Looking Ahead: A Conversation with Three 2019 Hertz Fellows

April 16, 2019
Ker Than
Livermore, Calif

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation has chosen its 2019 Hertz Fellows, and they include 11 exceptional young men and women who will now be empowered to pursue their research interests wherever the work may lead – research that itself reflects the changing nature of science and engineering. To learn more about their work, and the dynamic nature of science and engineering today, the Hertz Foundation spoke with three of this year’s Hertz Fellows about the opportunities ahead as they begin their Fellowships, as well as what they see as challenges facing the newest generation of scientists – a generation that more than ever has a global reach, while at the same time struggles with an education system that doesn’t always prepare them for real-world research.

The participants were:

Dolev Bluvstein – Bluvstein is a senior physics major in the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. In his physics PhD and beyond, he will continue exploring ways to harness the unique rules of quantum mechanics such as wave-particle duality to develop revolutionary technologies that positively impact society.

Bailey Flanigan – Flanigan graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in biomedical engineering. In her graduate research, Bailey aims to combine approaches from computer science, economics, and the physical sciences to address social disparities and complex problems.

Melissa Mai – Mai is a senior studying biophysics and mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. She hopes to employ physics-based approaches like statistical mechanics or hydrodynamics to study cellular populations dynamics during her PhD in biophysics.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. The participants have been provided the opportunity to amend or edit their remarks.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: First, congratulations on being named 2019 Hertz Fellows. As Fellows, you’ll now have the freedom to pursue your research interests wherever they may lead. What does that mean to you?

Melissa Mai: One thing I just really love about science is being able to pursue these rabbit holes into interesting questions. Going into my graduate work, I would like to be able to do both experimental and computational research, but it’s generally pretty hard to find labs that are evenly split between the two. With this Fellowship, it is great because I can join a theory lab and still collaborate with an experimental lab, or vice versa.

Dolev Bluvstein: Right now, I’m in the middle of doing grad school visits. I’m considering what projects to do, and I have no fear now of doing ambitious, risky projects because I know I’m guaranteed funding.

Bailey Flanigan: Similarly to Dolev and Melissa, one of the things I love most about research is being able to think really far outside of the box, and on a scale that spans multiple fields. I studied biomedical engineering as an undergraduate, and then I did a year of economics research, and now I’m doing computer science, so having the freedom to bring together approaches from many areas, both in theory and in practice, will hopefully be quite useful to me.

“[M]ore and more, the problems that affect one country are not confined to its borders. I think to solve these global-scale problems, we need to work together.” –Bailey Flanigan

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Are there specific ideas or topics you hope to explore?

Mai: I’m not married to a particular topic, but I am committed to a certain philosophy about how I approach my research, which is to understand the underlying mechanisms of certain phenomena through a rigorous interdisciplinary lens. One area this can be applied to is in population dynamics. I’d like to study cellular population dynamics not just from a biochemical, regulatory network perspective, but also with a very physics-based framework. I want to be able to model how cells interact with each other, and I’m really excited to look at these problems from multiple perspectives.

Flanigan: I’m pretty new to the field of computer science, so I’m still sorting out exactly what I’d like to work on. In general, though, I’m looking forward to being able to follow my intuition and pursue ideas that are potentially a little bit risky.

One example of such an idea involves the criminal justice system in Wisconsin, where I’ve observed incentives that I believe perpetuate social inequality. I think inequality in criminal justice is a problem across many states, and I’ve been thinking about how to use the tools of game theory to change these systems by altering the incentives that drive them. This project is risky because these institutions are very complicated, and it’s not clear what types of assumptions can be made when building models that can actually be implemented.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Let’s take a moment to dive deeper into this. All of you are part of a new generation of scientists and engineers. Are you witnessing trends in your fields that warrant attention?

Flanigan: One concerning trend that I’ve noticed is technology having unforeseen consequences. Machine learning and artificial intelligence tools are ubiquitously used, but our understanding and communication of their limitations is lagging behind their deployment. This warrants attention because, when used at large scale to make decisions, these tools can impact entire societies in unexpected ways.

For example, some companies use machine learning algorithms to select candidates for jobs, and those algorithms are not necessarily designed to be fair on dimensions that you would want them to be fair on, like race or gender. They could be perpetuating societal inequalities in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

Mai: Another trend related to what Bailey just discussed is just the sheer amount of information that we can collect and generate now. For example, Eric Alm’s group at MIT is trying to do bioinformatic analyses of sewage to get microbiome profiles of populations of people, and one of the biggest challenges they’re facing is figuring out how to collect this information and how to manipulate it and use it in a way that is meaningful, efficient, and responsible.

Bluvstein: I strongly agree with what Bailey and Melissa have said. A different trend I’ve observed involves the way science is published and communicated now, both to the general public and also to other scientists. The Internet is making researchers question just how worthwhile printed science journals are because everything that people read is online anyway these days, so you’re seeing a movement toward open-access online journals.

