LDP 002: Raquell Holmes: Science as a Human Activity

Imagine a scientist. What do you see? Probably a male. Gruff. Socially recluse? Reading, writing. Maybe lecturing at people. God forbid they ever laugh, right? Why though? Raquell Holmes, PhD, cell biologist, founder of improvscience, offers a radical alternative: the practice of a collaborative science through performance and play. A world where science contributes to social wellbeing. What is science? We chat about that stuff too, a bit (don’t worry). Prepare your mind and soul, folks, this one’s a joyride.

Topics of Interest:

  • Best hopes for the conversation? [2:42]
  • #CAKE? [4:45]
  • Social Therapy [10:25]
  • Science? [12:40]
  • Scientism. [13:36]
  • Why did you choose science as a career? [19:55]
  • Raquell’s career reflections [22:22]
  • High performance computation and computer sciences! And biology? [25:33]
  • Bioinformatics [28:49]
  • Epigenetics? [32:34]
  • Epistemological violence [39:26]
  • Fred Newman (co-founder of Social Therapeutics) [41:53]
  • Whence did science, play, improvisation, and performance meet? [47:51]
  • improvscience – a story [53:57]
  • Scientists playing together? [1:01:30] 
  • Impact of improv and performance on scientists! [1:05:40]
  • Vision for the ideal form of science [1:07:32]
  • Science and emotion? [1:12:56]
  • Who are you becoming? [01:26:33]
  • Art’s conflicted love of science? [1:29:11]

People and Organizations Mentioned:


Art Assoiants: For our very first interview, we have the lovely Dr. Raquell Holmes. She’s a PhD cell biologist having among other accomplishments authored the book cell biologists guide to modeling and bioinformatics. She’s an East side Institute associate in New York and adjunct professor at Arizona state university. Dr. Holmes is also the founder and director of improvscience, a consulting company that has worked with over 2,500 scientists across the United States at Harvard Medical School, University of California, Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and National Institute of Health. She’s working to change the relationship of science to the world locally and globally. She’s particularly interested in changing the relationship of science and scientists to poor communities and communities of color. In this conversation we talk about science as a human activity, high performance computing and computation, epistemological violence and how improv and play can feature and the doing of science. Join us. Hi Raquell.

Raquell Holmes: Hello. Hello Art.

Art Assoiants: It’s good to be talking with you.

Raquell Holmes: Thank you. You as well.

Art Assoiants: I really look forward to what we create together.

Raquell Holmes: Definitely. I love that you, you said that it’s what we create together.

Art Assoiants: As opposed to what?

Raquell Holmes: I think people can get invested in having a particular outcome or product which is different or somehow predetermined instead of looking at what we create together.

Art Assoiants: And so thinking about doing this in a non pre-determined way, whatever the opposite of that would be. What is your best hope for our conversation today?

Raquell Holmes: Yeah, it’s funny. I think the, at least one of the hopes is to be coherent. The other is, you know, I think often I think people often don’t know how to see social therapeutics necessarily in the context of scientific communities. And my hope is to help people see how we continue to grow, create and develop everywhere and we have the capacity for that. And I happen to do that in science because I’m a scientist and I love what the development community, there’s the Eastside Institute, All Stars, ndependent organizing. I love what I’ve learned and what I’m able to do because of what we’ve been building for the last over 30 years, whatever that looks like.

Art Assoiants: My best hope for our conversation today is also to be lucid to whatever extent possible. And there’s a great deal of curiosity that I have towards you as a person and our work in creating this conversation. So my hope is that this curiosity will be felt.

Raquell: Sure. Great. Lovely. I’m excited. I’m happy to be someone to be curious about.

Art Assoiants: Cool. Well, let’s jump right in. Something I’m really curious about starting with is hashtag cake of what’s that about. What’s that about?

