Skip to main content

What Makes You So Smart, Computational Neuroscientist?

Terrence Sejnowski talks to Pacific Standard about searching for Sputnik, receiving pleasure reading material from a Nobel Prize winner, and being a science nerd.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Terrence Sejnowski always knew he was the "science nerd," but it was a stint with his high school's radio club that sent him on a path that would lead him to becoming a pioneer in computational neuroscience. The Francis Crick professor at the Salk Institute and the director of the Crick-Jacobs Center for Theoretical and Computational Biology talked to Pacific Standard about searching for Sputnik, the problem with schooling, and receiving pleasure reading material from a Nobel Prize winner.

Schooling when you were growing up?

(Photo: Terrence Sejnowski)

(Photo: Terrence Sejnowski)

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to a Catholic elementary school. I think it was already clear in fifth grade that I was the science nerd. In high school, I joined the radio club. That had more influence on me than any course that I took, primarily because of the person who ran the club, Mike Stimac. He was an extraordinary individual. He had a master's degree in physics and, more than the other teachers, he was a hands-on type of guy who liked to have big projects. We had one called Moonbounce to put a big radio antennae on top of the high school and bounce signals off the moon. This was during the Sputnik era. The radio club was one of the first to track Sputnik when it went up. He was also head of the aviation club so I learned how to fly.

It wasn't until I got to college at Case Western Reserve where I learned much about physics. That was a very formative period of my life too.

You knew that you were a "science nerd," but did you think of yourself as very smart? How did you view yourself along the intelligence spectrum of your classmates?

I did very well in terms of exams and contests, but what I really learned in high school was that that wasn't really the goal. Being a good student and being smart isn't necessarily what's important to be successful. It was really at the radio club where I learned how to build things, to have goals, how to plan long-term projects. As the president of the club, I learned how to manage people and work with them toward a goal. It was not formal academics that formed my future career. It was really how to take the knowledge that you've learned and turn it into a new direction.

Were you conscious that that's what you were learning back then?

It was absolutely conscious. In the radio club, we would ask ourselves, "What is your mission?" When you're in high school and you ask that, it makes you think twice about how to achieve it. It was something that helped prepare us for the future. My guess is that other people find similar inspiration from sports, band, or any other extracurricular activity.

I think that the way we have organized our schooling is unfortunate. We've separated the life lessons from the classroom lessons. It used to be the case that there was one classroom with many different ages and they could all learn from each other. What other institution do you know where you're segregated by your year of birth? It's really weird if you think about it. It's done for practical reasons. They've turned school into assembly lines. Just as you have a car that goes down an assembly line, a student goes down, the teacher rivets knowledge into their head, and then it's on to the next teacher. The reality is that when you're in the workplace, you're dealing with people of all different backgrounds, talents, motivations, and ages. That's the world that students need to get exposed to. Fortunately I was. I attribute it to Mike Stimac, the mentor who really had a big impact on my life.

Did you consciously continue that type of eduction in your post-doc years?

That wasn't conscious in my mind, but when you have life-changing experiences, they are with you all the time. They are always in the background, even if you're not fully aware of the influence that it has. I have been particularly fortunate with my mentors, starting in high school but also when I was doing my graduate work. At Princeton, I had the good fortune to work with John Wheeler, who is an extraordinarily influential and creative physicist who taught me all sorts of lessons not just about physics but about how you think about problems and what's important. He coined the word "blackhole." He taught me how to coin words. [Laughs] And John Hopfield. I did my Ph.D. with him. He was making a transition from physics to neuroscience at the same time I was. Having someone of his stature who was making that leap made it possible for me at a time when that wasn't normally done.

Why did you choose neuroscience?

I was working on general relativity, and the area that I was interested in was gravitational waves. Joe Weber, who had claimed to have measured them with an aluminum cylinder, unfortunately had a bug in his computer program. It was clear to me that [making] an advance in physics would require something on a cosmological scale, either a satellite or a huge array of gravity wave detectors. We still haven't discovered gravity waves.

When you're young and you want to make an advance and there's no prospect of data, it's discouraging. I had reached the point in physics where I knew what was important from John Wheeler and what was difficult to advance without data. I was looking around and fortunately I had friends who were in biology. At that point in the 1970s, biology hadn't quite made a transition to molecular genetics, but it looked like there was going to be a tremendous amount of data, not just from genetics but also recordings from neurons. It was appealing because the mysteries of the brain were as important and exciting as the mysteries of the universe. So why not? You could do the experiments with your own hands; you didn't need to have a super-conducting super-collider, which was canceled as it turned out. A lot of my friends who went into particle physics had to look for other jobs. I think I made the right decision early on that biology would have a better future, at least over my creative lifetime. I haven't looked back.

Do you read for pleasure?

I do. I like to read biographies. I just finished Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson. I'm reading an autobiography written by a friend of mine, Mike Gazzaniga. His most recent book, Tales From Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, is all about how his work led to a whole new insight into how consciousness is distributed broadly between the two hemispheres.

How do you find new books to read?

Often it's from reading book reviews: the New York Times, the Economist. Turing's Cathedral was a gift from Roger Guillemin here at the Salk Institute. He's a Nobel Prize winner and very, very generous.

What are you working on now?

Right now we're in the middle of a series of papers that a former student of mine, Ben Huh, and I have been working on for several years. They've reached a point where they are almost ready to submit. They focus on the motor system and how we make movements, arm movements for example. Using a framework called Optimal Control Theory, which comes from engineering, but also analyzing it using methods from physics. One of the themes of my career is to try to look at classic problems that exist in neuroscience and psychology and see through the lens of physics and math what the structures would look like. I try to get some insights to make predictions and do some experiments. I think this series of papers is going to have a big impact on the field of motor systems and optimal control.

There's also the BRAIN Initiative, the 10-year national grand challenge that was launched in 2013. I helped shape the project by serving on the advisory committee to the National Institutes of Health to set the priorities, and continue to help guide it. The goal is to accelerate brain research by a factor of 10 and create a neurotechnology sector of the economy as vibrant as the biotech sector. The impact could be as important as the man on the moon for space and microelectronics and the Human Genome Project for precision medicine.

Who should I talk to next?

Geoffrey Hinton. He's a cognitive psychologist and computer scientist who is a researcher at Google and a professor at the University of Toronto.