“[T]he financial freedom that the Hertz Fellowship provides is huge, but what I’m really excited about is the [Fellows] community.” –Dolev Bluvstein

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Your classmates and peers are part of the changing face of science. What changes do they present?

Mai: I think there’s definitely a much more diverse group of people in this generation of scientists. There have been conscious efforts to include people from typically underrepresented groups and to be more balanced when it comes to gender and cultural backgrounds. That’s really important because it lets us as a scientific community tap into and develop all this potential and benefit from a diversity of personalities, learning styles, and research styles.

Flanigan: I do feel that my peers, since we grew up during an era of globalization, naturally have a more global perspective because the world has been much smaller for us than it has been for previous generations of scientists. And I have really high hopes that this will impact the way we do research, and the way we think about the impacts of our research, because more and more, the problems that affect one country are not confined to its borders. I think to solve these global-scale problems, we need to work together.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Are there new challenges that come with these changes to science, particularly for someone just beginning to explore a field?

Flanigan: One of the things I really had a hard time with as an aspiring researcher was figuring out what people in different fields of research actually do. Something I would really like to see happen is for this very highly communicative generation of scientists to publicize the questions they ask, and the possible impacts of their research, in more accessible terms.

Mai: I came into biophysics in college without a strong foundation in math and physics, and because of that, I’ve always had a sense of imposter syndrome, this deep-seated and sometimes irrational feeling that I’m not actually smart or skilled enough. And that’s a challenge that I’ve seen with many of my peers as well. We feel that we aren’t really worthy of the field we’ve chosen, and it is incredibly hard to overcome that.

Bluvstein: For me, the biggest challenge to becoming a scientist and doing research was learning how to deal with failure. The education system we have right now does not really set you up for being a successful scientist in the sense that typical lab classes are really just geared toward following procedures in the lab manual. So when you finally get into a research setting it can be so overwhelming to face problems where you just constantly fail and have to just keep getting over that failure.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Let’s talk more about each of you. Dolev, you dream of harnessing the power of quantum mechanics to create new technologies. What’s one example that you can imagine being achieved in your lifetime?

Bluvstein: One of the most exciting examples to me is quantum sensing, which involves using quantum mechanics to observe phenomena and behaviors that weren’t previously accessible to us. In many ways, quantum sensing has already achieved this. My undergraduate research focused on a diamond-based quantum sensor, which is something that is studied in many labs, and people are even starting to develop and sell this sensor commercially. But quantum sensing is far from fully mastered and is still a very active area of research, with many exciting developments ahead.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Melissa, you were once quoted as saying, “I think it’s important to have research paired with instruction because it gives you real academic skepticism.” Talk about what you see as the risk for researchers who lock themselves in their labs.

Mai: Research motivates you to approach your teaching material with a certain skepticism, and when you do this, you encourage your students to also rigorously interrogate the material, to ask questions like, “Why is this the way that it is?” and “What other interesting consequences come out of this?”

When you apply this research mindset to the class, the students seriously engage themselves with the material. They really make it their own and develop this great natural intuition for it.

Having crosstalk between teaching and research also helps you communicate science in a way that is engaging and accessible. As scientists, it’s very easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of our research and to write papers using really esoteric language and jargon that only our peers understand. But that just creates barriers in science that prevent people from exploring different fields. Teaching students who are more or less new to what’s being presented is a great reminder that our research is meant to expand the larger body of knowledge and set the stage for future exploration.

Flanigan: Melissa, I love what you said and I feel the same way. One of the greatest things to me about being a teacher and a researcher simultaneously is seeing the questions I study through the eyes of others. As I teach, I’m always thinking about how my listeners are seeing the material I’m presenting, and empathizing with their fresh perspective can often lead me to new ideas.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Bailey, you’re planning to spend the summer in South Africa conducting research on maternal health and building software for a rural hospital. Why is that important to you and how do you think that experience will influence you as a scientist?

Flanigan: One of the most exciting things about this trip for me is that I have no idea how it’s going to influence me as a scientist. I’ve worked on projects abroad before with Engineers Without Borders, but those experiences were different because I was with a team. Going to a place on my own to work independently is new for me and out of my comfort zone. After talking with one of the leaders of the hospital I’ll be working with, it sounds like one of the main things I’ll be doing is automating tasks that are currently being done by hand. I think this is going to be especially rewarding, because I’ll get to work closely with the people who will be using the tools I create.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Let’s also talk a bit more about your five-year Hertz Fellowships. Beyond the freedom, what are you looking forward to?

Mai: My principal investigator, Brian Camley, is actually a Hertz Fellow, and I was always so impressed whenever he’d talk about the Fellow community because I’m someone who generally gets very excited about people. And because I respect him so much, I figured early on that this community must be exceptional. Having the opportunity to join a community filled with all of these super-talented, amazing, accomplished, and just really cool people is incredible.