Raquell Holmes: That was so lovely. Hashtag cake came from doing an early career leadership academy or rather participating in the early career leadership academy of the American Meteorological Society. And having the opportunity to lead two sessions, one talk called “Setting the Stage” and essentially improv workshop in the evening. And in the context of that, in improv games, you have to like, you fail, you fail at everything. And one of the ways of creating an environment for adults, professionals coming from different backgrounds, different locations, in order for them to be able to play, to be silly with one another, they, there’s this question of an environment of failing, where it’s okay to fail, where it’s okay to look ridiculous. And so celebrating mistakes as part of that. And the question was how do we celebrate mistakes in this group that was just forming. I asked them how they wanted to celebrate, and one person excitedly screamed “cake” and another person excitedly put their hand up and a high five. And so as a good improvisor, you accept all offers. And so the synthesis was, you put your hand up as if it were a high five, and you say cake. And so for 90 minutes or two hours, whatever, we made mistakes, people put their hands up and said “cake!” And, so it’s, it was like just a wonderful recognition of a group coming together, creating its own cultural moment. Its own meaning, where the word “cake” doesn’t mean anything, other than you do like food and deliciousness. It was meaningful to them. It was meaningful to us in that moment of coming together as grouping, as a community.

Art Assoiants: I love that the group created something together, which was playful and also a reason to celebrate. And cake is a good reason to celebrate.

Raquell Holmes: What were you thinking the reason, a reason to celebrate? What was the reason that you’re identifying?

Art Assoiants: Less a reason to celebrate and more of an accepted way of celebrating rather. And itself that way of celebrating is playful. As opposed to, for example in some other communities where to fail is a mourning activity together. Let’s grieve.

Raquell Holmes: Right. I love that you’re saying that. I mean, cause I think even in creating mourning together, the focus is on creating that we create it. So I think part of what’s so beautiful to me in cake is, and the meaningfulness of it is that they created meaning, they created what was meaningful they together. So even, even if it had been cake said in different ways, like if it had been dour in some ways, if there’s an ownership of what they’re creating, that’s at least meaningful for me and that it gets to be playfully celebratory at the same time. Cause it’s an improv workshop. Like that’s icing on the cake. Maybe it should be icing cake. It is joyous being able to be with people who, I think as scientists, we get a bad rep. Our work is demanding. It is narrowing. It is rigorous, is often the word. And it can be isolating. When we get to come together and see each other as human beings play to be silly and pointless in that moment. Really human forward. It’s just beautiful. It’s touching, it’s moving. And people, whatever they do with it from there and people do wonderful things with it. Fortunately they grow or they say that, they’d come back years later and say something like, “that workshop it was great. I learned something about myself or I say yes and now in other contexts.” That just kind of adds to being able to create a moment where we’re human together.

Art Assoiants: To create moments that are meaningful with groups of people who live and breathe rigor. That’s, that’s special. And there’s a word that’s that I want to express. It’s an antidote. It feels like it’s an antidote. Does that resonate with you?

Raquell Holmes: Well, it’s funny. I think it’s called therapeutic. I appreciate the antidote. I play is like an antidote, and I think the word therapeutic is appropriate. When I first met social therapy, I was in graduate school and I just remember thinking “social therapy,” cause I’m not broken, people aren’t broken. Socially, we get tied up in knots, we’re emotionally upset and frustrated. But it’s coming from a social context. It’s the social that needs the therapy. And so being able to do something playful together is therapeutic relative to the other activities that we do in our lives, which can be, although enjoyed, and scientists often talk about their work as being play, can get you tied up in a knot or just limited in motion. Motion, emotion.

Art Assoiants: Talking about this human activity, which is science. In one of your blog posts you wrote, “I love science. It’s neither pure nor vile. It is something that people do.” Tell us a little bit about this – or a lot – about this idea of science as something that people do.

Raquell Holmes: Yeah, well it’s interesting. I mean mainly, I don’t know if it’s mainly, but one of the things I think of is science has a history. It’s grown out of work over time. That became something we called science. It wasn’t science before. That might’ve been natural studies or it might’ve been some something other than what we now call science. So it’s something that people have created. I’m not a fan of saying sciences is everything or science is everywhere.

Art Assoiants: If we could slow down a little bit, what do you mean by what you just said. A word that comes to mind for me and that might not allow connect with you is scientism.

Raquell Holmes: I wonder if there are flavors of scientism or perhaps science enthusiasm that may not be scientism. And what do you mean by scientism?

