Authors: Douglas E. Richards
Professor Rachel A. Howard sat
at the edge of the desk with her legs dangling down, her beige flats not even
close to reaching the floor of the small classroom. A heavy glass bottle of Snapple
peach tea, flash-chilled just minutes earlier in her minus thirty-seven degree
freezer, was open and waiting beside her, with a silver tablet computer on her
Dressed in faded jeans and a light
red cotton T-shirt, cut below the waist, Rachel Howard was eminently
approachable and almost always cheerful, and as informal as she was brilliant.
Anyone who had an encounter with her outside of Harvard University, who didn’t
know who she was, might think she was a homemaker, or a travel agent, or a
caring, friendly social worker.
When Rachel was at a grocery
store, movie, or social gathering, her appearance, style, vocabulary, and
demeanor could not have been less intimidating, and none could possibly guess
that this woman possessed a legendary intellect, was widely considered the
foremost neuroscientist in the world, and was rumored to be on a short list for
a future Nobel Prize for the groundbreaking papers she seemed to publish with
In academia, business, or for
that matter any human endeavor, there were two ways to get ahead. One was to
know how to play the game, become skilled at sucking up to the right people,
projecting the right image, playing politics, and manipulating others.
Unfortunately, many of those practicing these dark arts were not highly
competent in their actual jobs, and could excel only by being ruthless and
unethical, stabbing colleagues in the back, poisoning their reputations for
personal gain, and taking credit for the work and ideas of others.
The second way to get ahead was
to be so gifted, so talented, it didn’t matter how well or poorly you played
politics. You could dress like a slob, be boorish or intimidating, fail to show
up for mandatory cocktail parties, or even be a total asshole. Or, as was the
case with Rachel Howard, you could exhibit the opposite spectrum of behavior.
You could be friendly, gracious, and unassuming. You could go out of your way
to bestow credit wherever it was deserved.
If you were not extraordinarily
talented, these traits would get you liked, but not promoted, especially when
swimming in shark-filled waters. Nice guys—or gals in this case—finished last.
Unless your competence was so
great that nothing could hide it, no politicking, backstabbing, or idea theft
could diminish it. Results, when they were stellar enough, could trump almost
all other considerations.
There was an old joke her
father, a businessman, had told her. A regional sales manager rushes into the
office of the president of the company. “One of my salesmen just said that you
should go jump in a lake,” he reports to the president. “I assume you want me
to fire him immediately.”
“What an absolute jerk!” says
the president. “This is intolerable. Just out of curiosity,” he adds, “how are
his sales numbers?”
“He’s the top salesman in the
region. Has been for the entire year.”
The president of the company
nods. “On second thought,” he says, making his way out of his office, “don’t
“Okay,” says the subordinate in
confusion. “But where are you going?”
“I’m going to find a lake to
jump into,” he replies happily.
Rachel smiled at this memory as
the first of her students wandered into the classroom, followed within minutes
by five others. All six wore casual clothing that took a cue from her well-known
style, or lack thereof: jeans, yoga pants, and the like, and each had eyes that
shined from the fires of an extraordinary intellect within. The Neuroscience
program at Harvard was unequaled, and the graduate school had its pick of the
most brilliant undergrads from around the world.
She studied the students in the
class with great interest as they entered, since she was only tangentially
familiar with any of them. Each sat in the front row, in uncomfortable wooden seats
with large desk surfaces attached, a mere six or seven feet away from her.
Several lowered steaming cups of coffee onto the desks, along with tablet
computers and notepads. Given it was eight in the morning on a Monday the
coffee and bleary eyes were not surprising, although Rachel habitually stuck
with her Snapple, which delivered its own dose of caffeine.
Once seated, the students gazed
at her with expressions she could only describe as
, a description she was reluctant to use due to her innate
The class consisted of Sanjeev
Shaw from New Delhi, India; Michele Bodenheimer from Dobbs Ferry, New York;
Sherry Dixon from Owensboro, Kentucky; Greg Feldman from Cincinnati, Ohio; Deb
Sorensen from Basel, Switzerland; and Eyal Regev from Tel Aviv, Israel.
She had done her homework on the
group before they had arrived, and the average age was twenty-four, although
Deb Sorensen was only twenty, having graduated from college at the age of
eighteen, and Eyal Regev was the oldest at thirty-one, only two years younger
than Rachel herself. Regev was new to Harvard, having just transferred in from
the grad program at Johns Hopkins. Half of the students were male and half were
female, which was unusual, as most of her previous classes had been all female,
or predominantly so.
No surprise there. She was an expert
in all facets of neuroscience, especially learning, and knew that women had
been outpacing men academically for some time, and the gap was only widening.
This was a growing crisis that had received far less attention than it
deserved. The disparity began in grade school, where it was increasingly
difficult to get boys to read.
Research showed that boys lagged
significantly behind girls across all school ages on standardized reading tests—in
all fifty states. And America was not alone. In 2001, the Department of
Education had conducted a massive study on fourth grade reading in forty-five
countries, and the results were breathtaking: girls outscored boys in reading
literacy in all forty-five.
These stats had quickly translated
into college admissions, where over sixty percent of US college degrees were
now awarded to women, as well as a majority of advanced degrees, and women now
outnumbered men in graduate school by almost one and a half to one.
Many factors were involved. Boys
were often socialized to believe that sports and other physical activities were
more masculine than quiet reading. And the world was increasingly brimming with
distractions: computer games, cell phones, social media, endless video
entertainment, and the like, which seemed to have a slightly stronger
gravitational pull for boys than girls, although both genders were becoming
addicted in ever-growing numbers.
