What field in Neuroscience did you study? What about the research process did you enjoy? Did you prefer gathering the data, brainstorming its meaning, the writing process, defending your research, presenting your research, etc.
Computational neuroscience, but with a focus on theory and arguments. I enjoy the process of analysis and synthesis the most, and I think that lends itself best to presenting, teaching, and constructing arguments.
Did you choose to continue doing research? Why or why not? Do you still conduct research or has your career taken you other places? Why is that?
Sort of? This is less cut-and-dry than the question implies. I think it’s important to students to know “being in academia” does not mean “doing research.” If you are a full professor at an R1 university you will never do research, you will spend 100% of your time fundraising. Your graduate students will do the research. Occasionally the University will send out a press-release trumpeting the Professor’s latest paper. It will not mention the names of the graduate students who did the research. The university will do this so that prospective graduate students will read the press release, and think “oh! I need to be a professor at an R1 to do research.” This is useful to the professor and the university because it helps attract graduate students who are willing to work for peanuts and self-oppress in the hopes of winning the R1 lottery.
An actual research career inevitably involves lots of non-research: writing, mentoring, begging for money etc. It also includes long fallow periods: sabbaticals, writing books, taking time off for family. I’ve never said to myself “oh I’ll never do research again,” but I spend every day trying to “do research” whatever that would mean. The “doing research” mindset is pretty specific to the circumstances of being a graduate student or post-doc. It’s important to understand that that kind of “doing research” is only one small part of what a scientific career looks like.
While my current role is teaching focused, I spent a few years in a national lab and a few in a big private research lab. I still have occasional papers published with students, reviews, scholarly articles, etc, and I care about all those things, but if I never published another research paper I’d also be happy. I think this question starts from the premise that research is the kind of thing done at a bench in a lab or with a specialized piece of equipment like an MRI, and that data collection is the most primary role for researchers. Again, that’s because grad students are looking at the world from their position in it. Science is a collective endeavor, some people sit at benches and lose sleep over whether they are publishing enough. We call those people “grad students and postdocs.”
I always found the data collection/bench-lab step boring and frustrating. So I currently try to avoid data collection, and in grad school I was trying to do that as little as possible. My current teaching role feels more like an outgrowth of my own ability to choose my own path.
Has your career path changed since you graduated? Why or why not?
Odd question! No no chooses their career, that’s why it’s called a career. The word means “a trajectory of bouncing around and pinging off of things.” You have opportunities that come up and things you apply for and you do the ones that you have the chance to do. It’s not possible to decide to be something and get there via hard work, it’s much more subject to chance than that. At some point you get cancer and die and then at your funeral everyone says “what an interesting career he had.” Careers are a post-hoc rationalization of a life. They are a story told by the people who knew you professionally.
Thus, how would I even know if my career path changed? It’s a weird squiggly line! I like chaos. I always just try to do whatever is the next thing that interests me. It’s gotten easier over time because I have more money, power, authority, etc. A friend of mine, Cary Osborne who is a philosopher quit his Ph.D. halfway through because he wasn’t feeling the vibe. When I asked him if it made him nervous to do that he said: “No I’m still me. I’ll just do something else awesome.” Eventually I’ll get bored with my current role and do something else awesome.
What are some things you’ve been involved in since you graduated from the program?
I think there have been four major career threads I’ve been involved in since graduating. The first was a startup I co-founded with a colleague of mine from the program. It almost immediately failed spectacularly because of various interpersonal dynamics between some of the employees there. However, it also got me some exposure and that exposure got me an introduction at IBM Research in NYC, which was the second major chapter. I worked at IBM research on AI for education and AI for industry for about three years after that. I worked on some neural-network based systems for modeling student learning, and on a tutor chat bot. However, eventually my department was re-orged and I had to start over in an industry group. There I was able to do some stuff on computer vision, dynamical systems, and AI ethics. I also did a lot of invention and patent writing.
Concurrently, also because I was interested in trying out some more odd silicon-valley esque opportunities, I had the chance to teach at the Minerva Institute. It’s an international experimental University where students travel the world during their undergrad and most classes are taught via remote professors like me. Minerva is actually the third major career thread and I currently teach there full time. The last piece is that I’ve been able to focus more on writing and making media, I’ve been able to publish a number of pieces of creative writing in collaboration with my partner. Our biggest project was developing a satirical table-top RPG about corporate wizards.
