Karl Deisseroth’s New Yorker profile

The New Yorker has profiled Karl Deisseroth. I liked this paragraph which is an excellent description of his personality:

The Stanford neuroscientist Rob Malenka, who oversaw Deisseroth’s postdoctoral work, told me that in some ways he underestimated his trainee. “I knew he was really smart. I didn’t appreciate that underneath that laid-back, almost surfer-dude kind of persona is this intense creative and intellectual drive, this intense passion for discovery. He almost hides it by his presentation.”

I did not know this; let’s hope it is better than Ramon y Cajal’s science fiction:

His initial dream, in fact, was to write. He took writing courses as an undergraduate, and when he was a graduate student in both medicine and neuroscience at Stanford he took a fiction-writing class that met two nights a week at a junior college nearby. He remains an avid reader of fiction and poetry, and he is polishing a book of short stories and essays loosely inspired by Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table.”

We are bombarded with the ‘genius’ and ‘superhuman that needs no sleep’ myths so much that it is worthwhile to see the New Yorker nix that one:

The doubts only motivated Deisseroth. “I felt a sort of personal need to see what was possible,” he says. Malenka told me that this understates the case considerably: “There’s this drive of, like, ‘You think I’m wrong about this, motherfucker? I’m going to show you I was right.’ ” Deisseroth began working furiously. “He was getting up at 4 or 5 A.M. and going to bed at one or two,” Monje says. He kept up this schedule for five years, until optogenetic experiments began working smoothly. “There are people who don’t need as much sleep,” Monje says. “Karl is not one of those people. He’s just that driven.”

But of course this is the best paragraph. I am guessing Deisseroth’s wife still doesn’t quite know understand what she’s dealing with (because it’s so strange):

Deisseroth estimates that optogenetics is now being used in more than a thousand laboratories worldwide, and he takes twenty minutes every Monday morning to sift through written requests for the opsins. It was not until Monje joined her husband at a recent neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C., that she understood the fame that optogenetics had brought him. “People were stopping us at the airport asking to take a picture with him, asking for autographs,” she said. “He can’t walk through the conference hall—there’s a mob. It’s like Beatlemania. I realized, I’m married to a Beatle. The nerdy Beatle.”

I hosted Karl Deisseroth when he visited UCSD last year. He struck me as very humble yet ambitious. Many ‘famous’ researchers come across as a bit airy when they speak of future research, but Deisseroth was very serious about the strengths and weaknesses of everything he did. The most interesting thing that he said was in response to a question about his papers getting a zillion citations. He claimed that it made them work more slowly and carefully; that they published less than they could have because, instead of needing to be 95% certain that what did was correct, they needed to be 99.9% certain. Everything they publish will be put under a microscope (so to speak).


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