But all of this aside, boys were
almost twice as likely as girls to have a reading disability like dyslexia, and
brain architecture did differ between the sexes, with MRI scanning showing that
the language centers in girls’ brains, on average, developed faster than in
Rachel considered the three male
students in the class. In past generations they probably would have been
considered geeky and might have struggled to find female companionship, but males
on campus were now so rare she was sure they had no trouble keeping their dance
cards full. Another of the endless examples of how transformative the last
thirty years had been, frequently in strange and unexpected ways.
Now that the students had all
settled in, Professor Rachel Howard, chair of the Harvard neuroscience
department, still perched at the edge of a large desk, cleared her throat and
“Welcome to the summer session
of Neuroscience eight twenty,
. I’ve been told this is considered one of the most difficult graduate
courses at all of Harvard. I won’t lie to you,” she added with a smile, “it is.
But I’ve also been told by many former students they believed it to be the most
important course they ever took.”
She paused. “While the material
will be challenging, I’d also like to make this course as fun and stimulating
as possible. So nothing you say will be regarded as stupid, silly, or misguided.
And I welcome questions and interruptions and an open dialog at all times. If
you have something to say, don’t hesitate to jump right in.”
She went on to explain that she would be teaching the
course, but would have several of her collaborators at nearby MIT give guest
lectures, who tended to be better at marrying her neurobiological discoveries
with computer and electronic advances, robotics, and engineering related
technology, helping to turn her theories into real world solutions.
“In this class, we’re going to dive very deep into the
material,” she said, and then with just the hint of a smile, added, “
Several students looked down nervously and others swallowed
hard, visibly trying not to panic, wondering if this course would finally be a
hurdle they were unable to overcome. Each had set every curve in high school
and college, but now that they were together at Harvard they had finally risen
to the point where everyone was as smart and hardworking as they were. Some
more so. Finding themselves in a group whose members were all at their own
rarified level was as
as it was
“Your knowledge of
the neurological and biochemical structure of the brain will be tested
greatly,” continued the professor, “as will your knowledge of computers,
genetically engineered synaptic modifying agents, and techniques for taking
advantage of brain plasticity.”
There was a pause, and Eyal Regev, the Israeli, jumped in,
apparently taking her previous invitation to do so at any time at face value.
“Professor Howard,” he began, and was immediately stopped by a head shaking in
front of him.
“Please, everyone, call me Rachel.”
She knew they had heard this was her preference, but no graduate
student yet had dared assume this was the case and use the familiar before
being given explicit permission, out of respect for her and a certain awe at
her reputation. Einstein’s graduate students wouldn’t have addressed him as
without being asked, even if a
gun were pointed at their heads.
Regev nodded. He looked
distinctly Mediterranean, with rugged, masculine features and jet-black hair. He
had an accent, but it wasn’t pronounced.
“Sure, um . . . Rachel,” he
began again, trying this name out for size and still clearly uncomfortable with
it. “My name is Eyal,” he added, pronouncing it
. “Is it true that if someone distinguishes themselves in
this class, you offer to hire them on as a post-doc once they’ve earned their
“It is. I’ve done this twice in
the past four years. One student joined my lab and one declined, taking a
position in a lab at Stanford instead.”
“The one who declined obviously
wasn’t as bright as you thought,” said Eyal Regev with an impish grin, his
brown eyes sparkling.
Rachel laughed. Just because she
knew he was sucking up for all he was worth didn’t mean it wasn’t working. And
Regev had begun his question by introducing himself, reminding her that she had
forgotten to let the students do so, which she quickly rectified.
When each had the chance to say
their names along with a few words about themselves, Rachel took a breath and
continued with her introduction to the course. “So now that I’ve explained how
deep we’re going to go,” she said, “literally to the subatomic level in some
cases, I plan to do just the opposite with the first two sessions. I’d like to
pull all the way back to thirty thousand feet, and examine the entire field.
Examine the big picture problems we hope to solve. And not just what we
do, but what we
do. What are the possibilities? The issues? The ethics? Since
we’ll soon find ourselves neck deep in the trees, I think it’s fitting we
before we begin.”
The grad students appeared both
relieved and intrigued. The first few sessions, at least, were going to be survivable.
“So I don’t need to tell anyone
in this room that we’re in the right place at the right time. Neuroscience has
long been considered mankind’s next great frontier, the next big thing. The span
from 1990 to 2000 was formally declared
decade of the brain
by the White House. But this was only the beginning, as
we are well aware. Since then, computing, medicine, genetic engineering, and
brain scanning and modeling have seen exponential growth, giving us more
optimism than ever.
“Most of you are so young you
take these advances for granted. You don’t fully appreciate just how far we’ve
come, and how quickly, and how near we are to the achievement of miraculous
things. Neuroscience is at a tipping point. You will enter this field in a
transformative period, the likes of which may never be seen again.
“You’re all aware of the power
of exponential growth. Start with a penny and double your money every day, and
in thirty-nine days you’ll have over two billion dollars. But the first day
your wealth only increases by a single penny, an amount that’s beneath notice.”
She raised her eyebrows. “On the
day, however, your
wealth will increase from one billion to two billion dollars. Now
is a change impossible to miss. So,
like a hockey stick, the graph of exponential growth barely rises from the
ground for some time, but when it reaches the beginning of the handle,
, because you suddenly get an
explosive rise that is nearly vertical.”