What is one major change that happened since graduation that you did not expect?
I’ve never expected anything. I don’t make long term plans. So my expectations are rarely subverted. I am sort of surprised I moved to NYC. I was born in a small town in Montana and I’ve never been around so many people.
How has your personal life developed since you graduated?
My personal life was complicated before and remains so. I’ve moved to NYC, I visit my son in UIUC often (pandemic aside). I’ve devoted a lot more effort to personal projects, social life, and so on. Not much is going on this year though. I work out in the park a lot. I play Australian rules football semi-professionally? I run Business Wizards online every couple weeks.
How would you say you’ve changed since graduating?
I wish I could say I’d become wiser and better, and sometimes I feel like I have! But other times I’m still the grumpy and overly critical person who I was in grad school who is always worried about looking smarter than someone else by picking at their ideas. Fortunately that guy shows up less and less each day. I think Brent Roberts at UIUC has some great work showing that people get nicer in middle age and I really hope he continues to be right.
What’s a fond memory you have as a graduate student?
I remember enjoying the NSP bowling league, pub trivia, and brain awareness day. The things that stick out are mostly social events and the people. I wish more people I knew from the Illinois program were in NYC! Although, I guess I know several of them who are and we never hang out because they live in different neighborhoods.
Have you been back to campus since graduation? If so, when and why? If not, then why haven’t you returned?
I’ve been back often to Urbana since my son lives there and I visit him and my friends in Urbana pretty frequently. This has involved a couple of visits to campus, but I haven’t had much contact with the program or university, mostly just friends and labmates.
What impact do you hope your thesis has on the field of Neuroscience? If you are currently in research, what do you hope your work has on the field? If not, then how do you feel about the impact you left on the field and its importance?
Scientists learn things about the world, they don’t change it. My grandfather was a nutritional biochemistry professor who did some of the seminal work on the dangers of trans-fat. In the 1940s he was publishing research that showed that trans-fat lead to heart disease. He was ignored. He was ignored by the NIH, he was ignored by the public, he was ignored by other scientists. He was the subject of satire and called a shill for the egg companies. He lost his grant and had to beg for money from rich widows. Eventually, the food company Unilever found a trans-fat free way to make margarin and so they went looking for research that showed that trans-fat was dangerous so they could crush their competitors. Nowadays everyone “knows” that trans-fat is bad. Is it? Well I think for sure it is because my grandpa did the research. But hey, no one listened to him until a corporation picked him out of a hat and made him famous. I could pretend that his work “saved thousands of lives,” but I would have to make up that story myself, and I would see myself making it up, and I would know that the causal structure was way more complicated.
That’s the way it always works. Polio was wiped out by the army of nameless nurses and logistics workers. Jonas Salk was involved, but did not “cure polio.” His research did not inject the vaccine into ten billion arms. What’s more, if he hadn’t done it someone else would have. Polio was a scourge that filled the world with crippled children. Those kids’ suffering cured polio. Jonas Salk is hagiographic, scientist fan-fiction. We tell children stories about famous scientists so that they can have clear, uncomplicated (white, male) heroes to look up to.
The real world is more interesting and complex. That complexity is why we study neuroscience. This stuff is weird and we want to know! If you’re here because you want to have an impact you need to seriously reflect on your own vanity and on the unexamined messages you received about science being “good.” Science is not “good.” The world we study isn’t a moral actor. It just IS. If you are super interested in it, the reward is that you get to know a little bit more about it. If you want to do good in the world science is one of the worst careers. It keeps you isolated from the very social systems that you wish to improve. Seriously if you are here to cure a disease or discover a big theory, I strongly encourage you to quit. Wanting your work to be “important” is corrosive to the soul. Being a researcher equips you to think in deep time about the uncaring, infinite cosmos. At the scale of the universe, your work cannot possibly be important. You are trying to live out a children’s story.
Live out an adult story instead. Ask about what’s “interesting” not what’s “important.” I love talking about neuroscience and thinking about it and that’s my end goal.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?