How I learned to edit DNA in less than a day


In the movie GATTACA, Ethan Hawke’s parents visit a doctor’s office to choose the embryo of their second child. They have a choice between four babies—two boys, two girls—each of which has been engineered to perfection. As the doctor says: “[These embryos have] no predispositions to any major inheritable diseases. All that remains is to select the most compatible candidate.”

Gattaca_Visit_To_Doctor_OffidceScreenshot from GATTACA

GATTACA was produced in 1997. Although we can’t yet choose our child’s intelligence by modifying its embryo, gene editing has come a long way since. We have sequenced the entire human genome. We have discovered how to write biological material like software.

I expect biological engineering to be one of the most important technological advances in my lifetime, so I wanted to learn how it works in practice.

Fortunately for me, New York City has a community biolab called Genspace. Community biolabs are labs at which ordinary citizens can learn about and work on biotechnology. After taking an introductory course in biotechnology in November 2017, I signed up for a course in gene editing this February. The technique we would use is called CRISPR-Cas9.

What is CRISPR–Cas9?

CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing technology inspired by nature. CRISPRs—short strips of genetic code—are part of a defense method that bacteria have developed to protect themselves from intruding viruses. When a virus intrudes into a bacterial cell, a protein inside the bacterial cell can identify the virus (using CRISPRs) and cut it in two, disabling the virus.

In 2012, scientists at UC Berkeley first successfully modified this method to target a custom, programmed gene sequence. In 5 years since, CRISPR has proliferated, so much so that you can buy do-it-yourself CRISPR kits online.

The first two minutes of this video by MIT explain the mechanism well.

What did I do in my course?

The goal of the course was to modify yeast’s DNA. Yeast naturally looks white; we had to color it red and make it green fluorescent under ultraviolet light.

This metamorphosis consisted of two steps. First, we had to disable the gene that made the yeast look white (if this gene was not expressed, the yeast would look red instead). Second, we had to add new DNA to the yeast that would make it green fluorescent. CRISPR-Cas9 can do both—disable existing genes by cutting them and inserting new genes by adding new nucleotides.

To do this, I must have been a biology expert, right? Far from it. I took 3 years of high school bio and never did serious lab work. I did not take any biology after the age of 14—I could barely remember that animal cells have a nucleus and bacterial cells don’t. Now I was going to modify the DNA of a living organism? Yes.

So how would I turn our standard white yeast into a red-and-green, disco-loving creature?

White to Red

White_to_RedOur goal was to turn yeast from its natural white color (left) to red (right). Photo courtesy of Will Shindel, Genspace’s instructor.

We had to cut the gene that turns the yeast white. The cutting of DNA is done by the Cas9 protein. This protein must be instructed to go after the right target—in this case, the yeast’s gene that gives it its white color. To instruct the Cas9 protein (think of this as the scissors) we had to add a piece of guide RNA. Guide RNA is like a barcode: it tells the Cas9 protein what sequence of DNA to look for, and once it finds it, the Cas9 protein will make the cut. So, in addition to the Cas9 protein (the scissors), we had to add guide RNA (the barcode).

Minutes 1:50 to 2:50 of the same MIT video explain this process of cutting existing genes using Cas9 proteins (scissors) tailored with guide RNA (barcodes).

Using CRISPR-Cas9, you can now modify this process to go after any genetic code you like by modifying the barcode.

Amazon meets Biotech

CRISPR_directScreenshot of CRISPRdirect, a website that helps you to identify the guide RNA sequence with the highest likelihood of cutting your gene successfully.

How do you create the barcode? This part is fascinating. You simply search on Google for the gene of the organism you want to modify—in our case, the gene in yeast that gives it its white color. (The gene is called ADE2). You then download the gene’s DNA code—a series of letters A, T, C, and G—and paste it into Snapgene, a simple program that helps you read the DNA more easily. You then past the DNA code into CRISPRdirect, to identify the guide RNA (the barcode) with the highest likelihood of cutting the DNA properly, and then order the guide RNA (the barcode) using a website like IDT. At that instant, machines will start whizzing hundreds of miles away to synthesize the genetic code that you just submitted through a form on a website. The RNA is delivered to your doorstep within 24 hours.


