My Speech to the New AAAS Fellows

Holden Thorp


I had the privilege of speaking to the new AAAS Fellows. Here is the text of my remarks.

Good evening, everybody, and congratulations!  To those of you who are being recognized this evening – thank you for being here so that we can acknowledge your accomplishments.  The recognition of AAAS Fellows is one of the most solemn and important duties of the association.

We’re so honored you’re here with us when you could be watching Top Gun:  Maverick.

Personally, I’m very happy with my choice, because I didn’t really love the 80s the first time.

More about the 80s in a minute.

But first, today.  You’re being recognized at a strange and wonderful time to be a scientist.  On the one hand, our work has never been more important and relevant.  But at the same time, we have never been more undermined, attacked, and ridiculed.  There was a time not that long ago – when I was in graduate school in those big-hair, big-glasses 80s, for example – when it seemed like science wasn’t that political.  Now, approval of science by political party has gone in the last 20 years from nearly even to a 30-point gap with only 34% of Republicans having confidence in science.

What should we do?  All of us want individuals of all nations, identities, political parties, and religions to benefit from science, but 30 points is a lot of lost ground.  Everywhere we turn, it seems like we’re being cut down and thrown into a political argument whether we want to or not.

It’s tempting to just laugh at it.  For example, when Marjorie Taylor Greene says that Bill Gates is going to somehow zap us through our vaccines, which were made in a Peach Tree Dish.  

Turns out Peach Tree Dish is actually a restaurant in Atlanta.

Or when Science published a paper showing that the covid polymerase has a paramagnetic FeS cluster, and someone went to a city council meeting and said she was now magnetic and silverware was sticking to her.

That would require the covid polymerase to have a very high copy number.

It’s a tense time, and it’s OK to laugh amongst ourselves.  I don’t agree with the moralizers who say we shouldn’t laugh.  We’re human – it dissipates energy and brings us together. 

But laughing isn’t a strategy for solving the problem other than giving us the stamina to keep going.

Maybe instead of asking what we should do, maybe first we have to answer a different question:  What happened?

The good news is this one is easy to answer, because historians and social scientists have been documenting the political appropriation of science in the US for 100 years.  It was exactly 100 years ago that acts of legislation in the American south that prohibited teaching of evolution in public schools were passed.  A few years later, teacher John Scopes was charged and tried with violating such a law in Tennessee.  The part of the story that is familiar to us is that Willam Jennings Bryan went up against Clarence Darrow and that Scopes was convicted but ultimately, the anti-evolution law was struck down.

It’s easy to see this – as many scientists do – as the triumph of scientific evidence over misinformation.  But that is a very simplistic reading, as historian Jill Lepore has recently documented in the New Yorker and her masterful synthesis of American history, These Truths.


The Scopes trial wasn’t really about evolution.  It was about whether the state had a role in education.  And it was about race.  The idea of a common ancestor obliterates the essence of White supremacy.  During the trial, W. E. B. Dubois was deeply concerned. “Americans are now endeavoring to persuade hilarious and sarcastic Europe that Dayton, Tennessee, is a huge joke, and very, very exceptional,” he said. “The truth is and we know it: Dayton, Tennessee, is America: a great, ignorant, simple-minded land.”

As Darrow said at the time, “Scopes is not on trial; civilization is on trial.”

Fortunately, in those days, it mattered to the US that we looked ridiculous on the international stage when Bryan, the populist Trump of 1925, made America look unsophisticated.  It wasn’t Darwin who won the trial – it was global shame.

It certainly doesn’t look like we have that going for us now.  But the even bigger lesson is what the Scopes trial was – the undermining of science in the name of a political agenda.  In this case, the libertarian goals of nationalistic parents who didn’t trust institutions or support public education.

Sound familiar?

The pattern has repeated itself frequently throughout history – whenever science challenges politics.  

When we challenged tobacco, they tried to convince people that smoking was good for you.

When we worried about degradation of the environment, they said we were faking the data.

When we said vaccines and masks would slow down the pandemic, they said they were microchip-wielding weapons made by George Soros and Bill Gates.

And most devastatingly, when we said the earth was warming due to human activity, they said it was just a natural cycle.

They said all these things because avoiding the need for government regulation took precedence over the truth.  It’s less frightening to muddy the facts.  It’s less threatening to take down the institutions.

It turns out there was more going on between science and politics in the 80s than I realized.

We got lucky on a few of these – clever engineers found refrigerants that were just as good as CFCs, we convinced smokers to go outside, and William Jennings Bryan died and evolution stayed in the curriculum — for a while at least.

Not clear how we’re going to have similar luck on pandemics and climate change.  Seems like those are going to take collective action more than innovation.

To me – and I’m sure to most actual historians of science – the most surprising thing about the pandemic was how astonished our scientific colleagues were by the denial of masks and vaccines.  When asked in his exit interview as NIH Director what he wished he’d done differently – Francis Collins, easily the most positively influential science policy leader of my lifetime – said he wished we understood better where hesitancy came from.