Art Assoiants: What I mean by scientism is when the human process of engaging in the numerous kinds of activities that we, I think socially, brand as being one fixed, delineated, process. When we look at the outputs and outcomes of that process as being necessarily definitive of the kind of reality we are to live and breathe and understand. It’s when the human activity of science doing is alienated and stripped from that necessarily human process, which is rife with mistakes and accidents and stripped of, I think, this is one of the bigger pieces for me, stripped of the deeper questions around, ontology, epistemology, axiology. And what I mean by that is the question of what does it mean to be or to exist? Does culture exist independent of humans coming together and coming up with a word for something called “culture?” And what does it mean to know about, let’s say, culture. And are there differences and to what extent are the differences between natural kinds and human kinds, for example. So to me, scientism is a dogmatic stance on and take up of what I think is a more complex and playful activity, which is science.

Raquell Holmes: I haven’t played with the word scientism a lot, although I think I am, through my work challenging that.

Art Assoiants: How so?

Raquell Holmes: One of the ways I experience people putting in, I think this is how I think about what might be called scientism, is it’s where science rules and science, you could as much as you say, God, you could say science.

Art Assoiants: It reminds me of Bill Nye: “Science rules!”

Speaker 10: I think that’s the more playful “rules.” It’s like “science rocks! Science is awesome, science rules!” And yet, and yet it isn’t a power location. I went into science because in high school I decided I would be a scientist and I wanted to be a scientist because I felt like that was a location from which people said what there was in the world. They defined what is, things that exist. And I wanted to impact the world. I wanted to impact the conditions of people’s lives, of my family. Like I’m fairly established middle-class at this point. But you know, my dad was working class. My mom was poor. I went in and out of poverty with my mom and as a kid and mental health, mental health issues were throughout our family as well as my friends. I could see lovely friends, very different from me. I’m African American and I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of San Francisco. It’s agricultural. But I could see people struggling with who they were and even if they were like beautiful and funny, they were angsted with whether people like them. And, I just was like, “why do we have a world like this?” And I want it to be in a position to impact that. And I was like, “I need a day job. I want a position of power.” That kind of went to science. I didn’t think the being a psychologist, which was also something I thought about or sociologists and they don’t even know how I knew about sociology, but I didn’t think those were going to be impactful enough in my lifetime, that I wanted to spend time with their there as a career. But the sciences, I knew they were powerful.

Art Assoiants: What did you think there was in science that would provide you with that opportunity to impact positively on society? And also tied into that question, is that piece around, you mentioned in science as you understood it and understand it perhaps, that people create objects that they look at that they study. What, what’s the connection there?

Raquell Holmes: I don’t think I had any understanding that I would create an object that I would study what I knew I had learned about the Tuskegee experiments. In terms of science, particularly the life sciences, medical sciences, not treating African American men of the South, even though they had a cure for syphilis. They kept them in a study and left them to go blind and go through many other horrible symptoms.

Art Assoiants: Just for some context for folks that you may not be familiar with, with this horrid work that was done. Around when did this happen, the Tuskegee study?

Raquell Holmes: I have to go back at the slides, but it didn’t end until the 70s, I think, or it didn’t end until the end at least the seventies. It might even be later than that. So if you go back, so the forties through the 70s, they were doing experiments on black men. So, and there’s that laugh is not an enjoyable laugh. It’s just kind of the chagrin of the condition of being black in America. Which is upsetting, because we’re constantly fighting to be related to as humans. I wanted to be a scientist because I didn’t want science in all its power being used to continue to hurt poor people, people of color. So I don’t know that I went in because I saw that it would be a positive impact, but I wanted to be in a position to prevent it from being harmful. Yeah. It’s emotional.

Art Assoiants: Yeah. I feel I feel it too. How long have you been in your career doing this work?