Introducing the scissors and the barcode was enough to disable the yeast’s red color. But changing white to red was only half our goal.

Special Effects, Please

The second step was to make the yeast glow bright green. To do this, we had to add extra genetic materials.

After the Cas9 protein (scissors) cut the yeast’s DNA at the site instructed by the guide RNA (barcode), the yeast’s DNA two strands (double helix, remember?) will naturally try to heal. This is when you can introduce new genetic material into the DNA.

The trick is to hide the new, foreign DNA in other genetic materials that the yeast recognizes as naturally occurring. It’s a bit like hiding your dog’s medicine inside his food, hoping that he will eat the medicine unknowingly by finishing his food.

We wanted to add new material to code for our green fluorescent gene. This material was a series of 1510 nucleotides. (Nucleotides are single molecules that humans codify by the letters A, C, G, or T, which stands for the molecules Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine.) To both ends of the new gene that would lead to green fluorescence, we added DNA that matched both sides of the cut in yeast’s DNA. Normally, after a cut, the two strands of yeast DNA will naturally heal back in their own place, as explained in the previous video. However, when enough “repair material” is present in the yeast’s cell, the yeast’s DNA will heal instead by connecting with this new repair material. As a consequence, you have now successfully inserted a little bit of new DNA into the yeast’s original code.

Repair_TemplateThe blue, double strand is the original DNA; the purple, single strand of DNA is the inserted genetic material. This screenshot shows how the purple, new DNA is being connected with the outermost 4 base pairs onto the blue, original DNA.

In my mind, I compare this mechanism to how magnets work. The naturally recognized pieces of DNA that you add to both sides of the newly introduced gene (green fluorescent, in our case) are like magnets. These magnets were chosen to have a strong attraction to both sides of the cut of the original DNA. When the green fluorescent gene with magnets on both sides comes close to the original DNA cut by CRISPR-Cas9, the magnets on the side of the green fluorescent gene connect with both sides of the original DNA’s cut, and as a result, the updated yeast’s DNA now has a line of code that makes it green fluorescent.

Minutes 2:50 onward of the same MIT video explain the process of inserting new genetic materials into existing genes well.


A week after we added the cutting sequence (to cut the yeast’s ADE2 gene that made it look white) and the DNA that would make the yeast green fluorescent to the yeast, we returned to the lab to look at our results.

Our yeast colonies had replicated, and most samples showed red yeast instead of white yeast. Unfortunately, none of the colonies turned green fluorescent under UV light (despite what the image below seems to show—if the green fluorescent gene would have been adopted, the yeast colonies would have shown much greener).

Petri_Dishes_CRISPRPetri dishes with yeast colonies under UV light. The petri dish top-center and bottom-right show mold growth (this is contamination).

A possible reason why the green fluorescent gene was not integrated was that the ADE2 genes were indeed broken (hence the shift from white to red), but that they reconnected with a different sequence, and that therefore the green fluorescent protein (GFP) was not adopted.

Accessible Science

Now that I have edited live genes, what are my reflections?

It’s hard to believe that somebody with no deep background in biology can understand and learn how to edit DNA in less than a day. I don’t suggest that I have mastered the discipline—far from it, of course—but I have learned how to practice the basics.

The technologies used to modify DNA are relatively simple too. The tools used are relatively simple—either pipettes, to dose liquids, or devices that spin, heat, or cool the genetic material.

Will We Edit Human Embryos Soon?  

Chinese researchers have started to edit human embryos. And last summer, the United States followed suit, with the first American editing of a human embryo (using CRISPR-Cas9), see the video below. Like in GATTACA, will all babies soon be edited?


In the short term, I don’t think so. Our understanding of the human genome is too limited. We know how some genes code for some features, but we are far away from knowing what genes make you smart, tall, or strong. 23 and me, a service that synthesizes your DNA for $199, will tell you if your urine will smell after you eat asparagus, or if you’re likely to grow bald, but it will not tell you your IQ or whether you’re good at public speaking.

Our understanding of human genes is expanding rapidly though. Almost every issue of New Scientist reports on the discovery of a new gene. Stephen Hsu, VP of Research at Michigan State University, recently led a study that can predict the height a person will be within a 3 centimeter range based on the person’s DNA.