Of course, we can and should study the specific problem as it relates to covid, but we already know the answer.  


We just need to ask John T. Scopes and W. E. B. Dubois.

And Rachel Carson, Jane Lubchenco, our own Shirley Malcom, the IPCC, and countless more.

They know the endless cycles of this pattern are set to continue.

Who says there’s no such thing as perpetual motion?

Now, I’ve dished out a lot of shade for our opponents.  But what about us?  What did we do wrong?

We crammed our undergraduate degrees so full of redundant requirements that there’s no space for them to learn the history and workings of the world.

We put such a high priority on accomplishment in research that we made great teachers, communicators, and science policy folks into second-class citizens.

We set up ways of recognizing and funding research that are literally programmed to keep the same monochromatic bigwigs in power in perpetuity.

And we’re so impressed with our own expertise and accomplishments that we think we can solve societal problems without reading the literature.

That’s all pretty depressing.  But if you want to do something about this, you came to the right place.  Because the AAAS has programs that address all of these problems and more.  The Science family of journals is proud to generate a surplus that helps fund many of them compared to our peers who generate surpluses for their shareholders.

After tonight, you can take your rosette home, update your CV, and go back to reading and publishing in our journals.  You’ve earned the right to do all of those things.

But we hope you’re here to do more.  We hope you, like all of us, want to serve science AND society.

The world has never needed us more.

The children of the world deserve nutritious food, a healthy planet, a generative culture of safety, and access to good health.

We can’t give them those things without science, engineering, social science, and history.

And humility.  None of us knows it all.

If you want to serve, you came to the right place.

Congratulations to all of the new Fellows!

It ain't over til it's over

Holden Thorp

The Biden administration is sheepishly waving a checkered flag on the pandemic. If you look closely, you can see its members cringing as they do so. Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci told the PBS Newshour that the United States was “out of the pandemic phase” and then walked it back, saying he meant that the “acute compo­nent” of the pandemic phase was over. President Biden attended the likely superspreading White House Corre­spondents’ Dinner last weekend but skipped cocktails and the meal, opting to just give his talk. Fauci avoid­ed the whole affair. Meanwhile, Vice President Harris continued to isolate after her positive COVID-19 test, and many members of Congress and the administra­tion announced positive test results as well. All of this happened while the White House allowed a renegade federal judge in Florida (where else?) to end the nationwide mask mandate without much of a fight. These mixed messages have been emanating from the administration for months now, and although those with resources have tools to manage COVID-19, care needs to be taken that those without such means are not forgotten.
When Biden pledged to “follow the science,” it was hard to imagine that the country could have ended up here. But the administration made a big bet that vaccines would provide sterilizing immunity and end the pandemic, allowing it to move on to other priorities. Leaving behind the insanity of ivermectin, hydroxy­chloroquine, and bleach was certainly a great step forward. However, evolution has had other plans, and variants of severe acute respiratory syndrome corona­virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) have kept the pandemic going. This left the White House in a very tight spot: There was little political will to keep pushing nonpharmaceutical interven­tions, yet the pandemic was far from over. Add to this mounting inflation worries and concerns about the war in Ukraine, and the response has been a clumsy pivot to a message that politicians always turn to: personal responsibility. Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask, get a prescription for the antiviral Pax­lovid—if you want to. This may be fine if you have a healthy immune system, great health insurance, and the ability to navigate the US health care system. But what about everyone else?
COVID-19 is at a similar place to where the HIV/AIDS global pandemic was when the antiretroviral drugs came along. Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves told me about important parallels between both pandem­ics. “The HIV epidemic didn’t go away,” he said. “It just went to where people could ignore it. It went into the rural South, it went to communities that were already facing disparities in health.” At that time, confusion between medicine and public health was also an im­portant factor. “The discourse shifting to private choice and private adjudication of risk is really not what public health science is,” he said. “We work in populations. And if we’re talking about medicine, it’s about private risk and private choices.”
This all hit home for me when—while I was preparing this editorial—I tested positive for COVID-19. After writing about the virus for two-and-a-half years, it was in my body. But I’d had four shots of the vaccine to bolster my already robust immune system, a supply of rapid test kits, and a prescription for Paxlovid from my doctor. The fever was gone within a few hours of taking the antiviral, and I tested negative a few days later. Great news for me, but not for those who don’t have these resources.
Legendary public health leader Paul Farmer summed up this situation well: “Those whose lives are rarely touched by structural violence are uniquely prone to recommend resignation as a response to it,” he said. “In settings in which all of us are at risk, as is sometimes true of contagion shared through the air we breathe, we must also contemplate containment nihilism—the atti­tude that preventing contagion simply isn’t worth it.”
SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly mutating and recombining, and more variants and subvariants—potentially more pathogenic—are on the horizon. The world is still barely vaccinated, and even in wealthy countries like the United States, resources are inequitably distrib­uted. It absolutely ain’t over. And this is no time to drop the ball.

