Kevin Esvelt ’00

The pioneering evolutionary engineer reflects on Pongi’s sludge experiment, Corkran’s “Relevant” stamp, the importance of confessing your ignorance

Interview by Ken DuBois

What were some of your early impressions of Catlin Gabel when you first arrived in Middle School?

The Middle School was brand new and the campus beautiful. The Barn was…fragrant, but seemed rustically apropros. As an introvert, I found the small student body appealing.

Did you arrive at Catlin Gabel with a strong interest in the natural sciences, or did that develop in your pre-teen and teenage years?

I was fortunate enough to visit the Galapagos the year before arriving at Catlin. Having read some Darwin, I already knew I wanted to work with genetics and evolution.

Were you introduced to environmental science at Catlin Gabel? Was that an interest that developed through certain classes or experiences?

No, though science with David Ellenberg and Carol Ponganis was certainly fun! The latter's “Sludge” experiment may have led me to eventually major in chemistry as an undergrad, although most of the credit for that goes to Susan Brookhart in Upper School advanced chemistry. She taught me more of science than I learned in any other two years, and happily fielded all sorts of questions outside of class – in fact, I first learned about transposons, which is a form of gene drive (although not the kind I now work with), by interrogating Susan about an article I'd read and didn't understand.

Were there teachers who recognized your strengths and areas of interest, and helped you to pursue those interests?

Strengths can and will be pursued independently with little encouragement. I think we most need help developing skills and internalizing understandings that don't come naturally. Writing is the single most important skill of a scientist, which is where Catlin excels, to the point where I can't single out one teacher who was particularly responsible; they all contributed. Other lessons do stand out. Dave Corkran was the single greatest positive influence of all my time at Catlin. First, he taught us not to care too much about grades – since he legendarily hadn't given an A since 1972 or thereabouts, I quickly learned that it wasn't a big deal. Rather, it was the balance between rigor and creativity, between generating coherent framework of knowledge and venturing beyond it to information that stubbornly resisted cohering. I was always a florid writer, and Dave taught me the importance of being concise. My essays were always liberally covered with imprints of his famous “Relevance” stamp in red ink. Each essay danced the fine line between adequately addressing the given thesis topic and twisting it into something more fun; every class was a test of how far the intended topic could be creatively diverted to something I thought more interesting. These were games which could only be won by convincing him that it was so. Dave was fully aware of this, and I think not only enjoyed the contest, but managed to teach me lessons in this decidedly nontraditional manner.

Dave also advised the track team. At regionals one year, I fell on the last hurdle of the 300m semifinal and skinned my knee quite deeply, but still qualified for the finals of that event and the earlier 110m. The next day, the wound had already scabbed over and I couldn't bend the knee. Just trying was intensely painful. I went to the meet assuming I couldn't run. And Dave said to me, as closely as I can recall, “If you don't run, no one will care but you, and you will soon forget. But if you run, you'll learn that present pain is only temporary, while the satisfaction of pushing through lasts a lifetime. And you'll carry the memory with you, empowering you, every day of your life.” Needless to say, I ran, and he was right.

At what point did you begin to see the potential impact that a research scientist could make in the world?

As a fan of Darwin, it's hard to escape.

Did Catlin Gabel help you to develop the skills you use now as a public educator – the ability to make cohesive arguments, share ideas, and persuade?

The single greatest gift I received from Catlin was the ability to write. Clear, concise, compelling language is more important than any other skill. Somewhat surprisingly, that is particularly true for a scientist.

Any additional memories of Catlin Gabel you’d like to share?

Lots of people don't have fond memories of high school. I do. Sure, there was frustration and heartache, but also inspiration and romance and friendships that have lasted decades.

Why is it important to you that research scientists become more transparent and democratic in their work, sharing not only results, but the stages of trial and error along the way?

I could say, “no taxation without representation,” and mean it. We're now developing technologies that will impact people at least as profoundly as any act of a duly elected legislature. On the public dime, no less. To do so behind closed doors, denying people a voice in decisions that will affect them, would be a betrayal of some of our highest values.

I could say, “I've had nearly every privilege, it's my responsibility to give back, and this is one way that I can.”

I could say, “we need new technologies.” Civilization isn't sustainable; we cannot stop inventing lest we fall and lose all of our progress. The current system is extraordinarily inefficient: we don't communicate the things that fail, causing others to waste time pursuing dead ends. We don't tell others what we're doing, meaning we needlessly duplicate one another's work rather than cooperating or competing on an informed basis. It's incredibly frustrating to be trapped within the confines of a research ecosystem that was never rationally designed and barely adapted to past conditions, let alone the modern era when communication costs literally nothing.