So as we learn more about genes, will we allow “editing” of humans?

I think the answer is yes. If you are the parent of a child that will be born with a terrible, hereditary disease, and it is possible to save your child from that suffering, would you not?

Even if some countries don’t allow it, others will. Wealthy people who care about giving their children the best possible genes will go to the countries that allow for gene editing and use the technique to modify their embryos.

Initially this will be done only to disable hereditary diseases. But what about modifying genes to upgrade ourselves: making our children more intelligent, better-looking, or stronger?

That will happen too. Practices will spring up in which the ultra-wealthy can “upgrade” their embryos. Some people will choose to do this, because the surest way to feel you’re leaving something for future generations is to improve the chances of your offspring being successful.

If you’re in that position, what would you do?


Life Scenarios: a group exercise to envision your professional future

 “It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”

― Ella Fitzgerald

It is said that Bill Clinton had set his eyes on becoming president of the United States before he finished high school. More often, our dreams and aspirations change based on individual development and changing reality. If you want to help a friend find her next professional step, or if your own future deserves some creative thought, try this short exercise. (I call it Life Scenarios.)

Inspired by improv-comedy, Life Scenarios taps into the creativity of someone else to describe paths for your future. Not limited by previous thinking or value judgment, your partner(s) in this exercise can spark new ideas and uncover what makes you tick.

This exercise is best done in trios, but can be done in pairs. (I’ll use Person 1, Person 2, and Person 3 to name the different participants.)

Estimated duration: 15–20 minutes per participant.

Tools: Pen and paper, voice recorder, stopwatch.


Step 1: your long-term vision

Duration: 60 seconds

Person 1 describes what his life will look like 15–20 years from now.

The goal of this step is to provide Person 2 (and Person 3) with a long-term basis to build their scenarios on.

Example: “In twenty years I will have started and grown multiple organizations providing education to people who have insufficient access today. In twenty years, I will be an adviser to different young entrepreneurs and I’ll be involved in government. I will have traveled much, and be happily married to my husband, caring for our two children.”


Step 2: rapid fire life scenario

Duration: 60 seconds

Based on Person 1’s long-term vision, Person 2 imagines and pitches a scenario for the next 3–5 years. Example: “A newly-started accelerator focused on technology start-ups that focus on education, recruits you to lead scouting (i.e., finding companies to join the accelerator) and fundraising for the inaugural year. You travel around the United States to tell start-ups about your program, mostly traveling to college campuses, and to raise money from investors and sponsors to finance the accelerator program. After the inaugural program, you decide to stay on for a few more years as part of the 4-person leadership team, fulfilling the same role.”


Step 3: scenario evaluation

Duration: 60 seconds

Person 1 provides feedback on the scenario sketched by Person 2, using the following framework:

  • Pro’s (What do I like about the future described?)
  • Con’s (What do I dislike about the future described?)
  • Grade on scale of 1–10

Example: “I like traveling, and I like to speak to audiences when I’m campaigning for a cause. I love the focus on education. But I’d rather start my own initiative; and I don’t like fundraising. I’d give this a 6 out of 10.”


Go through several iterations

Based on the feedback on the first scenario provided by Person 1, steps 2 and 3 are repeated. If you do this exercise with three people, Person 3 is the next to sketch a scenario. If you work in a pair, Person 2 sketches a second scenario. The goal of Person 2 (and Person 3) is to get to a scenario which is graded 8 or above by Person 1. You can stop the exercise once that grade is reached, or continue to explore more opportunities. I typically try to sketch out at least six scenarios.


End of exercise

Once you have reached one or more attractive scenarios for Person 1, take a moment to reflect on the exercise.

Ask Person 1: “What insights did you gain? What was surprising?”More often than not, Person 1 will be delighted to see a different future path and/or have gained clarity on what characteristics are important in future work. Person 2 (and Person 3) can share too what was surprising for them in the answers of Person 1.


Final remarks

The best way to find what you enjoy doing is by trying things. The fact that you think you will not like an activity does not mean you wont, or that your preference will stay static in the future. (Do you ever notice how many children complain about hiking to their parents and love walking years later?) If you notice internal excitement listening to one of the scenarios, why not give it a try?

