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’.

S2: E14: Cassandra Extavour is a Professor of developmental and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and she is an Investigator at the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Cassandra’s pioneering research focuses on how germ cells – those immortal cells that form the next generation – are specified in different animals. Cassandra is a champion for diversity and inclusivity, helping to found the Pan-American Society of Evolutionary Developmental Biology. Cassandra has a second, part-time job as a professional soprano, singing opera and Baroque music with professional ensembles around the world, and we talked with her about how creativity in science and music is similar. Our conversation with Cassandra led us to discuss how reading broadly across fields and generations forms the substrate for new ideas, and how speaking the “languages” of different fields can stimulate ideas. 

S3: E1: Aviv Regev is what anyone would call a true science hero. She is not only a pioneer of single-cell genomics and systems biology, but also a great mentor. In 2020, she moved from her professorship at MIT and the Broad Institute to the biotech company Genentech, where she is Executive Vice President and Head of Research and Early Development. We talked with her about the advantages of setting ideas free and about how to be a generous collaborator. Aviv told us how creativity can arise from a deep frustration, and how time elasticity can help achieving it. She proposes that the scientific process involves going with the flow, but that your personal taste may channel that flow into directions that are most interesting to you.

S3: E2: Eric Topol is a cardiologist, scientist, and author. Many twitter users will know Eric from his voice-of-reason tweets related to the covid pandemic. While Eric’s exceptionally broad scientific work includes genetics and clinical trials, his main focus is on the ways in which artificial intelligence may change medicine as we know it. Creativity in this field, Eric explains, lies in exploring applications of AI that no one thought possible before, such as predicting the risk of heart disease from an image of the retina. In our conversation, Eric encourages any scientist to think big, to be counterintuitive, to go against the dogma. To find exciting new ideas, he suggests to think about how cool new tools could be used in ways that are not obvious – and then to test-market your crazy ideas by discussing them with experts in the relevant fields.

S3: E3: Professor Galit Lahav is the Chair of the Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School, where she creates an environment that is collaborative, stimulating, and interdisciplinary. In this episode, Galit tells us how her creative process consists of incubation and interaction. She stresses the importance of being vulnerable for creativity to emerge, and also how to use night science to make the tough decision to stop working on a particular project. Thinking about how to normalize incubation at the department level, Galit led us to conclude that Night Science Tuesday should be a part of every scientist’s work week! 

S3: E4: Doing science reminds Stuart Firestein of an old saying: “It’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat.” Before studying biology and becoming a professor at Columbia University in New York, Stuart worked for many years in the theater. In this episode, he talks about how he doesn’t miss the creativity or the spirit of the theater, as he finds all of that in science. For Stuart, ignorance and creativity are two horses pulling the same wagon of science, and lab meetings are center stage for both. To make progress, Stuart finds pluralism of enormous value – and crucial to pluralism is the ability to fail.  

S3: E5: Albert-László Barabási is a distinguished professor at Northeastern University in Boston. In this episode, he tells us how he established the field of network science. He explains the expert’s fallacy and why it’s time to move to another field once you become afraid to break things. He tells about his strategies to select research projects with his students, and that the science only really starts after the first draft has been written. He also tells us how the crucial skill to make discoveries is to sense which idea’s time has come, and how to move into a field when you think that you can bring something all of your own to the table.

S3: E6: Caroline Bartman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Princeton’s Chemistry Department, and she is about to start her own lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Caroline’s research focuses on how our metabolism changes in response to cancer and to viral infections. In this episode, Caroline explains how she has developed to become a creative scientist. She also describes an unexpected trick: whenever she stumbles upon something interesting – such as an experimental observation or something she read – she adds it as a card to her electronic set, which she reviews on a daily basis for flashes of inspirations. 

S3: E7: Jim Collins is Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT. In this episode, he talks with us about his radical switch of fields in the early 2000’s, when he essentially founded the field of synthetic biology. Jim’s creative process includes ‘storing content’ about a particular problem; committing a portion of each day to reflect on it, even if this might often feel like wasting time; and then bouncing ideas around in open discussions with colleagues. Jim stresses the need for being disciplined in one’s night science improvisations, anchoring oneself with the constraints provided by nature. He highlights the power of coming into a new field from a position of strength, where you introduce methodologies that you have expertise in.

S3: E8: Isaac (Zak) Kohane is the Chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School. In this episode, Zak talks with us about how medicine, at its core, is information processing. But in medical data science, one has to understand and to model the dynamics of two orthogonal systems: the patient’s physiology and the dynamics of the healthcare system, in particular the integrating intelligence of doctors who decide about a patient’s path through that system. Zak also tells us how his creative process is an engineering process, how important the right abstraction of the data is, and how reading science fiction gives him the courage to think beyond the technology that is currently feasible. 

S3: E9: What was the creative process of Alfred Russel Wallace? In this séance, we channel the legendary self-taught evolutionary biologist, founder of the field of biogeography, and co-discoverer of natural selection. Mr. Wallace (as he insists to be called) told us how he did night science by candlelight during long and lonely nights on his travels in the tropics, and how he prefers to ponder the big questions. He sees himself as an early data scientist, identifying patterns in data – in particular in the study of beetles, with both him and Darwin afflicted by beetlemania. He feels that he has an advantage over Darwin because of his less fancy and less structured education: while Mr. Darwin was force-fed the then-current world view, Mr. Wallace was free to read the books that excited him.

