What do the Boston Philharmonic and BU Bioinformatics have to do with one another? Ilija Dukovski

Ilija Dukovski, a physicist turned bioinformatician after years in industry, began his Boston University seminar class with the TED Talk by Benjamin Zander conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Ilija spoke with interest and excitement as he shared collegially with students in the first class. “I don’t want to give you a recipe. I thought we would look at an excellent talk together and say what we think. So you can develop your own talks.”

What would he do? I knew the outline, but that’s like knowing a plot in an action movie. You know the general structure, but the joy is in the details and action. I was excited and nervous with anticipation. Ilija opened the class in a way that was inviting, engaging. The students were first respectfully listening and as time continued, the video and IIlija both engaging, their faces became brighter. They smiled, laughed quietly.

Discussion? It is a science seminar class. The art of creating conversation in the seminar class is the question, the challenge. “What do you think?” Ilija asked after he said what he thought the point of the video was. Two, maybe three, students responded. That’s a good response in such a class of 1st and 2nd year students who are use to instructors asking pre-defined, answers-already-known questions.

Scene 2: Building on the opening.

What does it look like to create an open conversation, a fearless exchange of ideas? In improvisational theater based workshops, we often turn to games to build the group, an ensemble that can work with one another in ways that are closer than we do in the day-to-day of our lives. Yet, Mia and I chose to forego doing a game. The game wasn’t the focus. Open conversation was the focus. They had started it. Three responses is a good response. Three was/is an offer. We could build a conversation from there. And a conversation is what we had.

"Does this matter? Does the work of communication matter to your work as scientists?" Mia Anderson, my colleague who’s worked with hundreds of scientists over the past 5 years to develop their own performance style, pushed this question. When I asked Mia what had prompted her to ask that question, she said,“People were being respectful.” I loved that statement. Respectful, politely engaged, not saying what they were thinking. Students are taught to be silent as a sign of respect. It’s not the best trait for developing ideas, understandings or innovations. We were seeking an open dialog.

"How does [communication and presentation] matter? Does it matter?" One student honestly responded,“No, I don’t think it does. My work should speak for itself.” Another student said in reply, “That’s the ideal. Unfortunately, it’s an ideal.” Another, “I was doing a bioinformatics project for a hospital and the doctor said he needed a model, but he was going to need me to explain it to him because he wouldn’t understand it or be able to make use of it otherwise. We have to know how to explain our work to others.”

The conversation continued. It was taking place under the stated goal of having a fearless exchange of ideas. Could we create an open conversation here on the first day, on this topic, before we get to the science details? It wasn’t just practice, or an exercise in having a fearless exchange. It was a fearless exchange on a topic of interest to us. The world is trying to figure out how to have a fearless exchange of ideas, ones that we can learn and grow from.

I turned to Ilija, the professor. “How was this? How is this conversation for you? Is it what you’re looking for?” “Yes, I like this very much. I like how we don’t agree. How there are so many opinions.”

The invitation to be ourselves as we create the scientists we are becoming is a powerful combination in the service of developing citizen scientists - scientists who are citizens creating the culture and practice of science in the world.

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