An effort to improve mentoring: A conversation with Jen Heemstra and Neil Garg

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how graduate education is still in serious need of reform and pointed to a NextGen Voices piece that we ran describing how principal investigators can be better mentors. Recently, I learned that two outstanding chemistry professors—Jen Heemstra at Emory University and Neil Garg at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)—had launched an initiative called #MentorFirst to address this challenge. The program’s goal is to put mentoring students and postdocs not only on an equal footing with research, but first.

Below are some highlights from our conversation. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Holden Thorp: Thanks to both of you for talking to me. Let’s start with what the initiative is and how you came to start it.

Jen Heemstra: The initiative is called #MentorFirst. The idea is that we are dedicated to excellence in our roles as both researchers and mentors, but which one we put first makes a huge difference to the students and postdocs who work in our lab. Do we see ourselves as researchers, and there are these people in our lab whose job it is just to get that research done? Or do we view ourselves as mentors who are here to help those students and postdocs develop in their careers, using research as the vehicle by which to do that? If we help them do outstanding research, then that will benefit all of us. We think that the shift to prioritizing mentorship makes a real difference to students and postdocs, and they are the future of our field. And so, we're both very invested in helping all of us as faculty to continue to grow as mentors. I know that I have a lot of growth that I could do as a mentor, a lot of areas where I can keep improving. Just like anything, we never become true experts at it. We just try to continually get better and better. And that's what this initiative really ended up promoting.

Holden Thorp: Neil, anything to add to that?

Neil Garg: I'll just mention that I visited Jen at Emory in 2018, and I was really struck by all the great ideas she had about supporting graduate students and how important it was. Fast forward to now, and she is a huge voice in the community with a massive following. I think what that really showed is that there is an incredible need to promote proactive mentoring in our field, and more generally across the scientific community. So Jen and I put our heads together and came up with #MentorFirst. We talked with our graduate students and postdocs about it over a joint Zoom group meeting, and we just thought it was an incredibly important initiative. The idea is that people can go to the #MentorFirst website and find the pledge option. So if you’re a mentor, you can take a pledge, basically saying you will follow our guidelines about what it takes to be a proactive mentor: You’ll put your students first, or the students in your lab first, and prioritize their career paths and their education. But you can also be a supporter of the initiative and complete an endorsement form. And that's really the idea. There's a cool logo. It says, “Mentoring. It's in our genes.” The idea is that faculty can also post this on their website to show that they support this initiative and that they create a nurturing environment.

Holden Thorp: Why do you think the gap that you're filling here exists?

Neil Garg: It's interesting. Why does this gap exist? Well, I can use myself as an example. If I look at what we have listed on the #MentorFirst website as pledge commitments, most of them are things that I did not do when I started my independent career as an assistant professor. When I look back, my goal was research. It wasn't about the education and the mentorship of the co-workers in my lab. So part of it maybe can be attributed to the tenure process: It's the research, it's the research, it's the research. People are thinking about their job security. Then years later, once I was past that and also serving as department chair, I saw a huge variety in how faculty interact with the mentees, and it was pretty striking. By that time, I'd completely changed how I viewed the mentorship culture in my research lab. And I don't think there's been any loss in productivity that results from managing and orchestrating my group with a mentor focus; the research takes care of itself. I wish I had understood that when I started my career. So maybe partially to do with the tenure process.

Jen Heemstra: I completely agree with Neil. I think it really speaks to the way that we view faculty jobs in our field and in academia, in general. When you’re coming up as a student and then as a postdoctoral researcher, you're told, "Oh, if you become an academic, that's a research job. It's a research job. It's a research job." But then if you look at the job, yes, you are managing a research program, but really so much of the job is all sorts of things. It's human resources and finances and all of these things we were trained for. But a huge, huge part of that is leading this group of people. I think that in other fields, certainly in the industry, if you have 10 or 15 direct reports, you're considered a leader or manager, and you're given leadership and management training. But in academia, we just haven't embraced that in the same way. A big goal is to shed light on this issue and to really promote good mentoring, but we also wanted to make this really, really easy for people who want to do the right thing but don't have the resources to do that. So we worked together to create these mentoring commitments, and then we got advice from a number of the people who signed on as supporters of our #MentorFirst initiative.

Jen Heemstra: The goal was to say, "Hey, from one person who's trying to learn this to another, we realized that we're all busy and we all have a lot of stress coming at us from lots of directions, but we know that lots of us out there want to grow in this area. We want to work together and share some basic practices, really actionable ideas for things that people can do in order to improve the quality of their mentoring." So it's not supposed to be guilt-inducing or judgmental at all, but rather just an attempt to share some really low–energy barrier ways that faculty can improve their mentoring and improve the culture in their lab.

Holden Thorp: Aside from people signing up for your initiative, what are things that the institutions could do better?