A beautiful vision is not enough; hard (and/or smart) work is required to build your future.  The point of this exercise is to expand your view on your future, it’s no guarantee that you will realize these views. (Although there are plenty of quotes along the lines of “what you can imagine, can be done.”)

One goal of this exercise is to explore what characteristics you value in future work, reasoning through concrete examples. Example: you may think “freedom”is most important to you in your work, but realize that you consistently give the highest rating to scenarios in which you’re speaking on stage. This may mean that being the center of attention is more important to you (now) than freedom is! Once you realize this preference, you can change your decisions.

A side-benefit of this exercise, when you do it with friends, is that you can deepen your friendship because each party is by definition open and vulnerable by sharing their future dreams and how they respond to different scenarios.

Finally, please see this blog as an inspiration to pick parts from and blend with other ideas. Try to change things! Let me know what works.

A special thanks to Franziska Becker and Ted Gonder for going through this exercise and reviewing this post. 

Reviving Buckminster Fuller’s last-designed Dome

Biodome picture

Paul, Eden, Michael, Robbie, Dan, and Titiaan inside the Windstar dome

In 1982, Buckminster Fuller led a workshop exploring geodesics and other topics. From that workshop, the idea arose to build a biodome on John Denver’s Windstar estate in Old Snowmass, Colorado. In the summer of 1983, weeks before construction was scheduled to start, Bucky died of a heart-attack. In his spirit, a group of young architects and engineers including Bill Browning and John Katzenberger built the Windstar biodome.

Biodome Windstar

The original 1983-built 5m-diameter biodome

The goal of the biodome project was to produce food locally year-round in a cold climate with solar energy. The dome was glazed with two layers of plastic film separated by an air space. Until the late eighties, the biodome was used to grow a variety of vegetables and fruit. The dome was separated into two levels, the lower level including a pond in which fish were raised, which doubled as a heat storage medium. An army of volunteers was involved to maintain the indoor (and outdoor) gardens. Today, only a structure and many stories are left.


Inside of the biodome: showing multiple floors and hanging gardens

When I arrived at Windstar three months ago and saw the dome, I knew immediately that I wanted to restore this legendary structure. Imagine re-building the last dome Buckminster Fuller designed! I soon learnt that I was not the only person excited about this prospect. Eden Vardy, founder of Aspen Tree, an NGO that aims to connect people to nature through agricultural training, had a similar idea. In fact, Eden and Aspen Tree’s co-director Paul, had erected another biodome close to Aspen in the fall of 2013. After Amory introduced us, it was evident we had to team up.

How to make this idea work? The first step was to develop design alternatives. Eden and I convened eight people—Greg Rucks, Dan Wetzel, Robert McIntosh, Garrett Fitzgerald and myself (all from Rocky Mountain Institute), Eden Vardy and Paul Huttenhower (both from Aspen Tree), and Michael Thompson, an architect with experience in designing grow houses—to participate a design charrette, a process to develop design alternatives.

The first goal of the charrette was to brainstorm design alternatives to glaze or skin the dome. We started the process outside, gathering all participants under the 5m-diameter dome (picture at top of this post), to be inspired by the dome’s history and understand the technical details of the current structure. After sharing stories about the biodome’s original state, we moved inside to start the charrette.

In the next hour, we generated many interesting ideas—building an opaque dome to use for mushroom-growth; using old parachutes as inside insulation; and building a fly-eye dome—and consequently selected four ideas to further develop. The group split into four pairs, each pair given the task to develop a list of materials and next steps per design alternative.

Overview of generated ideas

Eden guiding the selection of four ideas from the charrette to further develop

Four design alternatives were further developed:

1. Hard polycarbonate dome. The current structure is a “basket weave”-dome. As in a woven basket, the ribs alternatively pass concentric or eccentric of one another.  This means there is no flat plane to which to adjust all three sides of a triangle or five sides of a pentagon. Paul suggested a way to fix this by adding plywood to the joints, but the group questioned whether that was in line with Buckminster Fuller’s idea of ephemerilization—doing ever more with fewer pounds of material. Michael estimated that the material costs for the polycarbonate were ~$4,200 for a ~1200 square feet surface area (at $3.50/square foot), or double that if the parts were to be ordered pre-cut.

