I sat down for an interview with Patricia Churchland, the founder of neurophilosophy, before she gave a talk as part of the Munich Neuroscience Lecture Series on December 5th 2016. We talked about various topics including working in interdisciplinary teams, science communication, thinking of leaving research and being a woman in science. In this second part, we discussed leaving academia, sexism and letting the brain go wild. You can find Part 1 of the interview here.

J.H.: Recently, Nature conducted a survey amongst researchers and found that 2/3 of the respondents considered quitting research. What do you think is discouraging people from staying in science and what should be improved on?

P.C. : I never had a lab on my own and never had to go through the process of acquiring funds for a lab. People who want to work in the sciences have to grind way for their publications. That is what is very discouraging, especially in the US right now. I know some people who feel that they would have much more scope and innovation and creativity in industry, because they don’t have to go through the process of applying grants. So I completely understand why people feel like this.  Of course some useful things come out of grant writing, but a lot of it is very time-wasting and very discouraging. You can write this wonderful application, get very high marks but still not get funded. And then what?

I do think that neuroscience still needs a lot of small labs doing precise work on very specific things and solving very specific problems. Of course consortia are needed as well, but these small labs often at smaller university outside of the big names should be funded also. Take the Mosers for example, out there in Norway doing this absolutely beautiful work. This can happen anywhere, if people are given the opportunity and resources. So I hope that changes.

Now I also read in a New Yorker article that you considered leaving academia and going into industry. I was wondering why you considered this and what made you decide otherwise.

My thoughts of leaving had to do with when I was in San Diego in a philosophy department and I found it very constraining. This had a lot to do with the people there who were very traditional and had ideas of what philosophy was. They thought that what I was doing wasn’t philosophy at all and I should go somewhere else. In that kind of environment I guess it is natural thinking that maybe one should work on something else.

How did you not get discouraged by this?

There were several things. One was that from early on in my days at UC San Diego I was part of Terry Sejnowski’s lab at the Salk institute. I always felt really at home in his lab. And Francis Crick was part of this group so he would come for tea at Terry’s lab and we would have wonderful discussions with the post-docs, Terry, Francis and sometimes visitors, who would come in. And that was really fun. I did ask Francis one day about switching to a different department. He said: “No, I think you should stay where you are, because what you are doing is different from what other people are doing. Both in philosophy and in science, because you are putting stuff together and you are engaged in theorising.” With that kind of support I felt like – I don’t really care what others say.

I was actually contemplating on whether to ask questions of the type “how is it to be a female academic” because I think we should be at a point where it is normal that women are in academia. On the other side, we still aren’t at a stage where it is normal and I guess it is still important to talk about these issues…

I think it is very important! Well I was certainly discouraged as an undergraduate. At least in philosophy I had professors who told me that woman can’t do that. And I would just be thinking, oh bugger them! (laughs)

I think that is a good strategy, but I can imagine a lot of women, even with a strong personality, would still get very discouraged from that.

Oh yes, I think many women have left philosophy because they really felt the contempt the by mainly male philosophers had against them. And even as a young faculty member there was no doubt that the men had utter contempt for me. The very first day on my job in Winnipeg, one of the senior members of the philosophy department got into the elevator with me and said “Well I think you should know right at the beginning that women don’t belong at the university. They should be at home behind the stove and having babies”. And all I could do is laugh.

So people don’t say that now, but on the other hand women tend not to have their work cited, they tend not to be on the top level for various prizes and awards and so forth. Women in neuroscience are still just tolerated and some of the more senior level women are thought of as being “exceptional”, rather than that just being a normal thing. So I think this is rather unfortunate and still a long way to go. And it’s very hard to combat, because if you are going to mention it, men are tired of hearing it and wish you’d just shut up. And they want overt examples of sexism before they take it seriously – they don’t think not being cited counts.

I also think part of the problem nowadays is that sexism is not such an explicit thing anymore.

Yes, so they are not asking you to go to lunch with them.

Or here in Bavaria it might be that they don’t ask you if you want to go for beer after work.

