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Night Science

Author: Itai Yanai & Martin Lercher

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Where do ideas come from? In each episode, scientists Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher explore science's creative side with a leading colleague. New episodes come out every three weeks.
30 Episodes
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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit .
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! For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.Eric Topol is the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, a professor of Molecular Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute, and a senior consultant at the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases at Scripps Clinic in San Diego.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit .
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’.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit .
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! For more information on Night Science, visit .
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 favourite 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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.   For more information on Night Science, visit .
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 . For more information on Night Science, visit .
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.For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit .
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. For more information on Night Science, visit
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