2. Double-inflated polyfilm dome. This was the design of the original dome (second picture in this post). In 1983, the intention was to perfectly seal the space between the plastic films and fill the space with a gas with a low heat transfer coefficient. The inserted gas between the films quickly leaked out, so an airpump was installed to inflate the “pillows”.  The benefit of this idea would be that few to no more material needs to be added to the structure of the dome. Michael estimated that the material cost for the double-inflated polyfilm would be $1,000 for the dome (at $0.75/square foot).

3. Extra external or internal structure. Greg and Robbie worked on the idea of adding an additional light structure around the outside of the dome, inspired by aluminum tent-poles, over which a permanent or temporary insulating material could be draped. The idea arose of a slinky-type external cover, made of aluminum or carbon fibre ribs and an insulating fabric, that can be pulled across the dome during the night. Michael suggested that an internal additional structure could be a better idea, given high snow loads in Aspen.

4. Fly-eye dome. Dan and Paul explored the idea of creating a fly-eye dome. This type of design would need much material compared to the three designs discussed above. Garrett accordingly asked what the primary goal of the fly-eye dome would be, to which the group agreed that the function was mostly aesthetical.

Whiteboard voting

Michael, Greg, and Robbie voting for ideas.

Reflecting on the charrette, it is most likely we will implement the double-inflated polyfilm dome, possibly with an additional internal structure as developed by Robbie and Greg. The benefits of this design are low material costs, identical appearance as the original, and quick installation.

The next critical steps for the projects are to raise funding for construction materials and to apply for a building permit. If you are interested to help during construction of the dome, please comment on this post.

Dome pattern

Structure of the dome. Note the “basket weave” of the ribs—each rib alternates between passing concentrically or eccentrically by other ribs.

What do you think about—and why?

Canada Goose

Do you pay attention to the sounds of geese swerving overhead? I never did, but that recently changed, as I saw the documentary Winged Migration: a beautifully filmed narrative, portraying the extensive journeys of migratory birds*. Since seeing Winged Migration I notice that I pay more attention to songs and appearances of birds.

Do you ever think about what keeps buildings cool? I had thought about building cooling principles, but never observed the devices that created the cooling. That changed in 2012, when I spent one week categorizing rooftop-installed cooling equipment on office buildings in Massachusetts. Spending several hours per day studying rooftops on satellite images, I started to notice cooling units on buildings everywhere: from the window of my morning bus-ride; during walks around Harvard square; even as I landed in Florida for a connecting flight to Costa Rica. My attention was triggered.

When your brain is made aware of something—be it migratory patterns of birds or rooftop-cooling units—it pays more attention to this object of phenomenon. Our awareness is influenced by what our brain has been processing. In other words: what we notice is influenced by previous mental exposure; there is a relationship between past, present and future. If you want to control what you think about, your task is to feed relevant and sticky input to your brain. Relevant because the input must relate to what you want to think about (if you want to learn about databases, reading Hamlet is unlikely to be the most effective way); sticky because the brain responds differently to different types of information (compare the mental impact of reading about the salty flavor of an oyster to the mental impact of tasting an oyster).

Time for a question: What do you think about?

Look away from your computer screen for a minute. Meditate upon your thoughts in the last hours, slowly expanding the scope to your thoughts the last days. Write down the types of mental activity you were engaged in, such as technical (how do I code this loop?), logistics (what groceries should I buy?), planning (what do I want to do today?), relationships (who do I want to see this week?), reading, or marketing (how do we get people to buy this?).

I asked this question to several friends on my visit to San Francisco last week. Pieter Verhoeven and I created a short list, sitting in Steve Jobs’ favorite Japanese restaurant in Palo Alto.

  • Technical / calculations (work)
  • Technical / problem-solving approach (work)
  • Conversations with people
  • Sleep
  • Relationships (who to call, who to spend time with etc.)
  • Logistics (shopping, rent, tax etc.)
  • Personal future
  • Non-personal future (sensors and actuators, artificial intelligence, energy systems etc.)
  • Technical / creating (drawing, programming, making physical objects etc.)
  • Nothing (meditation?)
  • Sleep
  • Dance or music
  • (Surprisingly, eating as a mental activity was not one of them—Pieter and I both noticed that we are normally engaged in conversation or work during meals. To be changed.)

