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Inspirational teachers


There are some people who have a singular impact on what we do, what we learn, and how we think. They may be teachers, but they can also be friends, colleagues or public figures. One thing those people have in common is that their effect stretches far beyond the initial interaction. As a teacher, they might have been introducing a somewhat technical idea -- but ended up triggering an exploration of a whole new field. I wondered what makes these people so impactful, that they instill that "hunger for more"? What do they do that is different? Here is a list of five things that I noticed impactful teachers do.

1. Connect

At some point during my PhD at Imperial College in London, I joined a lunch in which Prof. Grogoris A. Pavliotis recommended in passing a book by Marten Scheffer. We were discussing phase transitions in confined fluids, and he said that the book would be a great introduction to the general topic. The book turned out to discuss everything but fluid mechanics, but it connected the fundamental phenomena we were seeing in nanofluidics with large societal and natural shifts. Look at this excerpt:

"The birth of the Sahara desert A similarly striking regime shift seems to have happened on a very different timescale in the Sahel-Sahara region. It is difficult to imagine now that the Western Sahara has long been a relatively moist area with abundand vegetation and numerous wetlands. Yet this was the situation until about 6,000 years ago. Today, scattered bones of hippopotamus and other animals are reminders of this lush period." pg. 3, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, by Marten Scheffer

It turns out that the equations describing condensation of liquids are not that different from those describing an increadible collapse of the vegetation of the Sahara desert! I later followed up with the classic Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos by the brilliant communicator Steven Strogatz, and applied similar equations to describe resilience in neurodegeneration. Ultimately, I must thank Prof. Pavliotis for initiating this connection between the very specific with something bigger. I could now see what is special about these simple equations, why I am doing this. Curiously, embedding the specifics in a bigger picture did not get at the expense of detail, but instead by providing more detail and insight.

2. It is not about you

After starting my position as a PostDoc at the MPI for Brain Research, I realized I would not continue doing exclusively simulations indefinetely, but I needed to analyze real-world data at some point. This is when I was looking for Machine Learning and Deep Learning resources. Luckily, there was one teacher who understood not to hide behind unnecessary complexity, to not take himself too serious. This was Andrew Ng. He understood that being a teacher is not about you, it is about the student. In his calm and almost humble style, he put the audience at the center of each course. One thing Andrew would consistently do is say how complex one topic is, and therefore encourage the student to spend some time studying it. By putting himself in the shoes of the student, he would counterintuitivly make things easier, not harder.

3. Break it down

At the beginning of my PhD, I needed to learn some fundamentals of statistical mechanics. There was one teacher who stood out. This was Leonard Susskind from Stanford. He knew the power of breaking down a seemingly complex concept. He motivated me to spend time on the fundamentals, which can make things so much easier later on..

4. Show what you mean

As a non-native speaker, it can be daunting to write in English. Often enough, one tends to copy style and sentence patterns from the native to the foreign language. But, this was before I was introduced to the rules of good writing by the classic On Writing Well by William Zinsser. What struck me most about this book were the examples. William Zinsser taught by example, even if that meant to copy. He explained the rules briefly, explain them, repeated them. He was honest, sometimes brutally honest to the student, but in a manner that would make one laugh and want to get better. Maybe most importantly, William Zinsser writes with authority. Have a look at this passage of his book:

"But", you may say, "if I eliminate everything you think is clutter and if I strip every sentence to its barest bones, will there be anything left of me?" The question is a fair one; simplicity carried to an extreme might seem to point to a style little more sophisticated than "Dick likes James" or "See Spot run."
I'll anwer the question first on the level of carpentry. Then I'll get to the larger issue of who the writer is and how to preserve his or her identity. Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you'll howl and say it can't be done. Then you'll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part. Cutting it to three. [pg 17]

Yet there can be no firm rules for how to write a lead. Within the broad rule of not letting the reader get away, all writers must approach their subject in a manner that most naturally suits what they are writing about and who they are. Sometimes you can tell your whole story in the first sentence. Here's the opening sentence of seven memorable nonfiction books: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. -- The Bible [pg 62, chapter 'the lead and the ending']

5. Be the hub

One thing I have been struggling with myself is the (misguided) thought that your work needs to be original. Instead, I learned that it is not only ok but may even be necessary to replicate the classics in your work. Take for example the brilliant newsletter/blog by Marina Popova. Throughout the last years, her weekly texts were a source of inspiration, which recalibrated my sense of reality. As an example, read this poignat extract of Ghandi's introduction to Tolstoys letters, which he published in the South African newspaper, Indian Opinion, and which Marina Popova cites in her weekly newsletter:

There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention. [see this newsletter from Marinova Popova]

The novelty was not the text, but using the text in the context of her newsletter. By replicating, Marina Popova became the bridge, the hub and the multiplier for that knowledge. And -- however cheesy it may sound -- by bringing ideas together, new things may emerge.