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.