S3: E10: In this special episode, we talk about podcasting with the two hosts of the Big Biology Podcast (, Marty Martin – professor of disease ecology at the University of South Florida – and Art Woods – professor of physiological ecology at the University of Montana. We had a great time discussing our respective podcast experiences, trading tips and reflecting on our passion for science communication and the ways that it has impacted our own research. In their podcast, Marty and Art tell the stories of scientists tackling some of the biggest unanswered questions in biology. While both of our podcasts focus on the people doing science, Big Biology discusses the results, while Night Science explores the creative process of science. 

S3: E11: Paola Arlotta is a developmental neurobiologist and a professor at Harvard. She studies how the most complex organ in the human body (in the world? in the universe maybe?) comes to be: the brain (!). How does it develop from just a bunch of cells? Paola is also the Chair of her Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, where she takes particular care about the nurturing of the next generation of scientists in her field. In this episode, Paola describes the crucial role that happiness and passion play for her in doing research. But science for Paola is also a walk in the dark woods, requiring the courage to tackle seemingly quirky questions that get at the heart of the most fundamental biology. We also discussed the role of the mentor in helping to develop the brain for creativity, much the way an infant’s brain develops to understand the world around it.

S3: E12: Ewan Birney is the deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) and  co-director of the European Bioinformatics Institute. In his research, Ewan combines his training in biochemistry with computer science, which made him one of the heroes of the human genome project. In this episode, he describes that an “emotional” understanding of science is often enough to have valuable discussions with experts in different fields, a concept that forms the basis of his diamonds-and-whiskers model of successful scientific teams. Ewan also explains how for him, problems have personalities, and why thinking about science while driving is a bad idea. And he discusses with us how “humans are a complicated species” can be all the scientific hypothesis you need for a grant application, and how Mendel – but not Darwin! – was an early data scientist.

S3: E13: Edith Heard is a Professor at the Collège de France and the Director General of Europe’s “CERN for biologists”, the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL). In this episode, Edith explains how she gets ideas when she’s out of her comfort zone and being challenged, and how in her youth she would go to the piano whenever her brain needed time to solve a hard math problem. She emphasizes how much she profited from the “naive optimism” in science in the US – compared to the much more rigid, historical European approach. She discusses with us the importance of deep knowledge about your research subject, paired with the humbleness of feeling you don’t know enough. And then she tells us how she tucks away questions in a drawer until methods become available to answer them. 

S3: E14: Laurence Hurst is a professor of Evolutionary Genetics and the founding Director of the Milner Centre for Evolution at The University of Bath. Martin actually learned biology from Laurence as a postdoc, and he still likes to quote Laurence’s favorite question after the departmental seminars: “Why is this interesting?” In this episode, Laurence explains his Slime Mold Model of the scientific process, advises us to follow the data, and tells us that much of his research springs from him being a magpie for funny little observations that don’t fit into the current scientific worldview. 

S3: E15: Yukiko Yamashita is a biology professor at MIT and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Yukiko’s research is amazingly broad, perhaps because she often only realizes at the end of a project which question she was asking by what she had been doing, as she explains in this episode. She likens research to solving 5000-piece jigsaw puzzles – not one at a time, but with the pieces from hundreds of puzzles all dumped together. So that while we put the pieces together, we have to be always watching ourselves: does that come from the same picture? Yukiko sees her role in the lab like that of an old wise woman in a tribe, a kind of ancient memory that still remembers their conversation with former lab members – stimulating creativity by bridging projects and generations of researchers.

S4: E1: Bonnie Bassler is the Chair of the Molecular Biology Department at Princeton. In this episode, Bonnie talks about her passion for scientific inquiry, creativity, mentorship, and how the journey of discovery is about asking the right questions, distinguishing between what you can do and what you should do, and about embracing the unexpected. In our very lively and fun discussion, we explore the significance of asking “why” questions to fuel passion and curiosity – even if only the if/what/when/how questions lead to clear answers – and we explore the balance between chaos and control in the scientific process. And so while the pay might be bad and the hours long, the joy of doing science and living on the edge in a “nerdy kind of way” makes it all worthwhile.

S4: E2: Tom Mullaney is a Professor of History at Stanford University and the Kluge Chair in Technology and Society at the Library of Congress, and Chris Rea is a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. In 2022, Tom and Chris published the book ‘Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World)’. In this episode, we talk about self-centered research (and about getting over yourself), how vulnerable self-confidence empowers your research, and how your personal biases are necessary for you to notice anything interesting at all. 

S4: E3: Prisca Liberali is a senior group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland. In this episode, Prisca tells us how her creative thinking thrives on recursive thinking – going deeper and deeper into a problem from different angles. Prisca also deliberately uses carefully chosen conferences to discuss and to develop ongoing projects. As much as her lab’s creativity is an inextricable part of the process, she admits that at the core it’s a lonely job. What eases leadership in the lab is learning who you are: which tasks you find easy and which tasks require excessive energy – and then sharing that information with your team members.