Guest post: Sabbatical of Fear and Love

August 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Uri Alon writes: I didn’t want to take a Sabbatical. I was comfortable waking up every morning in the green Weizmann campus and walking to my lab, full of exciting scientists. Why change? That’s the thing about my marriage – it takes me out of comfort zones and into the unknown. So when Galia got a postdoc in Boston, I said goodbye to my students for two years.

We arrived in a rainy Boston April. I got a homesick-derived flu, our baby Gefen also got a flu and cried constantly in her daycare. I also cried: What have we done? But by May, things were getting sunny. Becky and Marc gave me a warm hug – a real one, not only metaphorical. In my first meeting with Marc, he put Gefen squarely on his head, everyone laughing- in what I now know is called the Kirschner maneuver. Mike Springer, Roy Kishony, Becky Ward, Debbie Marks had us over for delicious ‘orientation’ dinners. A wonderful thing about mentoring is that you get to become true friends with your students (after they graduate) — Ron Milo and Galit Lahav were like family. My office-mate by good fortune was the newly arrived Angela DePace, who shared my vision for nurturing science, with great articulation and heart. This empowered me to speak about such subversive topics in a public setting.

The public setting was provided by Jeremy Gunawardena, assigning me to a theory lunch right off the bat. I took the risk: talking about how science can benefit from discussion of its subjective and emotional sides. The presentation was improvised and would have met with disaster in virtually any other scientific venue. But here, the audience was prepared by the fundamentally nurturing values of the department — and so I felt warmth, understanding and togetherness with the audience. This was the start of an unexpected transformation — I became a public speaker and singer for changing the culture of science. I could not have done it without the supporting feedback you gave.

You can compare the first version of the nurturing talk to its evolution two years later, given in every conference I attend, on these two links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-dD8qrs6B0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDcgWtfoKy4

I did not expect that nurturing would turn into a movement. Ron Milo and Galit Lahav took the lead by organizing groups of new PIs, who do something very rare: they listen to each other. The groups train themselves in communication, mentoring, coaching, conflict resolution, time management, in a humanistic spirit in which a lab’s purpose is to help all members reach their full potential as scientists. These two pioneering groups — at HMS and at Weizmann — now serve as models for numerous new groups starting across the US and Europe. Grassroots nurturing is here — new PIs and postdocs taking nurturing into their own hands!

Yes, yes, I also did actual research. But it took a while to start. I realize now, that when I came I was burnt out. I didn’t particularly feel that doing science was as exciting as it used to be. I directed my anger and frustration about the baggage around science towards the doing of science itself. But now, I feel refreshed — eager to talk science, do science, full of new ideas and new connections. The sabbatical worked.

The sabbatical worked because of unexpected interactions. Meeting Lea Geontoro at a retreat poster describing her work with Marc, led to finding a way that biological circuits can detect fold changes, not only absolute changes in signal. My office – luckily placed next to Jeremy’s lab – opened up realms for mathematical theorems on robustness, and sharing the office with Mike Springer was like drinking from a fountain of ideas and enthusiasm. A chance meeting with Kathy Kavanagh started us thinking about evolution of chicken toe proportions. Theory lunch draws diverse people, so I could count on meeting Eduardo Sontag and Evelyn Fox Keller. Many other interactions provided pleasure and the satisfaction, as Feynman put it, of finding things out. The depts. hospitality also allowed me to bring two students for a year, Lior Noy and Oren Shoval. With them, we started two new fields of research (new for me, that is): Oren worked on understanding the blood clotting circuit, and Lior on how people can improvise joint movement, using the mirror game as a paradigm.

The years of nurturing my lab in Israel paid off: the lab had such good interpersonal culture when I left, that it pulled together and thrived over these two years, as I could witness in our weekly video group meeting. Its tough to be a PhD student or postdoc with an absentee adviser for two years, but almost all overcame that challenge and grew in independence and focus. I thank them for helping each other out, especially the research associates in my lab who provided mentoring.

Galia’s postdoc was also profound, she found her voice and calling in the field of recovery from mental illness. Her mentor, Bill Anthony, also became my mentor: Bill led a cultural change in the field of mental health since the 1970s, centering on empowering people and not only treating symptoms. Discussions with him helped shape my approach to building a nurturing movement.

So, the fear of stepping out of comfort zones is like a green light — go into the fear and you will grow! I return to Israel refreshed, with new identity, vision and mission, new friendships for life, knowing I’ll return often!

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