Jen Heemstra: That's a great question. We would love for this to be a springboard for institutions to create a framework for promoting mentoring among their faculty. I have started to think about whether institutions could create #MentorFirst groups. It would be great to bring together groups of faculty who were all interested in growing together as mentors and maybe (in post-COVID times) provide a nice lunch for everyone and meet on a semi-regular basis, a few times a semester maybe, to talk about how they're growing as mentors, to share stories, to share things that they're struggling with, and to support each other in that. We hope that when people go to our mentors initiative and click the pledge button, it's not a one-time thing, where they think about mentoring in that 5 minutes and then they walk away and don't do anything differently. Certainly, universities can also be rewarding this, just like they reward faculty for participating in diversity, equity, and inclusion training, and just like they reward other work that points toward excellence in education or research. We would love to see #MentorFirst participation being rewarded by universities as well. We would love to see it be something that faculty could talk about in their tenure promotion materials, saying that they took the pledge and also describing what they have done to be an outstanding mentor to their group and how they have grown as leaders.

Neil Garg: Just to add a few other ideas about what institutions or departments could do, I think the simplest on a very general level is just to talk about it more. If there's a problem with regard to mentorship in a department, we typically just try to solve it and keep it quiet. We try not to draw attention to such things. So I think just talking about it, like, "Hey, maybe that could have been handled differently. Here's a different way to do it" would help. At regular faculty meetings, someone, maybe the vice chair for graduate studies, could give an example of a successful and an unsuccessful mentoring case. I also think it would be very cool and controversial to evaluate faculty mentorship formally across the board. I don't know exactly how to do that. Obviously, there are websites for Rate My Professor. I'd be a little terrified if there was a website that said Rate My Research Mentor, but maybe that's what's needed. But at an institutional level, something like that could be implemented at departmental levels. Then, as Jen alluded to, it could tie into the promotional process. Right now, there are certain metrics required to be promoted in any of our institutions. I don't know that how one acts and performs as a mentor is currently a part of that in a substantial way. No disrespect to UCLA—I do think UCLA cares very much about education and mentorship, but it's just not as formalized, I would say. And maybe some formality around it would help.

Holden Thorp: Would you like to add anything before we end our discussion?

Neil Garg: Just that we sincerely hope that this puts a spotlight on the importance of mentorship. That's the overall goal. All of us as faculty, no matter how great of a job we think we're doing, have room for improvement. And that's one of the fundamentals of the #MentorFirst initiative, that a mentor is a person who is constantly growing in their role as a mentor. So if nothing else, hopefully everybody who hears about this initiative takes a moment to reflect on their own practices and think about how they can grow as a mentor. There is nothing to lose by doing that. This should not be confused with, "Okay, if you care about mentoring, you don't care about your research anymore." That's not what this is about at all. It's about the synergy between the two. We really only have something to gain by being awesome mentors. Again, that's really what this initiative is about, and I hope that's what people take away from it.

Jen Heemstra: Too often, the conversation about research and mentoring pits the two against each other in a zero-sum game, as though if you want to be amazing at research, it has to be at the expense of your mentoring, or if you want to really, really value mentoring, then that is going to come at the cost of your research. We want to shatter that narrative, and we want to create a new narrative that really these two things are synergistic. As Neil mentioned earlier, the more we pour ourselves into being amazing mentors, the more we can empower and motivate and support each of the people we work with. Being an outstanding mentor and an outstanding leader is not about having all the answers. It's about showing up and helping every person in our group to be their very best and to learn and grow and come out of our lab prepared for their future in the best possible way. As we do all of those things, outstanding research is the natural outcome, not something that gets shoved aside. And so, we can still do outstanding research, but do it in a way that supports people, creates a positive academic culture, and helps more people to be outstanding scientists in government or law or industry or academia or wherever they go. And if the past 2 years have taught us anything, it is that our future is reliant on science. Whether it's coping with pandemics or thinking about how we overcome climate change, our future as a society is reliant on scientists, and it's reliant on us as academics to be providing the best possible training and mentoring for scientists.

Holden Thorp: That's terrific. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Graduate education still needs major reform

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

This week in our NextGen Voices series, young scientists propose a set of rules for principal investigators (PIs) to follow. Although it is heartening in some ways to see young scientists willing to voice these important principles, the fact that they felt compelled to do so sends a sobering message about the culture of science. It is clear from the responses that many PIs continue to see their graduate students as sources of labor, productivity, and prestige rather than as students getting an education.

During my time as a university administrator, I was visited frequently by faculty who wanted to expand the size of their department’s graduate program. These meetings were astonishingly transparent—every single one of these emissaries was unabashed in their desire to procure more graduate students so they could get more work done. I was never treated to a presentation explaining how increasing the size of the program could lead to better training and experience for the students. After all, if we wanted to do a better job for our graduate students, we would make the programs smaller, not bigger. As postdoctoral stints get longer and more PhDs leave science, there’s a much stronger case for more focused programs than the other way around.

On top of the misplaced focus on productivity over education, the suggestions by NextGen Voices authors speak to a lack of awareness of what the students’ long-term objectives truly are. One of my favorite quotes in our piece this week says, “Encourage and support young scientists to do what’s best for their budding career, not your established career” (emphasis mine). Another group of visitors that I have seen over the years consists of graduate students choking back tears because their adviser lost interest in them after they declared an interest in industry over academia. This is a truly embarrassing and immoral feature of too many graduate programs and labs. If the point of graduate programs is to provide education and opportunity, then ensuring an impressive academic legacy for PIs should not take precedence over helping the students achieve their goals.