Yes! And these things are unfortunate because collaboration happens on these occasions and then women are not a part of the thing. So I think it is a serious issue and men are annoyed if you raise it. Because their attitude is like “Hey, you’ve come so far, what are you bitching about”. But a lot of men of course don’t behave that way and there are really supportive men in neuroscience also. Fewer proportionally speaking in philosophy, but there are some there as well. I guess it will change, but it is slow.

Are there measures you think can be taken to make female scientists get to higher positions?  Your daughter, Anne Churchland, actually made a list of female neuroscientists for people organising panels or interview partners.

I thought that was very helpful. I guess as a bit of general advice – if the men are going for a beer, women do not need to be too shy of saying “I’ll go with you”. Also not being too shy to speak up and interrupting men, because they interrupt us all the time. And not being too shy in telling them if they wrong, and so forth.

But at least when I was a young faculty member, you have to walk this knife edge. So on this side they are calling you a ball buster if you are too forceful. But on the other side, if you are not too forceful, they call you a wimp. So either you are a ball buster or a wimp. So it is hard to manoeuvre between them and the only thing to do is to just not care. I think in general it is probably better to be stronger than weaker. Because if you don’t hold your own, they’ll walk all over you. And not necessarily because they are bad people, but because this is just the background assumption. I don’t think most of these men are bad people, they are just not realising what they are doing.

Besides this, what would you say is the biggest challenge in the way how science works?

Hard to say. There are a number of senior scientists who are very concerned about the way how this institution of publishing works and with having to worry about how many Neuron and Nature papers are needed for tenure. That is probably a big problem. Mike Gazzaniga is one of the people who worries about this and he is on a number of panels where this is discussed. Actually there are many people who are concerned about this because they know that Science and Nature only take a few papers. And these may often also not be the best papers, but sexy papers – although this could happen with any journal of course.

Some of these pressures are very stifling of creativity, but exactly this is needed in neuroscience. Any idiot can do some sort of measurement. But for doing something interesting you often have to take a risk.  You hate to see this, people in their 20 and 30s should be able to try things and not worry too much.

When I was a young faculty member in Winnipeg I wasn’t publishing anything for years because I was at the medical faculty studying neuroscience (laughs). If I had been in Harvard I would have been sacked probably for spending all my time learning neuroscience. People need time to develop a good idea. Smaller locations sometimes really are good for taking these risks as long as the department is not pushing too hard.

What would your prime suggestion be to graduate students?

A book that I always recommend which is full of scientific wisdom although it is not the newest book, is ‘Advice To A Young Scientist’ by Peter Medawar. I couldn’t possibly improve upon it. It is about choosing projects and being a bit bold in the context of being knowledgeable, taking a chance and allowing your creativity to reach out. Once you are a post-doc you are already beginning to close too narrowly. You don’t want to get too narrow too fast.

I see that in a lot of graduate school students. When you are asking them “why are you doing this project, what is the point” they often cannot say why their research is important.  I am distressed that often very smart graduate students have been so narrowly focused on specific topics like receptors or molecules, that they lost sight of the big picture.

Of course the Watson & Crick story is special and famous, but Francis really was supposed to be working on x-ray crystallography for Lawrence Bragg, but instead he was trying to figure out the structure of DNA. What I hadn’t realised was that at that time, most people thought that the copying problem couldn’t possibly be DNA because it was too simple; it was just an acid. It had to a protein. So not only were they doing a different thing than they were supposed to, they were also looking at the wrong thing, they were also looking at DNA instead of looking at a protein. But they became increasingly convinced that this could be the critical thing. And of course they turned out to be right. You don’t know if it turns out to be right – often it turns out to be wrong – but you do need to take a chance.

And probably you should not take failures too personally.

Yeah, because they are an opportunity to learn something. We all have failures, that’s for sure! We all get things dead wrong. I mean, we all can’t make consequential discoveries. But there are a lot of consequential things to be learnt about the nervous system. Again the Mosers and their finding of grid cells are another example – they hung in there and did something that nobody else did and it was so awesome!

There’s got to be lots and lots of things to be discovered – and I know that this is an easy thing for me to say here, but knowing the right question is very important. You might be totally wrong. But if you don’t take the chance, you won’t get very far. Probably you will be able to do something in the end, you will be able to do a job, or a job in industry. But why in the end not just trust your brain. Let it go wild every once in a time.

What great final words! Thank you very much for the interview!