins on which the dead sea scrolls were written, figuring out how different fragments fit together. Inspired by Michael Crichton’s book Prey, he uses parasitic worms to deliver drugs into the brain. To add more creativity to a project, he always involves someone from a distant field. Listen to his podcast to hear why he thinks PhD training is the best time to do night science! Oded’s lab challenges basic dogmas regarding inheritance and evolution, using simple powerful genetic model organisms. In particular, his lab has shown that when challenged, worms synthesize small RNAs that they give to their progeny to regulate genes, resulting in heritable changes several generations down the road. Oded’s lab is also developing useful parasites, investigating the neuronal basis of rational decision-making, and tries to do as many crazy experiments as possible.

S1 E6: In this episode, Itai and Martin talk to Sarah Teichman, Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Director of Research in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. In her creative research, Sarah’s thoughts constantly switch between her native languages – bioinformatics and genomics – and foreign languages, such as chemistry and physics. Sarah talks about storytelling vs. modeling when interpreting data, and discusses hard vs. soft hypotheses.

Sarah is interested in global principles of protein interactions and gene expression, focusing her research on genomics and immunity. She is an EMBO member and a fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences. Sarah received numerous prizes, including the Lister Prize, Biochemical Society Colworth Medal, Royal Society Crick Lecture, and EMBO Gold Medal.

S1 E7: In this episode, Itai and Martin talk to Harmit Malik, Professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and President of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution. Harmit’s main Night Science tool is to talk again and again about the same puzzling observation to different people, drawing variations of the same story on the blackboard. At some point, he says, you realize that something in your story never changes – that is  where the false assumptions are. Harmit thinks that in pretty much every important result he published, there was a point where he thought the project had failed – where a major result contradicted the original expectations. But that “failure” actually points to the dark alleys where the true discoveries hide. 

Harmit studied Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay. Today he studies the causes and consequences of genetic conflicts that take place between different genomes or even between components of the same genome. His main interest is in fast-evolving genes, trying to understand molecular “arms races” and how they drive genetic innovation. Harmit is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

S1 E8: In this episode, Itai and Martin talk to New Zealander Michael Strevens, who – after studying mathematics and computer science – became professor of philosophy at New York University. Michael recently published an amazing book on the scientific method, which not only manages to reconcile crucial ideas by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend, but is also immensely readable. In this episode, he discusses the main ideas of the book with your hosts, including the crucial difference between what scientists say in their official communications and in the privacy of their labs, what makes modern science such a powerful “knowledge machine”, and why it took humanity 2000 years after Aristotle to get there.

S1 E9: Yana Bromberg is a Professor at Rutgers, where she teaches computers to speak the functional language of biological sequences. In this episode, she talks with Itai and Martin about the amazing creativity of machine learning, the search for weirdness, and her superpower of translating things from one field to another. Her work is being recognized from virtually all sides, including NASA and NIH. She has received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. Yana asks deep fundamental questions whose answers are very important for improving our health, preserving our environment, and, as she writes on her website, also to figure out if “Well… did we really start as green slime?!”

S2 E1: Ben Lehner is a Professor and Coordinator of the Systems Biology Programme at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona. In this episode, Ben talks with us about how careerism is bad for science. He describes how he avoids being limited to the confines of individual fields and disciplines and his strategy for dealing with the unpredictability of science. He also discusses with us how to not get attached to any particular idea in order to really make progress. 

In his work, Ben explores how one can predict the biological differences among individuals from their genomes. His tools are experiments and computational analyses, mostly working on yeast and worms. Ben has been awarded many prestigious awards, including the Gold Medal from the European Molecular Biology Organization.

S2 E2: How is science like art? In this episode, we talk about the similarities between the creative processes of science and art with Tom McLeish, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Dept. of Physics at the University of York in England. Tom has written a fascinating book entitled “The poetry and music of science”, where he discusses how we have everything to gain by better explaining  the creative scientific process. Tom also has an explanation of why the “a-ha” moment of discovery may occur particularly when stepping off of a bus. 

S2 E3: How do world-class scientists make discoveries? “Observing and listening” says Professor Ruth Lehmann, the Director of MIT’s Whitehead Institute. Ruth’s pioneering research focuses on germ cells and embryogenesis, and in this episode we were very fortunate to sit down with her to discuss her creative process, which she likens to the opening of a window. Most inspiringly, we discuss how Ruth created an environment that nurtures and empowers researchers to do their best work at the Skirball Institute at NYU and now at the Whitehead at MIT. 

S2 E4: Professor Sam Morris from Washington University in St. Louis is elucidating how cells make developmental decisions as they navigate the space of cell identity. She had a rocky start in science, but falling in love with her projects led her to stick it out. Luckily so: she now runs a highly successful and highly creative lab. Sam thoughtfully discusses how terminology – such as ‘dead end states’ versus ‘partially reprogrammed states’ – can influence the interpretation of results in a project. She also allowed us to peek into her lab meetings: every time, in addition to the progress reports on ongoing projects, one person presents a bold, new idea on any topic.