Raquell Holmes: Well, it depends on which this work. Yeah, that’s always like, “When did you first call yourself a scientist?” So when I went to undergrad, I was a biology major. I started doing research in a lab, with this lovely Jewish woman who taught at Williams. It’s a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. And it’s where I learned what it was to be black in some ways. Growing up in a small community or smallish town, when people know you, they’re like, “you’re Raquell. Well, we don’t think of you as anybody else other than Raquell.” When you leave as a little brown spot and you go to a predominantly white spot, they don’t relate to as Raquell, they relate to as the brown spot. And people were also friendly and whatever. I was like, “why are they talking to me in these strange ways.” And it was, “Oh, it’s because I’m black. Oh, this is what it means for people.” And it was just an interesting moment to learn something about myself in the world by going to someplace completely different.

Art Assoiants: Interesting. And how old were you, Raquell?

Raquell Holmes: I went to college at 18. I was at Williams for two years and then I transferred, I transferred to UC Santa Cruz, which is also a very white school. But it was a very different experience.

Art Assoiants: How so?

Raquell Holmes: Well one it was, it’s huge. Santa Cruz is huge.

Art Assoiants: And how big is Santa Cruz?

Raquell Holmes: It may not have been as huge or maybe something like six to 10,000. And it’s probably larger than that now. I was there in the 80s. When I was studying biology, one of the huge differences is I ended up in a study group of African American women, black women, mostly from California. And we went through biology together. We got a study group and it was this lovely Jewish man, David, I don’t remember David’s last name. I think he went up to every black woman in his class. And he said, “I respect you, I have so much to learn from you, I want to study with you.” And it was just this really like, “huh, that’s interesting.” And we ended up in this study group, all of us because of David. I think he ended up leaving, but the rest of us, again, we’re there and learned a lot from one another in the process.

Art Assoiants: Cool. Thank you, David. Yeah, exactly. Thank you, David. So currently you work as a scientist in high-performance computation and computer sciences. You mentioned that you started off in cell biology, right?

Raquell Holmes: Exactly. Yeah. So I started in cell biology. So I did my undergrad in cell biology. I did my PhD at Tufts Biomedical. And when I finished my PhD, I had already been a community organizer.

Art Assoiants: What does that does that mean?

Raquell Holmes: I know, actually, I always kind of wondered myself even as I was doing it. And what’s interesting is I think, I mean that phrase community organizer even differently than it may commonly be used. So what it meant was that I would stand on street corners talking to people about producing talent shows in their neighborhoods. So this was part of the All Stars. So doing talent shows. And it also meant that I would stand on corners and talk to people about independent politics. And I think what it means is I would spend my time, email was not a thing at the time, calling people and inviting them to do something with another, inviting us to talk politics, inviting us to do the talent shows, organizing people into and doing community. So another way of saying is I was an activist. I was in graduate school getting a PhD and I was an activist. When I finished my PhD. I was looking, and then I was in a postdoc at Dana Farber doing research. But I wanted to do, something that was bringing together performance in this, theater, how we perform in our lives, that we’re both who we are and who we’re not. And we have choices in how we relate to that given moment. A conversation, a person and learning environments, creating environments where people can learn and develop like they were doing in the All Stars. I wanted that in science. I wanted to be working with computers because it was the latest thing and it was changing science. I got a job working at Boston university with Roscoe Giles, managing a partnership of educators who were looking to bring science to teachers, actually computing, looking to bring computing to teachers, to kids, to other scientists.

Art Assoiants: And was computing mean?

Raquell Holmes: I say computing or computing sciences because they are the sciences that are based on or heavily used computers, although they might not make computers. So computer sciences advance how we do computing, how we do computers, what they look like, what they’re able to do. The computational sciences or computing sciences are things like bioinformatics.

Art Assoiants: What is that?

Raquell Holmes: It’s in looking at the synthesis of biology and information sciences. So it’s how do you study biology using again, computers and looking at the information that’s around the biology.

Art Assoiants: What’s an example of someone who does this work or perhaps work that was published on this field?

Raquell Holmes: People will talk about the human genome project or may have heard about the human genome project. Knowing all of the nucleotides and your DNA, knowing the sequence of what it is. That was a bioinformatics project because you have to store the information in a computer and when you’re trying to find information, in fact, when people are doing ancestry.com and when they’re looking for who they’re related to, there’s somebody who’s comparing DNA that’s the information about DNA on one person. That information is in a computer that’s being compared to the information in the computer about the DNA somewhere else. So that’s a bioinformatics application.