I noticed that I think much about people. I spend at least one hour per day asking myself questions as “Who do I want to speak to in the office?” “Who can help me realize this idea?” “To whom have I not spoken in a long time?” Until last week, I had not questioned that type of thought—I just accepted that I thought about people. By comparing my categorized thoughts to those of friends, I realized I spent more time thinking about people than most.

Returning to the hypothesis that your thinking is influenced by the things you feed your brain, my thoughts about people are likely induced first by the fact that I make lists of people I want to collaborate with—a stimulus for the brain; second by the fact that I have enforced that mental activity; and third because I actively spend time learning about people’s stories: reading people’s blogs, calling friends, reading biographies—another stimulus for the brain. In addition, people’s stories are sticky (at least to my brain)—I find it fairly easy to remember the experiences friends tell me about, even years after their telling.

I want to improve my technical mind by deeply understanding models from chemistry, physics and biology. I do this today by picking up science books, by watching documentaries, and by visiting research labs of friends who have decided to pursue a PhD. Interestingly; I notice that some activities are much stickier than others. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces led to many new ideas; and so did spending two hours peaking at fruitflies through a microscope with Didem Sarikaya at Harvard’s Department of Biology. The book I picked up about chemistry did not have that same stickiness.

What do you think about? What is the cause of this? What do you want to think more, or more actively, about? What stimuli can you use to foster that thinking?


My dear friend Jan Overgoor shared with me a vivid example of an experience triggering the mind. Lately, Jan has worked on different projects with wood, including the construction of a beautiful elliptical tabletop for his home in Berkeley. Jan informed me that he is much more aware of the touch of different surfaces since working actively wood, automatically comparing surface he touches to the smoothness and softness of wood.

*Since seeing Winged Migration, I have a new favorite animal: the Arctic Tern. Why? This little bird travels on average 95,000 kilometers per year. That is more than double the circumference of the earth. If we assume an Arctic Tern flies 300 days per year, the average daily travel is more than 300 kilometers—all by muscle power, no oil needed, nor snacks. What a globetrotter!

Arctic Tern

Friendships as a calibrator for life

From Apple’s dictionary:

calibrate |ˈkaləˌbrāt|

• carefully assess, set, or adjust (something abstract): the regulators cannot properly calibrate the risks involved | (as adj.calibrated) : their carefully calibrated economic policies.

Earlier this week I was in Berlin. I had two wonderful conversations: one with a dear friend who I hadn’t seen for a year; the other with a woman I had never met before.

When you meet a friend you have not seen in a long time, it seems easier to talk about deep topics than with friends you see very regularly. Time together is perceived as more precious, because rarer, hence you want to use every minute to speak about stuff that matters.

There’s a second reason why long-distance friendships hold much value. Friends who see you only once every so often naturally maintain a distant perspective on your life. They don’t know about the details of every project you undertake. When these friends listen carefully and ask critical questions, such occasional conversations are a reality check: are your actions aligned with what you say your values and dreams are? These friendships serve as a calibrator for life.

How can you guarantee you have these conversations, these check-ins, to make sure you’re living a life you’re proud of?

One answer, I think, is to set time apart with friends – close-by or far-away – in which you start by discussing the very basics (your principles, your beliefs) to the very acute (what are you doing today?).

7 Paths For Guaranteed Misery in Life

You can not tell people how to be happy, but you can tell them how they will become miserable. If we avoid paths to misery, we increase our chances of a happy life. “I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.”

Below are 7 paths for guaranteed misery in life, from Charles Munger’s 1986 Harvard Commencement speech, from the book “Seeking Wisdom” by Peter Bevelin. What surefire paths to misery would you add?

 #1 Ingest chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception

 #2 Envy

 #3 Resentment

 #4 Be unreliable

 #5 Learn only from your personal experience

Avoiding to learn from the mistakes of others will surely bring you to misery.

How little originality is there in the common disasters of mankind – drunk driving deaths, […] conversion of bright college students into brainwashed zombies as members of destructive cults. […] “If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for hang gliding.”