S2 E5: Steven Strogatz, one of the world’s foremost applied mathematicians, is a Professor at Cornell University.  While biologists have evolution as a guiding principle, mathematicians have beauty, economy, and connectivity, as Steve tells us. He explains how he ruthlessly simplifies a problem to the point where – while it still seems impossible – it is down to its bare essentials. That’s when he attacks. We talk about how in science you must stick your neck out with bold assertions, even if you might get your head chopped off as a consequence. While we typically highlight the objective aspects of science, Steve points out how the subjective aspects of personal taste and style are just as important for choosing and solving problems. 

S2 E6: Professor Bill Martin from Düsseldorf University is a leading evolutionary biologist, who has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the origins of eukaryotes, the cell nucleus, and life itself. In this episode, Bill reveals how he chooses a research question and boosts his creativity. He also discusses the pitfalls of exploratory data analysis and the perils of working in highly crowded fields. And he challenges us: whenever a visitor gives a talk at your institute – think of the most interesting question. You owe it to the visitor, and it’ll give you ideas. 

S2 E7: Nikolaus Rajewsky is the founding director of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology. After studying Physics, he moved into systems biology, studying the role of RNA in gene regulation. In this episode, Nikolaus talks about how his training as a physicist enlightens his approach to biological problems. He also studied piano at the Folkwang University of the Arts, which gives him a unique perspective on the relationship between creativity in the arts and in the sciences. We enjoyed hearing about how he steps back from a problem to come back in a better way. Listen to this episode if you’re interested in how bringing together different disciplines creates a space for creativity.

S2 E8: Agnel Sfeir is a leading scientist in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who studies fundamental aspects of the biology of the cell. Agnel revels in asking seemingly simple questions that get to the heart of the unknown in biology. In this conversation, she told us how she immerses herself in the project together with her team, and learns how to mentor each person depending on how they like to think. She discusses the trick of ‘thinking selfishly’ for generating ideas: when reading or listening to something, you should constantly think about how it might be related to your project. She generates new insights by obsessing about a particular problem in her research, blurring the line between day and night. In the last minutes of our conversation, she revealed to us how it is almost always during the last five minutes of a meeting when the most important insights emerge.

S2 E9: Uri Alon, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, is best known for his contributions to systems biology. But Uri is also famous for his very joyful and playful attitude to science, which is memorable for anyone who’s ever heard him speak (or sing). Uri’s research is exceptionally broad in terms of the fields he covers, which is one reason why he is one of today’s most cited researchers. We talked with Uri about a wide range of topics: about improvisation in science, about how to get unstuck, about how presentations can be creative and a chance to learn, and about how science needs all kinds of personalities to make progress. Uri discussed how to enter a new field, learn the field-specific language, and bring a new angle to it – by going into the ‘cloud’ and tackling the unknown. In thinking about how to train students to be creative, Uri talked about how we each have an internal tuning fork, which aligns with certain types of scientific problems that match our personality. 

S2 E10: Shafi Goldwasser received the Turing Award – the “Nobel Prize of Computing” – in 2012. She needs no introduction to anyone working in computer science or cryptology, a field she essentially founded as a theoretical discipline. Shafi is a professor at both MIT and the Weizmann Institute in Israel, as well as being the director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at Berkeley. In this episode, Shafi tells us how her favorite scientific ideas are akin to a good joke: they catch you off guard with something unexpected. We discuss how even the most abstract work almost always starts from a concrete example, and how feeling comfortable expressing your ideas is the basis of good collaborations.

S2 E11: Edward Tufte (ET) is widely-considered as the guru of data visualisation. He has taught the world about how data is to be communicated. He is best known for his 5 books on data visualisation, which have had an immeasurable influence on how to reveal the story told by data, combining layers of information into clear visual representations. In this episode, Itai and Martin talk with ET about his most recent book ‘Seeing with fresh eyes – meaning space data truth’, where he introduces the concept of the thinking eye, which reveals meaning from data. ET describes going into a new field as having ‘vacation eyes’; the term he uses for being able to notice things that the experts no longer can, when seeing something for the first time. He also talks about stepping into a field with the mindset of a ‘looter’ as opposed to ‘getting a license’, looking for good ideas to take rather than aiming to become an expert. This mindset has allowed ET to gain access to many fields, making him an impressive Renaissance mind

S2 E12: Peer Bork is a legendary scientist, and these days he’s also the Director of Scientific Activities at the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Among his many accolades, Peer was recently honored by the International Society for Computational Biology for “Tremendous contributions to bioinformatics on a plethora of fronts within the field”. As a highly interdisciplinary scientist, Peer tells us how his team moves into new fields, adapting tools and creating new ones, and trusting their own data more than common wisdom. Peer also talks about how to hunt for nuggets of discoveries in huge datasets. His advice for starting investigators may help to build motivated and diverse teams that persevere in the face of setbacks. 

S2 E13: Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics – as a psychologist. His fundamental work in behavioral economics revealed our cognitive biases, such as loss aversion – the fact that we react much more strongly to losses than to gains. Danny’s popular science book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a highly influential bestseller; Itai and Martin consider it the operating manual for the human brain. In this conversation, Danny tells us how his creative process is driven by a lack of content with what has already been achieved. Other topics we talk about include the suspension of critical weapons, why anthropomorphisms are valuable, how to give the mind something to work on while asleep, and Danny’s innovation of the ‘adversarial collaboration’.