Art Assoiants: Interesting. How about a nutrigenomics, would that also be bioinformatics? So, so looking at one’s genotype and comparing it to research that’s been done on methylation for example, making recommendations about the more impactful way of ingesting substances like food or supplements. Would that be an application of bioinformatics?

Raquell Holmes: Yes. There, there are lots of elements in there that would be applications, methylation of DNA, finding out where it is. So I’m trained as a developmental biologist. Yeah. Cell developmental biologists. So particularly the developments of cells. One of the things that happens in science is we leap or when we talk about the biology, we leap from the DNA, which is information to saying, “Oh, now that we know the DNA, we know everything that happens.” In between that is development in between that is life, time, conditions. There are tons of things that change. Well, if you’d like to say something like you can get a roadmap, but it doesn’t tell you whether you can drive from one place to another. Right. It just tells you what the line was supposed to be. It’s like, “Oh, well there’s a road here.” It’s like you get there. And it’s like, “where?”

Art Assoiants: Interesting. How about epigenetics? If you could define that for us and also then talk to us about how epigenetics fits into your understanding of developmental cell biology.

Raquell Holmes: Sure. Epigenetics is talking about those things that can be inherited or that come about because it’s not encoded in the DNA. So it’s still possible to inherit traits from your parents, but it wasn’t encoded in the DNA. There’s not a sequence that produces a protein that then that protein does something to change the cells or you and you get this what’s called central dogma kind of straight line to the product. Mostly epigenetics is now linked to what you referenced before, the methylations, which methylations are still changes to DNA, but it’s not a change in the sequence. That’s kind of like adding a bookmark to a book. You now know what page to go to, but the book is unchanged. So methylation is somewhat like a bookmark when it comes to DNA and so it changes how it’s read. I think what’s exciting about it is that, again, it looks at what is the context or conditions in which something happens. We’ve done a number of different threads, some of which we could come back to. One of the phrases that can be frustrating in any context is when people say, “well it depends.” What does it depend upon? And often science and this lens towards the scientism is related to as if it doesn’t have a whole bunch of, “well it depends.” What temperature did you did the experiment? Which strain of mice did you use? Did you do it at 5:00 AM did you do it at 5:00 PM? You’re going to get a different result in a week when the mouse is older than you did two days ago. Like the conditions are really constrained in which in when we make these studies that become general statements about how the world works. The scientism acts as if science doesn’t have all of those constraints when it’s making a statement, a generalization. And so to act like the generalization that is a truth that applies across the world is problematic. And particularly when it comes to people. I think that’s again, where in coming into science and my work, so I relate to my work as supporting scientists having joyous lives, creative lives.

Art Assoiants: That’s a radical statement.

Raquell Holmes: How so?

Art Assoiants: I think that there’s an understanding of scientists as being these lab coats folks that respond to questions in binary, and have monotonous voices, and go back into their dwellings of literature and labs. That’s not true at all. I’m playfully saying, “what a radical statement that scientists can lead happy lives.”

Raquell Holmes: Exactly. And I think, and that’s the part where in terms of the development community and the politic of people have the right to create the culture and environments that they are in. I think what we often lose is that we’ve created them, is that we produce them. By inviting people to play, by inviting people to see that they created a moment of meaning – cake, they can have a glimpse at that can interact with one another in different ways. They could say something like, “you know what, why do we keep having this meeting at 8:00 AM? None of us get up this early. We all get up at 10, why don’t we have our first meeting at 10?” It could be a simple thing. People are always struggling with, they always have to present, but they’ve never been taught how to speak to an audience. Maybe we could help them learn how to speak to an audience, and then we could hear them better when they’re presenting their research. We might understand them. There’s changes that attend to as human beings. We created ways of working with one another in this field called science. And we have the right and the ability to change it in a way that supports us. So we can be kinder to one another in the course of doing what is a rigorous activity.