A culture in which PIs exploit and undermine their students is horrible for science. Graduate students who have been harmed by these actions often become disaffected for perfectly logical reasons. An abusive system that robs students of their enthusiasm has far-reaching implications, including further damaging the public’s trust in science. We can only hope that the PIs who most need to read these stories will stop on their way to this week’s research papers and take a hard look at our NextGen Voices feature.

A consequential verdict for international collaboration

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

Nearly a year ago, when I heard that the esteemed Harvard chemist Charles Lieber was arrested in his office, I was completely shocked. But as the details of his story unfolded, I could foresee a sad outcome. Last month, just before Christmas, a jury found him guilty of lying to the US government about participating in China’s Thousand Talents program, which recruits foreign scientists.

I have known Charlie Lieber for 35 years. I first met him the day I arrived at the California Institute of Technology for graduate school. It was early on a Sunday morning, and he and I were the only people in Harry Gray’s lab at that time on a weekend (I was just dropping off my stuff). When I was a grad student, he made me think about how science is done and how much work it is. His wife, Jenny, was a graduate student in the Gray lab, and she and a few of us would play cards while our chromatography experiments ran and our solvents were pumping through the columns. Charlie never played cards with us. He was all work, all the time.

When Charlie started as a faculty member at Columbia University, I was doing experiments down the hall with Nick Turro. I would often see Charlie running to his lab shouting, “STM! STM! STM!” He was assembling one of the first scanning tunneling microscopes and using it to understand superconductivity. His first paper on the topic was published in Science. Charlie’s career was a rocket after that; it was no surprise when he moved to Harvard.

Somewhere along the way, I heard that Charlie grew enormous pumpkins. It was little wonder that if he decided to grow large pumpkins, he would produce the largest one in Massachusetts. He simply did everything with the highest possible ambition.

I was not surprised that Charlie was targeted in the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative (an effort to identify scientists who give sensitive economic and trade secret information to China). He has had many dealings with Chinese universities through which he recruited outstanding graduate students and postdocs. But when I heard that he brought home a paper bag containing $60,000 dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology, didn’t declare it as income, and then lied about it, I knew he was in some kind of trouble. For these actions, he deserved to be convicted, but my heart still breaks for Charlie and Jenny and their family.

Many questions have been asked about why Charlie did this. I corresponded with several reporters who covered the story, and none seems to have gotten a convincing answer. Bringing home $60,000 in cash is enough to get you in trouble, but it’s not a life-changing amount of money for a big-time Harvard professor. I can only guess that Charlie thought that he could enhance his science through his relationship with the Wuhan University of Technology: He could get more outstanding graduate students into his lab in the US, and also continue working with them in China. The institute offered him a close relationship, and he signed up without paying enough attention to the details. A guy who grows giant pumpkins and works 6 days a week doesn’t want to do anything other than more and better science. It’s been reported that Charlie hoped to impress the Nobel Prize committee through a robust relationship with China.

Charlie was not accused of espionage or sharing trade secrets. He was targeted for his association with a Chinese academic institution. The ramifications of Charlie’s conviction are therefore profound. The China Initiative was already having a chilling effect on international collaboration. With this verdict, even more scientists in the US will avoid interacting with Chinese colleagues for fear of ending up like Charlie. That’s not good for scientific progress, which relies on the open collaboration across fields and cultures.

The Magic of a University Classroom

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

The politics and policy of higher education are important, and I understand why they get so much attention in the wider world. But as I reflect on the just-completed semester of our American Professoriate course, I’m reminded that the magic of the classroom is still at the heart of everything we do at the university.

Even in fantastically challenging circumstances — the first semester back on campus after COVID disruptions, the first session of this class after a bruising summer of debates about racial justice and diversity in academia, in the midst of intense speculation about the future of our campus and its leadership — our class was a delight for both the students and the instructors. The discussions were honest, the debates rich and revealing, and the sense of trust among a very diverse group of people was among the strongest I’ve ever felt in a classroom.

From the outset, the professors wanted the class to embody the fundamental values that we believe make an American university different than any other institution in our society. We began with the composition of the class. It was important to have students who were both highly accomplished in their fields and, as a group, representative of the diversity that makes up American higher education. With the help of Graduate School Dean Suzanne Barbour, we were able to recruit scholars born all over the country and the world, over half of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Their scholarly work is equally broad, representing math, medicine, journalism, public health, neuroscience, and social work. Have a look at the class photo below and you’ll get a good sense of what the future of the academy looks like.

Getting to know those students better was by far the best part of the course. Every week, and starting with the four instructors, we held time for “Why Am I Here?” presentations, giving everyone the chance to tell their backstory and their motivation for taking the course. Deciding to devote your life to a set of scholarly questions — how to cure addiction, how to repair trust in media, how to prevent injuries in young athletes — is an unusual choice. Hearing how people arrived at that decision was truly heartening and sharing those very personal journeys built immense trust.

