Breaking the academic bubble: An interview with NEURO.tv host Diana Xie

I’ve always pictured scientists and philosophers in antiquity as hermits, slaving away in their ivory towers and writing dissertations in obscure languages inaccessible to the most of the population. Even today science is tough to understand, with academic papers locked behind paywalls and filled with jargon.

Fortunately, this sad state of affairs is rapidly changing for the better. The recent launch of Pubmed Commons has finally pushed post-publication peer review into mainstream, which – together with F1000 and PubPeer – will hopefully facilitate constructive criticism and academic discourse between scientists. Figshare is promoting data sharing among researchers, including data that are unpublished and/or negative. Open-access journals have allowed the general public to peek into the ivory tower (though they come with a slew of problems), while research blogs are translating jargon-laded papers into engrossing articles that anyone can understand. Podcasts like the Stanford NeuroTalk and videos like ASAPScience are both fantastic mediums for an earful of science.

Nevertheless, most of these current resources target one discipline or a specific question. This is why NEURO.tv caught me eye. NEURO.tv is the brainchild of Dr. Dr. Jean-François Gariépy, a researcher at Duke University. It is a free-to-download talk show between leading scientists and philosophers whom share their ideas about the brain and mind. It lets you witness the type of debates and discussions that academics engage in over a beer – casual, personal, a little nerdy but packed with ideas.

sebastian and claire

Sebastian Seung, professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT & Claire O’Connell, MITx Fellow & Education Director of EyeWire. Source: NEURO.tv Kickstarter page

During the Society for Neuroscience Annual Conference I caught up with Diana Xie, the host of NEURO.tv, for her vision of the project.

What differs Neuro.tv from other neuroscience podcasts or videos?

NEURO.tv is different from other science podcasts and videos, because we dive into academic concepts and explain these concepts in parallel, so people from all educational backgrounds can understand the conversations. The discussions that happen on NEURO.tv are the equivalent of what you would have between experts in the field in a university, but the hosts and panelists make sure that the concepts are explained in a way that everyone can understand. We want these conversations to be informal, so the dialogue style in all our videos is what I would describe as laid-back intellectual conversations. Our guests are free to speak about any neuroscience topics that they wish, including their own research, because our videos aren’t intended to adhere to the interview or lecture model. This is a tradition that we will be continuing with our forthcoming episodes, since people seem to really enjoy it.

We also want the show to be interdisciplinary, so we bring in professors from diverse fields – neuroscience, psychology, philosophy – and they talk about science from all the different levels at which the brain and mind can be studied. These conversations between our panel of regular scientists and our guests, all studying different topics within neuroscience, are recorded and subsequently edited to make them accessible to the general public. For example, if a scientific term was to be mentioned that may be foreign to someone who has not yet entered graduate school, a pop-up would appear in the video to define the term in a very clear and understandable way. Rather than glossing over the academic talk, we approach it in a way that reflects our belief that many people on the Internet want to follow such conversations.

I especially like the idea of dialogue between neuroscience and philosophy; why discuss the two in tandem?

Ultimately, philosophers interested in behavior and neuroscientists are after the same question: what are the mechanisms underlying our behaviors? Philosophers tend to develop broad frameworks to better understand the problem itself. Some of them, the best ones, will also care about integrating the vast amounts of scientific data available from neurobiology. That is how neuroscience contributes to the understanding of behaviors by philosophers. On the other hand, neuroscientists often look at very narrow questions, not because they aren’t interested in the bigger question, but simply because they are adopting the scientific approach. They have to care about the experiments that they can do in the present, otherwise things would not advance. The result is that scientists are very much aware of the fine details of experiments, the limitations of the techniques used, etc. By bringing neuroscientists and philosophers into the same conversations, we are certain that both will benefit from each other’s perspective.

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Any teasers on which topics will be covered?

I have discussed extensively with JF about what will be the subjects covered during Season 1 (2014), and all we can say is that what you’re about to see is an eye-opening, broad coverage of all the deep questions that relate to the brain and the mind. We have gathered teams of panelists who are experts in their fields. Some of the people you will see talking with each other on NEURO.tv would never have interacted otherwise. The subjects covered will include molecular biology, cellular physiology, systems neuroscience, cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, morality and sociology.

Finally, tell me about the inception of NEURO.tv.

Jean-François first conceived of the idea of NEURO.tv, because he wanted to make academic discussions more accessible, not only for the general public, but also for the scientists who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to participate in these conversations with such a broad range of intellectuals interested in studying the brain and behaviors, from the molecular levels up to the level of societies. When I think back to my first meeting with JF in January, I had no idea that fast-forward a year, I would be involved in such a big project. I began as a research assistant working with him to understand the effects of oxytocin on social behavior. He struck me as a very brilliant, forward-thinking person with bold ideas and the boldness to implement them. Not only that, but a person who was incredibly generous with his time and enthusiastic about science education, and by extension, exposing people to the wonders of neuroscience research. For these reasons, needless to say I had much respect for him and consider myself very lucky for having joined the lab that he worked in.

When Jean-François first pitched to me the idea of launching a Kickstarter campaign for NEURO.tv (back in September), I thought it was the craziest idea ever. But he told me about his vision for what he wanted it to be, and I was intrigued and believed in its potential. That’s what led me to take on the challenge of joining as both director of the Kickstarter campaign and host of the 2014 episodes, despite how intimidating these jobs appeared. Even in the early stages of the campaign now, I find the experience to be very rewarding, and I love hearing all the wonderful feedback and encouragement that we have received from both scientists and non-scientists.

NEURO.tv is just taking off. If you’d like to help this fledgling project – by neuroscientists, for the world – check out their Kickstarter page.

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