“Think Big”: Q&A with Eric Chen

At TEDMED 2014, Eric Chen urged us to think big and never stop asking questions. Halfway through a very exciting first semester at Harvard, Eric Chen checked in with TEDMED to answer a few questions we had about his talk.

What motivated you to tell your story on the TEDMED stage?

I see huge untapped potential in kids and nonscientists all over the world, especially in this day and age when the Internet has given all of us so many resources unavailable in the past. However, so many people seem to be intimidated by scientists and the idea of research—they don’t believe they can do something so seemingly complex or sophisticated. I saw the TEDMED stage as a platform from which I could share my story and let them know about their own potential.

Eric Chen takes the stage at TEDMED 2014. - Jerod Harris

Eric Chen takes the stage at TEDMED 2014. – Jerod Harris

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

In today’s age, we will need more and more scientists and innovators to tackle the challenges on the horizon—from pollution to overpopulation. To solve these daunting problems, we will need bold, daring thinkers not afraid to ask the unasked question. It is important that everyone knows they can contribute, regardless of their background or situation, and that a groundbreaking discovery can be just a question away.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope that my message can encourage more youth and nonscientists to think big, and to participate in science, research, and medicine. I would like to help spread the democratization of knowledge, science, and medicine.

Taking Eric’s advice, we didn’t stop asking questions there.  In the spirit of curiosity, we tacked on a few fun questions for your enjoyment:

If you could meet your 10-year-old self, what would you tell him?

I would tell him that I now know how to time travel, and then go collect my Nobel Prize.

If you were immortal for a day, what would you do?

I would completely wreck the world record for most time with breath held underwater.

If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would you meet?

I would meet Richard Feynman. I’ve always admired not only his scientific ability but also his curiosity and sense of humor.

What will a lateral thinker be when he grows up?

This is a guest post by Sandeep Kishore, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and TEDMED 2012 speaker.

Recently, I’ve been struggling on how to explain to other folks what it is that I do – or what it is that I am attempting to do.

I still don’t really know.

But I have found some clues recently via a Harvard University website called the Catalyst. It effectively catalogues all people at 17 schools and hospitals associated with Harvard University (from those studying anthropology to appendicitis, from molecules to masses), ‘catalyzes’ new connections, and provides pilot grants to help incent people to work on problems together.

 

What I like most is that the translation agenda via this website. It provides a useful frame for PhD basic scientists to communicate with MD clinicians and with the policy/public health community.

In the university community, and certainly in training, there are rifts between bench scientists and the clinical docs. Now add in the fact that the biological/pathogen model is old news, mental models are shifting and there are new behavioral/social issues that add to the canonical biomedical approaches, and now we have a real and urgent need for translation.

The Catalyst profiles a translation agenda labeled T1 thru T4:

T1: Basic Scientific Discovery to Clinical Insights

T2: Clinical Insights to Implications for Practice

T3: Implications for Practice to Implications for Population Health

T4: Implications for Population Health to Improved Global Health

This provides a useful continuum and includes tools to broker linkages along the way. And the curation of resources begins the moment any staff member joins Harvard University. In a moment, your publications, your topic areas, people who publish/think like you and even people who physically sit next to you are highlighted. The website is designed to foster creativity and collaboration – and is blind to exactly where those insights might come from. Anyone, from student to president, can participate and link-up.

Best of all, the site is public so that anyone else can view, learn and engage. This is the sort of multidisciplinary effort that we will need for complex health challenges –and I’m delighted that it’s housed at a major university with access to ideas, young blood and energy.

I connected with Dr. Lee Nadler and Dr. Elliott Antman, founders and leaders of the platform, to learn more on the origins and functions of the Harvard Catalyst. I was looking for practical outputs of this network. They relayed one challenge where engineers and researchers were searching for practical applications of next-generation imaging techniques; and one in which radiologists were searching for, well, next generation imaging modalities. Both groups were unintentionally boxed in their professional silos. The Harvard Catalyst challenged the community – write in 250 words, one big idea to bridge the gap, identify how a biological/medical problem could be solved by imaging techniques.

They expected maybe 30 submissions across the 12,000 people unified on the platform. They received 500.

Next, they arranged a poster session where 150 people presented their idea over three evenings. New ideas including novel ways to image islet cells of the pancreas emerged. Success: People not aware of each other’s existence came together; new teams were formed and there was even a bit of funding for pilot grants to try out the best, most promising ideas. As Drs. Nadler and Antman say, their vision is not to bring institutions together; it is to bring people together.

Sandeep Kishore at TEDMED 2012

TEDMED and a network I co-founded, the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN) provide some examples of the sort of ‘safe spaces’ for incubation, networking, curation and then translation of ideas to action. Particularly for the way we train the next generation of university students. These initiatives are exciting in that they provide a new nidus for meet ups that foster imagination, innovation and inspiration and that move us beyond hardened paradigms. This is critical for this generation, and even more so for the next.

It all reminds me of the quote by the playwright Edith Wharton relayed to me by an old mentor: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

These incubators serve as mirrors that help focus, amplify and merge our individual lights of inspiration. This is a neglected, but vital function, for translators. Maybe I’ll grow up to be a mirror?