Art Assoiants: There’s one statement I have and a couple of questions to follow. I feel like I’m not yes-anding in a very appropriate way here. And I’m sorry for that. When we were talking about scientism and returning a little bit to the story of you wanting to join science to prevent people doing science from hurting others, from in some ways causing violence to be done onto others, whether it’s a culture, whether it’s a way of living, whether it’s an ethnic group. One thing that comes to my mind that may be of interest to you is one of my mentors that I studied with in my undergraduate, Dr. Thomas Teo. He came up with an understanding called epistemological violence. Oh, how does that sit with you?

Raquell Holmes: It’s interesting. So I’m a scientist, and I’m an experimentalist. And there’s theoreticians. So, sometimes these big words are too big for me. Epistemological is one of those words. Tell me more what you like about it.

Art Assoiants: I felt that it strongly connect to your story in the sense that, in the doing of science, we can enact the epistemological violence, when we start to create categories, for example, like race, which inherently doesn’t exist as a scientific entity. According to most people who understand what kind of questions to ask. But then we have ethnic groups, which can be a helpful construct. But so epistemological violence as an idea is when you enact an infomatic or tangible violence against a particular group under the guise of being scientific, under the guise of saying that you know something about a particular entity or group of people. For example studies on race as a construct

Raquell Holmes: So it’s hard. This is the back to the question of science is neither vile nor pure, it’s something we do. And each science, each area makes its own set of assumptions or draws on what other people are thinking or doing. I loved when Fred Newman – the founder of social therapeutics, social therapy, along with Lois Holzman – as he was doing his philosophy degree, he asked a question that people were like, “well, no, you’re not asking a philosophical question anymore.” I think he called it a tautological error. When I was doing my graduate work and in social therapy as a patient, which was the reason I got my PhD, or at least helped me get my PhD to deal with the insanity of graduate school, when I said to people, I’m interested in the conditions that we create in which we do science, what they told me was, “Oh, you’re interested in the history of science.” It’s like, no. “Oh, you’re interested in, you know, all these other things about studying science.” And I wasn’t interested in that. I was very interested in how do we talk to each other, does it matter what we assume is true historical, does that impact what we’re doing in our experiment? How does it affect what we’re doing in our experiment? This is sounds like a tangent, but it’s still related to this question, is was science pure or vile? What does it mean to do epistemological violence? Like what is it that we’re creating? It’s very hard when we’re in the midst of doing this research, it’s hard to challenge the various assumptions that are built into the research. A dear friend of mine, Nick Gross does space physics, space weather physics. And he’s like, “I went into science because I didn’t have to deal with the people side.” He actually looks at stars and things that don’t care that we look at them. They’re not impacted by that. And he was in a bioinformatics class where they were looking at the genetics associated with, and not just the genetics, but actually the mortality with come with marriages of one person to someone close to them in their family, first cousin, second cousin. Which is common in other countries than America in other places. Like people marry their second cousins. I’m sure we used to marry our second cousins more commonly than we do now. And Nick’s like, “Oh my God. They were talking about the death rate of people who marry their second cousins as if it was just a matter of data. It’s like this was somebody’s child, this is somebody’s family.” Like he as physicist in this biology, bioinformatics class said, “wait a minute, this is emotional.” He didn’t have the same assumptions of “this is what we do. We make data out of these life points.” I think it’s hard. I found it almost impossible to raise questions of how we talk about fertilizing eggs or fertilization of eggs seems it has embedded in the language some misogyny, or at least some heterosexism, which makes sense. It’s a heterosexual process, at least in mice. But we were actually, I don’t know if you could call it heterosexual. I bet there are gay mice. It’s hard to break out of the system you’re in. So we bring our culture as human beings. We bring our assumptions about how the world works with us into our science. So I think I’m like epistemological violence. Sure. We’re a violent grouping of people. We are consistently willing to have people not have homes, go without food, suffer ailments. We’re struggling. I mean, the reason you and I are on this call together is because we’re also trying to do something other than that: to break out of our assumptions, to have our humanity at the fore. It is an intellectual, emotional, cultural transformation that’s required to allow us to do something other. It’s not intellectual. It’s very, “how am I going to respond given what I just said categorically about people losing their kids is affecting someone emotionally. What can I do with that? How can I be present with that? How do I let it affect me in my research questions?”