Bluvstein: I agree with Melissa. Obviously, the financial freedom that the Hertz Fellowship provides is huge, but what I’m really excited about is the community. One thing I’ve been trying to do lately is break out of my specific niche, and meeting people from other fields will be very useful for that. This is such a brilliant group of people with a really wide knowledge base, and interacting with them will help give me a broad perspective that will help motivate and direct my bigger science goals.

Flanigan: I’d like to echo everyone else, and just add that I love the diversity of what people in the Hertz community are using their science educations for. I really want my work to inform policies that make our use of technology more responsible and forward-thinking. I think I have a lot to learn about the bridge between science and policy from Fellows like Philip Welkhoff (’04 Hertz Fellow), who conducts research with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at accelerating the eradication of malaria.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: It sounds as if mentoring has been important to all of you.

Mai: I definitely would not be in science if it weren’t for the mentors that I’ve had. I transitioned into a basic science field because of the mentorship of my first [principal investigator], Richard Cone. He’s just an incredible human being who started off doing research in photoreceptors but shifted to research on vaginal health when he realized that there was little attention being paid to women’s health issues. He did that, initially without any funding or support, because he recognized the opportunity to improve the quality of life for millions of women. His mentorship during my formative first year of college taught me how to take meaningful risks in science, both academically and professionally.

My other professors, and some of the older students too, have been incredibly influential because they don’t look at me just as another transcript or someone to work at the bench. They really work to develop me as a whole person. They ask me about what I want to do with my life afterwards, and whether I’m enjoying life outside of academics because life is bigger than that. And as cliché as it sounds, they’ve believed in me more than I’ve believed in myself. Now that I’m an upperclassman and mentoring younger students, I carry that philosophy with me.

Bluvstein: I’ve learned so much more and done so much more than I could’ve possibly imagined, and that is totally due to the mentorship I received. Going into college, I felt pretty average and didn’t think I was going to accomplish so much in my undergraduate research. But the first time I gave a public talk about my research as a freshman, my professor spent at least six hours with me over the span of a week or two to craft the presentation and teach me how to give a good talk.

I almost feel she invested more time in me in the beginning than she does now, because I don’t really need it as much now due to all of the great mentorship she has given me. You can never really repay the people who mentor you, but you can pay it forward, and I am very happy to help give younger scientists some of the opportunities I was fortunate enough to have.

Flanigan: Dolev, I totally hear that. When I started college, I did not necessarily expect to accomplish much, and more importantly, because of stereotypes I had internalized about what a mathematician “looks like,” I was convinced that doing anything related to pure math or theory was off-limits for me. This vision of myself didn’t start to change until I met my lifelong mentor, who is a law professor at Wisconsin. He believed in me unconditionally, and that slowly changed my perception of the things that I could do and the places I could go. Suddenly, my horizons changed.

My research mentors have also played a huge role in my education and evolution as a person, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay them for the freedom, trust, and patience they gave me to follow my own ideas and to make mistakes.

“As scientists, it’s very easy to …write papers using really esoteric language and jargon that only our peers understand. But that just creates barriers in science that prevent people from exploring different fields.” –Melissa Mai

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Let’s close our conversation by discussing horizons. When you look ahead, how do you hope your fields will change the world?

Mai: I hope biophysics really changes the perspective on how we view science. It’s such a new field and it’s looking at questions a different way. The possibilities are endless because its effects are so far-reaching. I think a lot of the questions that we’re asking can easily be scaled up or down into other fields.

Flanigan: I’m going to go back to something Melissa said earlier, which is that data is now becoming this incredibly valuable and abundant resource. I think the ways in which we harness this data will in many ways define the trajectory of our society. I really hope that computer scientists continue to build tools, prove theorems, and work with policymakers and social scientists to ensure that we use this data in a way that promotes equity and considers long-term impacts.

Bluvstein: I think it’s still very unclear how quantum science is going to change things. But there’s a saying that if you’re going to build a bridge, then you build the bridge constrained by the rules of physics. It’s the same when you build technology. When you have a different set of rules because you’re operating by a different set of physics, then you can do completely different things, which you can hopefully use to positively influence the world.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: And over your next five years as Hertz Fellows, what gets you most excited?

Mai: For me, it’s the ability to dedicate my life to exploring science in a protected environment. Now that my funding is secure, I can really just give my all to it and just really get out there and take these risks. For grad school, I’m super excited to immerse myself in a new community of researchers and look at new questions in science and to keep learning.

Flanigan: To be honest, I’m most excited about being able to just sit down and do math for five years. I’m also looking forward to engaging in really challenging and exciting conversations, and to learning from the perspectives of the brilliant people around me.

Bluvstein: What I’m excited for most about the next five years is the fact that I will be a PhD student. I was recently reading back over my application to undergrad and I had written that in the future, I hope to attend a PhD program in physics and get paid to do groundbreaking research. That was totally my dream, and it’s crazy that now it’s happening.