The result was just what we hoped: Candid and transparent discussion of difficult, emotionally charged issues. It was a reminder that our capacity to listen and learn across vast differences is very much intact if there’s an opportunity for patience, for humanizing one another, and for earned goodwill. Those principles are central to the idea of a university.

Class discussion was informed and respectful. Each week, four students wrote blogs, randomly assigned, supporting or opposing the central thesis of the week. In many cases, students had to support positions they did not agree with, but the process led to discussions where both sides were clearly articulated and heard.

This was particularly important because the topics being discussed were contentious by design: fairness in college admissions, what equity and inclusion means in practice for higher education, the purpose of tenure and promotion. Unexpectedly for all of us, the session on university budgeting proved one of the most intense and interesting, proving the old adage that you can tell a lot about institutional values by looking at institutional spending.

Disagreements and strong pushback occurred routinely. The instructors, including Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and our invited guests, all experts in their field, were sharply challenged. The ideals of free inquiry and intellectual skepticism were embraced and tested, and the whole class was better and more cohesive for it. Open dialogue beats uneasy silence.

The class also addressed the practical skills needed for the students to enter academia and make a difference in the world. We discussed networking, cover letters, and job interviews, even putting every student through a mock interview and one-on-one meetings with instructors (including the chancellor). We were keen to demonstrate that choosing between academic success and real-world impact is not an “either/or” proposition. One of the things our students appreciated most about the class, according to their evaluations, was the mix of theoretical debate and highly practical life advice.

That matters because our students clearly want to see their work in the lab and classroom turn into something meaningful for the wider world. Three students in our seminar work on issues directly related to the opioid epidemic. Two work on problems related to social media and its effect on democracy and race relations. Others focus on improving early-grades teaching, finding new approaches to managing chronic pain, and encouraging more students to pursue advanced math, just to name a few. Our students almost uniformly focus on practical new knowledge that can change the world.

There is plenty that needs fixing in academia, and deep disagreements about how to make those reforms. But spending the last semester in a classroom was the best antidote I can imagine to any sense of cynicism about higher education or the direction of American life. There are earnest, fascinating young people hard at work every day on some of the biggest challenges in our world, and I’m headed into 2022 with profound gratitude for all of them.

A conversation with Rebecca Schwarzlose

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

In this week’s Science Editorial, I wrote about an interview I had with Rebecca Schwarzlose, a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis* who also wrote an acclaimed popular book, called Brainscapes, about neural maps. Her story reflects the challenges of being both a researcher and an outstanding science communicator. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

*HT is a faculty member on leave from the same institution

Holden Thorp: I’ve been writing a lot about the science communication problem. I’m skeptical about the idea that every scientist needs to be better trained at communication. How did you go from being an undergraduate to a graduate student who wrote a trade book to then becoming a full-time neuroscience researcher?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I was an undergraduate in psychology at Northwestern University, and I wanted to study neuroscience—particularly neuropsychiatric disorders—so I went to MIT for graduate school.  I struggled with neuropsychiatric models in mice, so I learned neuroimaging techniques and then went to UCLA to do postdoctoral research on the neural basis for psychiatric illness.

For personal and family reasons, I left academia and was home with my young child. I did some research part time but also spent time thinking about and practicing science writing. That was when the idea for a book came about.

I then became an editor at Trends in Cognitive Sciences. That was a different experience—thinking about how to communicate with scientists who are in adjacent fields. Although it wasn’t quite the same as communicating with the general public, a lot of the same challenges existed. I tried to help authors get their ideas across in a more accessible manner. After a few years, I wanted to get back to research. I also got a book deal.

I’m finally now at the stage where the book has been published and I’m engaging with people about science while also doing research full time.

Holden Thorp: So you didn’t really work on science communication until after you’d finished grad school and a short postdoc at UCLA?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: That’s right. I didn’t have any formal training in science communication. Thankfully, my graduate advisor was a good writer and gave me advice on writing scientific articles. But I didn’t have anyone advising or offering guidance on reaching out more broadly.

Holden Thorp: How did you figure out how to shop your book proposal and get a contract?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I did some reading about it, attended workshops on science writing, met people who did science writing, and pieced together how to write a book proposal. Things just fell together.

Holden Thorp: What part of your public communication work is still going on now?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I’m still giving interviews and being invited to speak to different audiences, which has been rewarding.

You touch people who have very different backgrounds and are interested in the same things but for very different reasons.

Holden Thorp: Would you say that this hurts your productivity as a researcher?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: Writing a book and then going out into the world and talking about it was a very big project. It did hurt my productivity in terms of research publications. I also have a family, and so there are fewer opportunities to work through the weekend and stay up all night working.

Writing an article here or there, having a blog, or doing a podcast allows you to reach out to people in ways that are more “bite-size.” The challenge is that research is a competitive environment, so it’s hard to allocate time for something else.

Holden Thorp: What about your peers? Are they appreciative of what you’re doing, or jealous, or some mix?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I think either supportive or maybe a little quizzical. No one thinks it’s a bad thing to be doing. It’s an unusual thing to be doing.

