Lessons from looking at clouds: Uri Alon and emotions in science
17 July 2016
Earlier this year, Uri Alon, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, came to the WIMM to give two talks: one about his research, and one about his view on the importance of considering emotions in the scientific process. Uri Alon has spoken on this topic many times, including as Ted Talk that has had almost a million views. In this blog, Juan Ruiz Villalobos, a DPhil student in the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, describes Uri’s key message that science has a culture – and culture can be changed.
Have you ever felt like your research is going nowhere, with either failed experiments or those that completely challenge the hypotheses and models you’ve worked so hard to build? Or perhaps relationships within or outside of the lab are causing you stress that is preventing you from feeling satisfaction, awe, and wonder in your work.
If so, then do not despair, for you are not alone.
During his refreshing and inspiring talk to WIMM students, postdocs, and PIs, Uri Alon (a physicist turned network biologist with over 34,000 citations to his work) spoke of the importance that emotions play in the process of science. Because the work we do as scientists is inherently objective and “hard,” we tend to fear and shy away from that which falls outside of that and is subjective, or “soft.”
In his talk, which included three guitar songs (one improvised), Uri emphasized the importance of recognizing that as humans, we are very much driven by emotions, and that they impact the processes we do, no matter how “hard” and objective those processes may be.
As someone who works with clouds of multidimensional data that don’t necessarily cluster when collapsed, Uri reminded us that it is ok to delve into the unknown and find yourself in a cloud of overturned hypotheses and surprising experiments. Because although we tell a story in science of A to B, the process itself is really of one failed experiment after another, leading us to the conclusion that it’s actually A to C, with countless detours and discussions along the way.
Image source: http://serialmentor.com
His solution for successfully navigating the cloud: Joy and solidarity that lead to playful creativity.
As social creatures, we tend to thrive when we engage with others in discussion about our problems. This acts not only to “unload” us of our burdens, but also to get different perspectives and suggestions for solutions. Even if the other person doesn’t provide advice, the mere act of speaking about our problems to someone allows different creative aspects of our brain to take a step back and experience a broader perspective.
And opening the space for safe dialogue amongst our peers has another added benefit: it shows us that we are not alone. Many of the things we think are individual or specific to our situation are actually issues shared by other members of our peer group. Feeling alone only pushes us deeper into the cloud of uncertainty and anxiety, but there is strength and comfort in numbers, in knowing we are part of a community that not only shares our values and culture, but also wishes to see us succeed at every step of the way.
Uri brought with him a much-needed positive outlook towards cultural change in science and told me personally that if there’s anywhere in the world where social change can actually happen, it’s among scientists. We share a sense of wonder, awe, and enthusiasm for the things we study but also value truth and objectivity. It also helps we’re good at grasping abstract concepts and theories.
So if you’re in the cloud, know that it’s perfectly normal, and that finding people to help you get out of it is an important as the results of your next experiment.
If you missed Uri’s talk, you can watch his similar TED talk below:
For further information and resources on peer support in science, see Labmosphere.