Alumni Interview: 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.