Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, ArtLab Foyer
Growing Up in Science with David Poeppel
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Science is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.
On Monday, April 16th, the interview partner is David Poeppel, director of the Neurosciences department, Max-Planck-Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.
David Poeppel, The Official CV
David is the Director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max-Planck-Institute (MPIEA) in Frankfurt, Germany and a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU. Trained at MIT in cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience, he did his post-doctoral training at the University of California San Francisco, where he focused on functional brain imaging. Until 2008, he was a professor at the University of Maryland College Park, where he ran the Cognitive Neuroscience of Language laboratory. He has been a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Studies Berlin), the American Academy Berlin, and a guest professor at numerous institutions. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His research focuses on the brain basis of hearing, speech, language, and music, using a range of experimental approaches. He has published over 200 papers and chapters and lectures frequently on topics ranging from hearing to language processing to the conceptual foundations of cognition and neurobiology.
David Poeppel, The Unofficial CV
In elementary school (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and in high school (Gymnasium in München), David was quite good at sports and disruptive behavior, but quite mediocre at schoolwork. Under the (often contradictory) influence of his Venezuelan mother and German father, he got through high school, but without a clear intuition what to do next. After fleeing Germany for the US and floundering for a year or two, he started to study a not-entirely-coherent mixture of philosophy, cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience at MIT. However, his passion was in other areas: acting and directing. He appeared in a number of plays and directed a few, as well. He toyed very seriously with the idea of pursuing this line of work because he had great fun in that milieu and did not feel impostorish – but somehow the plan was derailed. After working in a monkey lab for a while (with Peter Schiller and Nikos Logothetis) and, crucially, after attending a bunch of lectures by Noam Chomsky on linguistics and cognitive science (which felt like a curtain was opened and a new intellectual vista presented), he ended up in graduate school at MIT. The cohort he was with in graduate school – as well as the faculty – were profoundly intimidating. They became good friends and colleagues, but the feeling of inadequacy never really went away. The solution was to put one foot in front of the other and pursue projects and positions that were modest manageable. David picked topics that were conceptually controversial but did not require great technical facility (which he lacks). Two of the projects he worked on as a PhD student led to papers that were discussed and criticized a lot, which had both good (recognition and job offers) and bad (reputation as cranky and dogmatic) consequences. This ultimately led to a weird couple of years as post-doc at UCSF, where he ended up not having a PI in charge and had to become the architect of his own research program, and his own undoing. As an assistant, associate, and full professor at the University of Maryland College Park, he finally learned three key things. First, it’s OK not to be the smartest person in the room; it’s liberating to admit ignorance and not feel embarrassed. Second, be a closer: finish your projects and papers and grants at a decent pace. Third, hire people that are nice (most important criterion), dedicated, have a sense of humor, and are smarter than you (in some clear way). After 8 or so years, David and his wife and three sons moved to New York City, which is more exciting than suburban Washington DC. The colleagues at NYU were as intimidating as the folks from MIT, but David didn’t care anymore – he had finally learned that he was good at some things and lousy at others, and that’s OK. Of the work that he has produced, there are 10 or so papers that he is genuinely proud of over the course of his career. What has given him the most professional pleasure is the group of graduate students and post-docs that he has had the pleasure to work with over the years. He is acutely aware of the fact – in large part based on pervasive and long lasting impostor syndrome - that his professional success derives almost entirely from their originality, creativity, hard work, and the generation of a truly fun, funny, and productive work environment.