The Power of a Broad Perspective
David Boas / Harvard University
17 May 2011
Preparing for departure for a 3 hour tour of Boston Harbor after the 2002 Molecular Imaging Conference.
BC checking the rigging on my new boat. All looks good. “She points into the wind well,” I recall him saying.
Ominous clouds move in.
I remember well first meeting BC near the end of my first year as a Physics graduate student. I was interested in probing turbid media with diffuse light with Arjun Yodh. Arjun, who was studying colloidal systems with diffuse light, suggested that I speak with BC, who was studying tissue with diffuse light, to see if I could work to bridge between physics and biomedicine with my Ph.D. research. BC was easy going, ready to give anyone a chance, and I left our first meeting looking forward to starting my research with him and Arjun in the summer. Over the years I always admired this willingness to give everyone a chance. I equally admired, though, that he fully expected you to rise to the occasion and had little tolerance for those who did not. I saw numerous research assistants appear and then disappear. More importantly, I saw many appear and then excel as they rose to and met his high expectations, and then go on to become highly successful in setting up their own research endeavors around the world.
BC created opportunities for everyone around him. When I was in school, I always appreciated that he treated students the same as full professors. While you could observe an occasional feather-ruffled full professor, BC’s approach clearly had bi-directional merit. Junior colleagues benefited tremendously from meeting with the numerous leaders who would frequently visit the lab, while the visiting senior colleagues were able to engage the highly energetic junior colleagues, oftentimes leading to collaborations lasting long after the initial meeting. This sort of leadership style strengthens a community, and I strive to mimic it myself. From my perspective, this generous leadership quality, as much as BC’s tremendous scientific achievements, helped to create the vibrant and highly engaging and collaborative biomedical optics community that we know today.
Interacting with him taught me the power of a broad perspective. He was multi-disciplinary decades before the importance of this was understood by most. Who knew that disparate fields such as ham radio technology (his work since childhood) and cellular energy metabolism (starting in the 1930s) could be connected? BC connected these with great success with his early work in Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (1980s). Following his lead, I strive to be engaged in different fields so that I may cross-fertilize between them to help accelerate scientific progress. His example here also demonstrates the importance of pursuing with fervor any innovative idea born from this cross-fertilization even if others initially fail to see the importance.
In the acknowledgements of my Ph.D. dissertation I wrote:
“BC’s uncanny ability to sort through numerous ideas, seemingly similar and orthogonal, and pursue a long term goal has kept me pointed in the right direction at times when forces were pulling me every which way. A treasure chest of new research projects is a curse without the ability to stay focused on a well-defined track. I am also grateful to Brit for the many opportunities that he directed my way despite my sometimes hesitant approach. His faith in my abilities has gone a long way towards my intellectual growth.”
My years with BC were an exciting time with numerous exciting ideas pulling us in many directions. I’ve been fortunate to remain in such an environment since then. Without his repeated guidance on identifying and chasing the best question, I would have gotten lost years ago. It took me years to catch on, but his insistence of extracting information from every experiment, despite my hesitance at the time, is key to rapidly progressing one’s scientific effort. I’d probably still be worrying about phantom validation of the diffusion equation if not for BC’s guidance here.
Finally, BC exemplified the importance of balancing hard work with hard play by always making the time to go sailing. While I always felt that such a balance was important, outside pressure seemed to suggest that one needed to work all waking hours in order to succeed. I believed that this was inefficient and that breaks were needed for the brain to subconsciously work through and help solve the problems of one’s work. BC’s example helped give me confidence that this was the right path. Reflecting back over the years, I can recall numerous problems solved and novel new insights that occurred while walking through the woods or along the beach, or even while sailing. I have no doubt that BC’s love of and devotion to sailing strengthened his scientific accomplishments throughout his career.