Holden Thorp: Do you think that it’s realistic to expect lots of people to do what you’re doing?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: No, I don’t. I think what we should probably be aiming for is finding ways to give scientists tools to help them communicate, not necessarily even with a general audience, but just more broadly between different disciplines.

We could change the culture too. We have the mentality that if you are brilliant, then people will either understand you or not. But even within the scientific community, it is incumbent upon us to be comprehensible to others and share what we have done with taxpayer money as broadly as possible.

Holden Thorp: You gave a talk the other night without saying “engram” or “voxels.” Most of your peers can’t do that.

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I think if they had to, it would strengthen their understanding of their own material, because when you are forced to explain something to someone who doesn’t know the jargon, you are forced to understand it at an even deeper level to explain it clearly.

Holden Thorp: Are you hoping to continue blending research and this public side?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I can’t see doing a book anytime soon. It was more than a full-time commitment. I do hope to continue to communicate in small ways and to mentor others on how to be better science communicators.

Holden Thorp: If you think about the challenge of communicating to people who are skeptical about science, what have you learned?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: That’s another thing that scientists need to grapple with. It could be incorporated into our training, just as we are taught responsible conduct for research. How could we think about responsible communication? If I describe how deprivation early in life affects the developing brain in long-lasting ways, somebody who has preconceptions might think I am saying that people who were born in a deprived environment aren’t smart or capable. People hear what they want to hear based on their agenda. Thinking about the different sorts of mindsets you might encounter and trying to preempt obvious ways in which what you say might be distorted are important parts of executing effective communication.

Holden Thorp: What advice do you have for leaders around the world who are wrestling with this science communication problem?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: Perhaps along the lines of responsible conduct and research, we could enact more expectation from scientists at a grant level—for instance, by asking, “How have you communicated what you’ve learned from this grant-funded research?” When we evaluate applicants for academic positions or for promotions, we should think more broadly about how they are reaching out to other audiences and bringing what they’ve learned to the feet of the public or at least scientists in other fields.

This could help establish a new culture. Right now, there’s a feeling that scientists should put their heads down and be in the lab, and that talking about science broadly is showboating—that is, looking for attention and not really doing science.

Holden Thorp: You’re at a high-powered research place, Washington University. Institutions don’t get any more aggressive when it comes to traditional scientific achievement. What should Wash U do to make space for this?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: The medical school is trying to build up a science communication platform that involves inviting speakers with different experiences and asking them to speak more generally. These kinds of seminars are wonderful exposure, but the skills needed take practice. There could be a class in every graduate program that requires students to explore different ways of communicating scientific ideas to different audiences.

Holden Thorp: How do we get the skeptical scientists on board with this, to respect the kind of great work that you’re doing in science communication?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: If science communication was something you had to have on your CV, that would quickly get across the idea that you have to make time for it. And that might involve readjusting the degree to which we focus on our scientific publications for things like job searches.

Holden Thorp: Well, here’s hoping that can happen. Certainly, the great work that you’re doing is helping us go in that direction and thank you for your courage and determination in doing it.

Rebecca Schwarzlose: Thank you so much.

Welcoming Jennifer Lee

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

Today we are running a guest blog from Jennifer Lee, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia University. Earlier this year, Professor Lee provided an important editorial for us on anti-Asian violence. A renowned sociologist, Lee is an expert on the Asian experience in the United States and globally.

This week, she writes about the history of xenophobia, scapegoating, and the racial foundations of US immigration law that produced stereotypes of Asians as foreign, un-American, and expendable. This legacy of bigotry and exclusion continues to affect Asian Americans today, from Olympic gold medalists to pioneering scientists.

We are delighted to welcome Dr. Lee as a regular contributor to the Editor’s Blog to discuss issues related to the experience of Asian scientists in the United States and around the world. Given the tension between the US federal government and the Chinese government, the misperceptions about Asian Americans’ experiences and attitudes, and the horrific anti-Asian sentiment that has skyrocketed in the wake of COVID-19, her inimitable voice is critical for the scientific community as it strives toward a more equitable, inclusive, and just future.

Welcome Dr. Lee!

