Going into the unknown together: a guitar talk about the importance of emotions in science

Going into the unknown together: a guitar talk about the importance of emotions in science

By Jucha Willers Moore, PhD Student

Uri Alon, Professor of Systems Biology and Physics of Behaviour at the Weizmann Institute of Science, recently gave a seminar at the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology as part of the 2022-2023 “NEUReka!” seminar series.

NEUReka! Seminar Series
NEUReka! Seminar Series

Prof. Alon’s work combines computational biology with more traditional wet lab work techniques (and some improv theatre) to explore network motifs, gene regulation and evolutionary motifs. His work has garnered many accolades, including the EMBO Gold Medal and the Weizmann Institute of Science President's Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement. However, Prof. Alon’s seminar was on one of his other passions - the importance of our emotions in doing scientific research

Prof. Alon started his journey into the emotional side of science years ago, inspired by both his own experience as a researcher, and that of his peers. Since then, he has published well know papers, produced resources and given TED talks watched by hundreds of thousands of people on this topic. Once he became a tenured professor at the Weizmann Institute, Prof. Alon realised he could devote even more of his to changing the culture of science for the better.

Have you ever felt stuck or lost in your research? Has it made you feel alone or unworthy of doing research because you didn't think scientists got stuck? Well, it turns out you are definitely not alone. Prof. Alon found this out during his PhD when he himself started to feel this way. From speaking to his fellow PhD students, he found that many of them had also felt stuck, lost and unworthy at times. However, oftentimes, it feels as though feelings and emotions have no place in science as we label science as objective and rational. What Prof. Alon wants us all to know is that the subjective and emotional are essential to being a good scientist.

Have you ever felt stuck or lost in your research?
Have you ever felt stuck or lost in your research?

One word that is helping Prof Alon combat the bias that scientific research has towards the objective and rational is “schema”. If we believe the way research is portrayed, the schema of scientific research is a straight line from the question (A) to the answer (B). The disconnect between this schema and the reality of research causes cognitive dissonance, manifesting itself as feeling stuck and unworthy. So, Prof. Alon has proposed a new schema to better reflect the reality of research which goes like this: You start working on the question (A), things repeatedly don’t work a few times over, you enter the cloud of research where you stay until you see an alternative, more interesting and profound answer (C), and with enough support, you can reach it. The cloud represents the point at which researchers get stuck and feel unworthy, but, if we flip it on its head, it can also represent the leap of faith required to establish truly new scientific findings.

Prof. Alon believes the route out of the cloud is emotion, subjectivity, and creativity, a direct contradiction to the objective and rational science we are used to. Fortunately for the research community, culture is constantly changing - it can’t not change. Prof. Alon is inspiring people to become agents of change, encouraging research culture to embrace the subjective and emotional. The task bestowed to agents of change is to create environments where people can bond, and learn more about the emotional and subjective side of science. Hopefully, this will equip people to provide solidarity and support to others taking the leap of faith through the cloud to reach new, exciting
scientific findings.

The seminar was peppered with songs played expertly by Prof. Alon on the guitar whilst he sang anecdotally about his previous experiences in research. The tales he chose to tell included a story about Mike, a fellow postdoc who supported him during his first postdoc in a biology based lab, the journal review process, and how to be a better reviewer. The whole affair ended on the lyric, “Science is a social affair, we’ll help each other to get there.” set to the tune of Jess Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ which, I think, perfectly encapsulated the message of the seminar.

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