I could say, “science isn't much fun when you're constantly paranoid that you're wasting your time because someone else is trying to do the exactly the same thing.”

And I could say, “we need others to check our work, because no individual or group of specialists can reliably anticipate the consequences of their research.” Right now, there are few such safeguards in place. Just as I want others to check my work, I'd rather the same was true for other researchers.

There are many, many more reasons, but there's one that's become more poignant of late. It's that I have children whom I love dearly, and I want them to have a future. Helping reform science, which might improve the odds by as much as 10%, is likely the greatest gift I can possibly give.

In addition to your research, you have taken on the work of explaining and defending your ideas to the general public – telling the story of science. Does the role of public educator have it challenges, or rewards?

The role of the scientist is visionary, for science is our most reliable means for generating accurate predictions of the future. The role of the engineer is creator, for new technologies generate new possibilities. Working together, we can create visions of potential futures. But neither ability renders us wise, which is why a rather broader section of society has to choose.

Have you always believed that scientific research should be democratic and open? Were there influences or experiences that helped you move in this direction?

As I'm sure every one of my former teachers at Catlin could tell you, I've always struggled with humility. Yet there's nothing that teaches it quite like wasting two years of your life in graduate school pursuing a blind alley in research because you failed to accurately identify the simplest possible system. A still better lesson: design a theoretical technology that you believe will do everything you want, set it aside for a time, then come back only to realize that far from doing what you want, it would be actively dangerous. That happened to me last year designing a variation of a gene drive system. And I'm supposed to understand those. In short, no one can do this alone. We all make mistakes, and we can't always afford mistakes. The scientific method, insofar as it exists at all, is all about ensuring that others will always be rewarded for proving you wrong. To any current Catlin student anything at all like I was, listen carefully: allowing others to assume you know the answer, rather than confessing your ignorance, can indeed cultivate your reputation. But the cost is continued ignorance, and it's too high a price. Arrogance makes you weak. We need you. Swallow your pride, and ask others to explain.

Is there a trend toward democracy in scientific research? If so, in what ways is it becoming more democratic?

We're making progress towards openness, which is a prerequisite. More and more scientists post “preprints” of journal articles before peer-review, enabling more rapid assessment of advances as well as informal peer review. Clinical trials now require pre-registration, and a similar movement is gathering strength in psychology as a response to the replication crisis in that field. But in technology development, there aren't so many hopeful signs; it's just so remunerative that capitalistic incentives get in the way. With gene drive, we have a hope of changing the system.

When you told The New Yorker that you wanted to learn how to rewrite genes “to make some extremely useful and interesting things,” you make gene drive research sound really cool. Does it feel cool to you?

Being a professional scientist and engineer is much like getting paid to be a kid forever. “Here, have some amazing technological toys; go do something fun and hopefully useful!” Of course, it's also a tremendous responsibility. Bottom line: we should always hold ourselves morally responsible for all the consequences of our work.

Gus Van Sant ’71

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker reminisces about art under the tennis court, and the making of his very first film—on the Catlin Gabel campus

Interview by Ken DuBois

What kind of experience did you have at Catlin Gabel?

It was a good experience for me, since I had come from a public school where it was not as personal. And I found at Catlin, since it was so small, I was under a lot more supervision, and it helped me a lot. Dave Corkran was the main influence scholastically for me at that time, beside the art department, which was a main place for me to work. I was an arts kid for sure. And I spent a lot of the time there in the art department, which at that time was under the tennis court.

Did you pursue interests in film­making, photography, painting, or creative writing?

I did photography, painted, and in my senior year, along with Eric Edwards, made a 16mm film starring Evie and Nick Weitzer. The real writing mostly was happening in Corkran’s history class for me—historical projects. One was we took a title and investigated whatever was being said in the title. My title was “Travelers’ First Reactions to the Northwest Woods.” For this I found diaries at the Oregon His­torical Society, and writing by John Muir, and my objective was to keep in mind the promise of the title, “travelers” and “first reactions”—were they travelling into the Northwest, and are these the very first reactions? We did write in Alan Greiner’s English class too.

Was there a community of artists at Catlin Gabel–students and teachers working together?

In the art department, there were a num­ber of people that I was working with: Tom Carr, Dave Jenkins, Anne Storrs, Janet Gray, Eric Edwards, and Jon Prince.