Protest Long a Part of Campus Life

Eric Johnson

American universities are full of weird contradictions. One of the most striking is the way they nurture radical ideas while operating with a deep-seated conservatism. We think of colleges as bastions of activism and social change, and they can be. But as institutions, universities are slow to change, bound to tradition, and deeply rooted in a particular place and culture.
That’s part of the reason campus conflicts seem so intense. The idealism and energy of youth run headlong into the dense and deliberative bureaucracy of centuries-old institutions that need four advisory committees and a task force to tweak parking policies.
In that way, college activism is a lot like American politics. Demands for urgent action collide with systems of government that were designed from the beginning to be slow, to require a lot of discussion and compromise before anything really happens. Change in our constitutional democracy has often required marching in the streets, but almost always alongside a focused, disciplined effort to move the gears of government.
“You have to learn the difference between mobilizing and organizing,” explained Joy Williamson-Lott, a professor at the University of Washington College of Education. She Zoomed into the American Professoriate class last month for a discussion on how change happens at universities and how social movements translate ideas into policy. She told the graduate students in the class that protest plays an important role, but it has to be complemented with a sustained inside game to be effective.
You hold a rally, and you show up to the faculty assembly meeting week after week. You launch a social media campaign, and you carefully lobby administrators. “Accountability and organizing can be super boring, but that’s how institutional change happens,” Williamson-Lott explained.
It was a great lesson, and it made me think about Carolina’s long history of creating room for intense dissent without undermining faith in the University or in the country. There’s been a lot of angst over the last few years about student activism and young people’s attitudes toward democracy, but even the most cursory glance through Chapel Hill’s past shows that those anxieties have been around for decades.
Some of the largest student protests in American history happened in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, sparked by the Vietnam War and ongoing demands for racial justice. The National Guard deployed to colleges across the country, President Nixon launched a Commission on Campus Unrest, and more than 6,000 Carolina students went on strike in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings.
“We go on strike to open up a new university, to create a free university,” declared Student Body President Thomas Bello in a May 1970 speech that also contained some harsh words for state and national politicians. “We strike to establish a university that will espouse what this society so desperately needs: mutual love, respect, and understanding.” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor J. Carlisle Sitterson faced intense pressure from alumni and state leaders to expel disruptive protestors and fire the faculty members who joined them.
Into this fray stepped UNC President William C. Friday, gently reminding everyone that college campuses are not alien outposts but a mirror of American society. “To my knowledge, the vast majority who have participated in these demonstrations on our campuses and others are our own sons and daughters, nieces and nephews,” he wrote. “During all the years before enrolling in the University, these young people have been developing their sense of values, their standards, and judgments by what they learned from us as parents in our homes and by what they were taught in our schools and in our churches. It is our task to help each student build on this base, to broaden his knowledge, to deepen his understanding of our society, and to qualify himself for a useful and meaningful life.”
Friday went on to explain that while the University itself would remain politically neutral, it would support the right of students and faculty to speak and protest within the bounds of the law. “I believe it is a constructive and wholesome thing for students to engage in political activity,” Friday wrote. “It is encouraging to see their energies and talents so constructively channeled.”
Channeling those energies means not only protecting the right to speak and protest but insisting on the responsibility to serve. One of the problems with our public life right now, both on campus and off, is that people are impatient with the actual work of governing. Institutions don’t move at the speed of Twitter, and changing people’s minds takes a lot more patience and discipline than rallying your own side.
Universities are at their best when they insist that American institutions can be allies in the fight for progress and that politics and protest are two sides of the same coin.
Eric Johnson works for the College Board, the UNC System, and sometimes for UNC-Chapel Hill. He can be reached at

Growing pain

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

This month, Science Translational Medicine published a special issue laying out the main issues in pain research, the biological and psychological mechanisms of pain, and research on treating chronic pain.

America’s opioid crisis has placed the issue very much in the public eye, most recently because of the legal proceedings against members of the Sackler family, their company Purdue Pharma, and the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. As chronicled in the book Empire of Pain, released earlier this year, OxyContin was irresponsibly pushed to the public, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and many more lives ruined. And the recent Hulu series Dopesick provides a riveting account of the devastation wrought by the drug.

This story provides another example of how some scientists failed to behave in a principled manner. The scientists who developed the pill—even those who knew the danger—didn’t come forward until far too late. The US Food and Drug Administration ignored warnings and destigmatized opioids, most likely because the agency was enticed by the idea that a pill could reduce the suffering of millions with chronic pain. As trust in science continues to erode among parts of the public, failures in the opioid crisis have given detractors more reasons to doubt scientists and their commercial partners.

Unfortunately, science is still coming up short with solutions to chronic pain. Even after a hundred years of study and research, there is no treatment that doesn’t come with a high risk of addiction. Will pain always defy a medical solution? If so, then scientists need to cede the treatment of pain to mental health professionals. Otherwise, if science can find a solution, we need to try even harder because there are millions of cancer patients and people at the end of their lives who deserve a path out of their suffering.

As the Science Translational Medicine compendium shows, the scientific community is still focused on the biochemical approach to chronic pain, but this commitment must be paired with communication and policy that avoids another opioid disaster.

At the end of Dopesick, Michael Keaton’s character—a doctor who gets addicted to OxyContin but eventually finds a way to help addicts in his community—makes a powerful speech about pain:

“Pain is just pain,” he says. “Not good, not bad. Just part of being human. And sometimes good can come out of it. And if we’re brave enough, willing to go a little deeper, work our way through it, try to overcome it; well, we just might find our better selves.” 

Science needs to find its better self on the issue of pain. It needs to own up to its failures and redouble efforts to define the problem of chronic pain and assess whether a biochemical solution is feasible or not. 


Looking to book the authors for an event or a Campus Conversation? Question from the media? Comment from a reader? Complete this form and we'll get back to you.

Buy The Book