 #6 Stay down when life knocks you to the floor

There is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, that [staying down when life gets tough] will be permanently mired in misery.

 #7 Do not think backward

Approach the study of happiness by studying how not to be happy, in other words:

Approach “How to be X?”

By asking “How not to be X?”

This video is part of Charlie Munger’s commencement speech at USC. Find the transcript of the speech here

A quest for learning – summer 2013

This summer, I embark on an epic quest. With 8 students from MIT and UC Berkeley, I’m cycling 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington. Along our journey, we will teach hands-on science classes to a total of 1,000 high-school students on topics we deeply care about, organized as “Learning Festivals”.

Classes range from “How to build a heliostat solar panel?” to “How does the brain work?”. Each Learning Festival will end with a session in which we invite students to work on their own ideas. The goal of our journey is to let children experience the joy of learning and the power of turning ideas into reality.


For email updates of the highlights of our journey (2x per month), please leave your information here. I keep another blog during the summer, please find it here. 

A demo class in Amsterdam

A demo class in Amsterdam

How can you help? 

Thank you for taking the effort of reading this page! There are several ways in which you can help:

(1) We are looking for teaching locations across the country (see the map below). Are you in touch with school teachers, librarians or summer camp leaders along our route? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(2) We will be camping all the way. Do you have friends who live along the path, who are happy to host 8 students for a meal or a night? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(3) This journey will lead into a structural organization to support children in developing their own ideas beyond summer. Do you want to work on or fund the future of hands-on learning? Definitely reach out, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!


Along our journey, we are supported by a large team of web designers, educators and funders. During our trip, we will be 8: 6 MIT students, 1 UC Berkeley student and myself .

Our team of 8

Our team of 8


1. COMPUTERS, ART:  The algorithmic beauty of plants

Do you like computers, plants, or art? How about the intersection of all three? In this course, we explore the recursive structure of plants and learn how to make pretty pictures of trees, flowers, and abstract fractal-like patterns using a clever technique called L-systems. Everyone will have a chance to create their own computer-generated works of art inspired by life.

2. NEUROSCIENCE, GAMES:  EyeWire: a game to map the brain

EyeWire is a puzzle-meets-coloring book online game that enables its players to contribute to the brain mapping initiative, which was announced by President Obama in March. Developed in part by one of the Spokes teachers in the Seung Lab at MIT, the game teaches its players how to trace the “branches” of neurons through 3D reconstructions of brain tissue. To do this task, players “spot check” computer algorithms, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a connectivity map with synaptic-scale resolution of the “connectome.”

3. ENERGY, CONTROL SYSTEMS:  Build your own solar panel heliostat

Through assembling their own solar panel heliostat, students will gain insight into the fundamental working or energy from renewables. This class combines knowledge in mechanical engineering (designing a technical system), computer science (programming an arduino) and electrical engineering (soldering the board).

4. FOOD, GARDENING:  How to grow your own vegetables: inside, for free!

Don’t you wish you know how to make your own delicious food? With a few old plastic gutters, a handful of plant seeds and a bit of daily care, you will grow your own veggies in no-time! Add in a few quick and easy recipes, and you will be the most popular chef in your high school – period.

5. MUSIC, PHYSICS:  The Science of Music

Music has been called the universal language. In some sense its building blocks of rhythm, harmony, and melody arise from the nature of the human mind. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions! Come learn about the math, physics, and psychology behind the music we love and how to take a scientific approach to solving its mysteries.


Our route from San Francisco to DC

Our route from San Francisco to DC



My class

The class I will teach is called: “Grow your own vegetables – the joy of making what you’re eating”. I have created an entire outline of my class (using pictures, very few words) here.

See you in DC!

See you in DC!

On virtues

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”Aristotle

I believe that we have much more control over our character than we realize. We see our lives, by default, from our own perspectives. This leads us to think that much of our behavior is natural, where in fact it has been shaped over our individual history. To become the sculptors of our own persona, we need to adopt a “third-party perspective”: looking at ourselves critically as if we were a distant observer.

A great proponent of human virtuosity is the late Benjamin Franklin, one of the “Founding Fathers” of the US. He proposed a simple, yet powerful exercise, to become a more virtuous person. This exercises was one of many used in his pursuit of “moral perfection”. Franklin believed, and so do I, that the best way to serve humanity is by being good to others.