Who were the teachers who encouraged or inspired you?

Kim Hartzell and Susan Sowles were very supportive art teachers for me at Catlin. They were so helpful, and they encouraged a lot of hard work. In 1971, in the year­book, we were able to actually print pages in it, and that was fostered by the yearbook community and Anne Storrs.

Are there lessons you learned at a young age—about creativity and self-expression—that you still apply to your work today?

Yes, a lot of things were coming about then. I made my first dramatic film as my Senior Project. Up until then I had mostly been making experimental 8mm films. This was the one with Nick and Evie, and during this project Eric Edwards and I learned all the steps that one would take to make a 16mm black and white film from the original rolls to workprint, sound mixing, A and B reels, and making a print. Which is still a way to make a film in 16mm today, if you can find the film. But I know there is a cinema department now at Catlin, so I made my very first project at Catlin and kept going from there.

Are there teachers or students from your youth that you think about often, whose influence you feel on a regular basis?

I usually remember the community of Catlin, of which there was a lot of talk then, and perhaps now as well, about how the Catlin community was feeling to us as students. And it was the time of Manvel Schauffler, who was a beloved headmaster at the time, but there was some problem, I think, with the adult politics at the school, which we were kept away from. There was a draft then, and if we weren’t planning to go to college we may go to Vietnam. There were some amazing characters there at the time, such as Dan Bump, a quantum theorist, I think. Dan would make his way down to the art department because some­times art intersected with math, which was his thing, so I remember him holding his head and being amazed by some math problem that we had no idea about.

All students mentioned are Class of '71 except Nick Weitzer '74, Tom Carr '73, Anne Storrs '72, and Dan Bump '70.

Christopher Keyes '92

The Outside editor on Type Two Fun at Catlin Gabel, and why he still wants to identify every plant he sees

Interview by Ken DuBoisWere you interested in outdoor adventures while at Catlin Gabel?

Yes. Catlin is really where I grew my love for the outdoors. The head of the Middle School at the time, Roy Parker, took my friend and me up Mt. Hood—I think it was between eighth grade and ninth grade— and that was a seminal experience for me. I thought it was the most incredible, fun, exciting, slightly dangerous thing that I’d ever done, and I wanted more of that.

That was before we had an Outdoor Education Program.

There was a little bit of an outdoor program, it was just sort of nascent at the time. There was another teacher, Wendy May, who did a lot of outdoor education trips, and I also did an eight-day trip in the Goat Rocks Wilderness with Robin Schauffler. I think that was in eighth grade. That was another incredible experience for me.

Eights days in the wilderness—that’s a major trip.

Oh, absolutely. I had never carried a backpack and travelled that way before. I still have vivid, vivid memories of a lightening storm, experiencing that in a tent with another friend of mine, and vivid memories of all the organization that went into that. It was an eye-opening experience for me. It was something I knew nothing about.

Did you do the Cape Arago trip?

Yes, as a senior. I was one of the counselors.

So you were learning what it means to be truly miserable.

Absolutely. Yeah, the common expression at the magazine now is “Type Two Fun.” That means you’re miserable at the time, but you look back on it very fondly. That kind of characterizes almost all adventure sports.

You went on to study environmental science policy at Duke. Was that an interest you developed at Catlin Gabel?

That was absolutely at Catlin, and that was one hundred percent Dave Corkran. He just had an incredible passion for environmentalism, and would tell the most engaging stories about growing up and seeing old growth forests that had been destroyed in his lifetime. And encouraging all of us to be better stewards of the land. He had an elective my senior year, environmental studies, and that was probably my favorite class at Catlin. He was just an incredibly engaging teacher and very inspiring.

You were combining those studies with actual outdoor experience.

One of my favorite things about that class was that we would go into the forest between the Lower School and the soccer field. And we had to learn to identify all the plants in there. I loved that. To this day I like to be able to know about my surroundings because of that. I don’t like to go on a hike and not know what the plants and animals are around there. I like to be able to name that stuff.

Are you trying to express some of those early influences through your magazine?

Without question. With Outside the whole goal of the publication is to inspire people to live a more active lifestyle, and experience an adventurous lifestyle. And the readership we attract is fundamentally going to be pretty receptive to that message of environmentalism and wanting to protect those places. So it’s definitely a sort of advocacy journalism that we practice, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily reaching the audience that really needs to hear it.

It’s an enormous audience in any case. With the print and digital versions of Outside combined, you may have as many as seven million readers. Is that correct?

Yeah. You’re scaring me.