The Natural

Weizhe Hong illustration
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5 min read

When did you first start to think about science?

Both of my parents are scientists, and I spent a good deal of my childhood in their labs. So I got to know what science is about and to think about it from a very young age. It feels very natural for me to be around science.

What was your first experiment?

It wasn’t an experiment, exactly, but I caused some trouble when I was 4 or 5 years old. There was a large cooling system in the lab, and I saw that the water was on, and I had always been told at home that when there is running water, I should turn it off. So, I turned it off — and I guess I turned off the entire cooling system. It triggered a warning, and someone reacted quickly to turn the water back on, so it didn’t really cause any damage, but it was a little bit traumatic for me at the time. My first serious experiments were in high school, in a biochemistry lab. Before that, biology was just something that you memorized, and it was boring. Working in the biochemistry lab completely changed my view of biology and biomedical research, learning that science is not just something you observe and describe, but it involves actually designing ways to look deeper into the nature and the underlying, often hidden, processes inside a problem.

What has been your greatest challenge?

The brain is the most complex organ, and we are only scratching the surface of our understanding of it. Every day we think about new ways to try to reduce the complexity so we can begin to understand the underlying process, how brain cells or neurons communicate with each other, how they work together to service a particular function so that we can think, we can memorize things. Those amazing functions are just interactions between brain cells, but that’s such a complex process.

Who is your science hero?

I have many mentors and advisors, and those people are all my heroes. There are many great scientists in history who are so inspirational. I particularly admire people who persevere in a difficult situation, and who make the impossible possible.

Where are you happiest?

In the lab. I like to work, and in the lab I am surrounded by smart and talented people who share the same passion.

What has been your biggest “aha!” moment?

In scientific research, there are so many moments of incremental progress. Maybe there is some “aha!” moment in there, but I can’t think of a particular one. What has been your finest achievement? I think it has been creating a lab of amazing people and an intellectually stimulating environment for them to work in. There have been specific findings that are important, but that is secondary, I think, to creating a platform where we can work together to continue to make progress.

What are the qualities of a great scientist?

Being humble and having humility and perseverance in difficult situations. It is important to be open-minded, not just to ideas, but also to criticism. And creativity is important. But perseverance and open-mindedness are, to me, the most important qualities.

What is your greatest fault?

I’m impatient. I’m eager to get things done and to know the answer to a question. I’m definitely impatient.

What is your motto?

Chance favors the prepared mind. And, hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

What do you value most in your colleagues?

I really like their honest and constructive feedback and criticism. The only way we can make real progress is to hear criticism from other people. We have to be open to that, and I think I really value that from other people, no matter how negative it is.

When don’t you think about science?

I have two young children, so there are many occasions when I can’t think about science. During COVID, for half a year we didn’t have any child care, so I was at home with them during that time, and that was amazing. Playing with my kids and seeing them grow, that was very inspirational.

If not a scientist, what would you be?

I think I would be an entrepreneur. I don’t want my time to be wasted, and if I can do something really unique in my life, I’ll do that. I think that is the reason I love being a scientist — having the freedom to explore and to potentially make a unique contribution to humanity. I probably would be an entrepreneur for the same reason, because it comes with a substantial amount of freedom to do whatever one is passionate about.

What’s your most treasured possession?

Time. One’s work career is about 30-to-40 years, which sounds like a lot, but it is only about 10,000-to-15,000 days, including weekends and holidays. The total time for us to make a real contribution in our work is, really, very limited, and that makes it precious.

What are you most compulsive about?

To look into the nature of something and to know the truth.

How do you want to change the world?

I believe that knowing how we understand ourselves, how we process information and how we make decisions can change how we think about the world. We now see the emergence of artificial intelligence, yet we haven’t even scratched the surface of understanding the human mind. So, I think it is critically important for us to have a greater understanding of the human mind before we move on to artificial intelligence. As a neuroscientist, it is a little bit of an urgent moment.

What is your definition of happiness?

Having a sense of purpose and the freedom to pursue it.

What is your definition of misery?

The opposite of my definition of happiness, not having a sense of purpose or not being able to pursue it.

What music do you listen to while you work?

I like classical music. I love that it pushes you to think deeply about the purpose of your life. But I usually don’t listen to music while I work. Listening to music is something that I want to focus and spend time on. I don’t do other things when I listen to music.