Step 1 of the exercise is to set a “gold standard” for behavior. Franklin suggested to do this by establishing a list of the virtues you hold in high regard. For each virtue, write down a short sentence for clarification. Additionally, I have added a list of vices that I wish to keep away from. This provides us with a framework upon which to evaluate ourselves critically.

Step 2 is evaluation. In a notebook, create a table with seven columns for the days of the week, and rows for each of the virtues you aspire to. Each morning, read through your list of virtues. Each evening, with your notebook in front of you, assess which virtues you were able to show and which you failed to comply with. I keep an additional page of notes to explain in more detail how I could have behaved more virtuous.

virtue table

Over the past few days, this exercise has helped me significantly. First, studying a list of virtues each morning creates a positive mindset to start the day – it sketches the potential of how good you can be. Second, I have experienced more moments in which I looked at myself from a third-person perspective, because I recognized a situation in which I could behave more virtuous. Third, reflecting at the end of the day helps you evaluate your behavior.

The goal of this exercise is not to be totally virtuous, but to be mindful of yourself, particularly when you are about to make “a mistake”.

This exercise is in its essence very similar to one proposed by Warren Buffet, which I have covered in an older post. The gold standard of virtues in that exercise is established by looking at your classmates, which is an interesting way of deriving virtue from practical behavior. Franklin’s exercise is worth a new post however, as the table-form evaluation is very helpful and practical.

Plan for Future Conduct – adapted from Benjamin Franklin

To shape ourselves to become the person we want to be, and to build “good” habits, it is valuable to write a personal code of conduct, which you try to stick to. Read it every morning before you leave the house, and go through it in the evening, reflecting whether you behaved according to the rules you set for yourself.
The four rules below were listed by Benjamin Franklin, on his sailing journey from London to Philadelphia. They resonated particularly with me, hence the reference.
  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action–the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

The Project Paradigm: How To Choose Your Work In A World Of Abundance

In today’s world, we have an enormous amount of possible projects to choose from. To be successful, we need to develop new tools to navigate this huge set of choices. In this post I share a method I personally started to use – the project paradigm.

Just two generations ago, careers were very linear. You were trained to become a mechanic, a doctor or an engineer and sticked with that job for most of your life. Of course, there were adventurers who traveled to foreign countries, but they were few and far between. The world was nicely organized.

Today, things are slightly more chaotic. In project-world, changing projects have become the norm and lifelong jobs the exception. The exponential growth of technology has made the world flat. With that increased connectivity and productivity, we can virtually start anything we can dream of and build it in a very short time. Goodbye cog-and-wheel, hello changing places!

With this tremendous increase in opportunity, the ability to choose between projects becomes critically important. Our old compass – find a nice position in a trustworthy company, be loyal – is no guarantee to success today. I want to share with you one of the solutions I implement: the project paradigm. A set of simple, but fundamental, questions I ask myself before the start of each project.

Be aware: the paradigm is highly personal. When you read the questions below, please reflect whether you find them of critical personal importance. I try to undertake only projects for which I can answer a confident “Yes!” to all questions.

  1. Will I work with a great team? Do we share the same values, commitment and ultimate goal? Do we have awesome & complimentary skills?
  2. Does the project deliver true value to its customers? Does the project bring joy, pleasure, wisdom or excitement to people?
  3. Is the project’s outcome ridiculously ambitious and unreasonable? Do I need to take actions that I fear?
  4. Is the project scalable? Can we capture the value we deliver to our customers?
  5. Can customers participate in the project? If people care about the project, can I provide the tools for them to join and evangelize?
  6. Does the output fit with the person I want to be in life? Is the project’s story one I am proud to share?

Like every other experimental result, your paradigm needs to be calibrated. Think about a project that you truly loved, and assess whether it passes all questions of your project paradigm. If not, your set of questions may be incorrect or – important! – may have evolved over time.

I hope the method above is useful to you. If you have any thoughts or suggested changes, please share them with me. Also, if you use different tools to choose projects – or trust only on your gut – let me know also, I am keen to learn how others make their decisions.

Looking forward to hear your responses – please post them at the bottom of this article or email me.