Art Assoiants: Thinking, playing with feeling throughout and about these alternatives to living life together. When and under what circumstances did you discover play, improvisation, performance?

Raquell Holmes: It was from producing the All Stars in Boston. The All Stars is a nonprofit organization that has a headquarters on 42nd street in New York City. The All Stars talent show – what I was producing in Boston – it produces programs in partnership with youth and adults from poor communities that address the impact of poverty. So we would produce talent shows in Roxbury, Dorchester, so that young kids, five to 25 years of age could come and get on a stage and do whatever performance they wanted to do. And it was part of inviting them to produce something positive in their communities, to be able to experience having people look to them to give something, to give and be providers of an environment, creators of an environment that was safe, playful, joyful. That’s where I learned what I wanted to give science. I wanted to give science the same kind like “these are people who don’t know each other, who come together, who are being pretty demanding, pretty philosophical and intellectual, and it’s all in the midst of play.” I think we want that. I think we can learn something from the streets. So that’s where the play and performance. That’s one element of it. The other was, I was in social therapy. I was in this philosophical, practical approach to human development that didn’t require me to fix myself or fix anybody else, but rather to ask the question,” what do we want to do? What can we do? Let’s create something.” And I found it powerful, and I found it intellectually stimulating and demanding in a way that unfortunately, science was not. Science, when you’re coming into the trenches, when you’re coming in, when you’re growing as a PhD, you’re learning what the system, whatever system you’re studying in terms of a biological – and this looks different in different disciplines – you’re learning the rules of the culture. You’re learning the language, you’re learning how people make arguments. You’re learning what’s been excepted and you’re doing it in these little labs – fiefdoms in some ways. You create your own culture in your lab and people leave each other to create that culture in the lab. So you have microcosms or micro-cultures. You get stuck at some point in science about, “well this is how it’s been done. This is what we know.” There’s the philosophical – sometimes you’ll get, as you’re going through your PhD – people sometimes say in science like, “what happened to the philosophy? Do we really use the philosophy? Where does it fall?” So if you’re asking really big questions, it can go beyond the method. Whether you use microscopes, whether you’re using computation, whether you’re using some other tool. It can go beyond the tools that you have at hand. Then it’s no longer appropriate. It becomes less playful and what you get to question is narrow. In social therapeutics and kind of this question of how do we change the world, how do we create together, the possibilities are endless. You have more room to play, you have more room to ask questions, you have more rooms to be a heretic, blasphemous. Like the things that I studied when I was in graduate school, phosphorylation of tyrosine, it was like a small insignificant phosphate added on to proteins. How could it be useful? It doesn’t mean anything. It turns out like it’s central to cancerous states. But it was a small, insignificant amount. Whoever first studied that and was going after those small, insignificant phosphates was somewhat blasphemous to the ways of thought. This question of what do you push against? I think the scicomm, science communication community that’s growing is trying to give expression to our culture in science can unfortunately not foster open debate. It can narrow it. And what was useful in the philosophical, practical approach in social therapy is that it’s constantly opening questions, and you’re learning from opening the questions. You’re supposed to have that in science. And yet the way we’re organized to learn and do science gets in the way of continuing to open questions.

Art Assoiants: You’re wearing an improvscience shirt. You talk about opening science. Tell us a little bit about improvscience, what your role is with it, and how you got around to creating that.

Raquell Holmes: I had been looking to bring performance and this joyousness of discovery and creating with one another to science since I had met the All Stars and social therapy. I was like, “this is really powerful stuff. It’s exciting and it’s supportive, and it’s particularly supportive of women and minorities. And if you want a science that’s open and diverse, we have to learn how to create something new together.” That would happen in the 90s and improvscience was created in 2010. It was a bit of a development time and nurturing, cultivating. Performance of a Lifetime had been doing improvisational performance-based trainings in corporate settings. I learned that in the late nineties, early two thousands. And I said, “if they can bring improv and play to corporate settings, we can bring improv and play to science.” I just kept talking to people around me, colleagues in the computing sciences, computational sciences about performance. And in 2009 I met someone in the field, trained as a physicist, now works in bioinformatics. And he had become an advocate of creating nurturing environments in science. How do we create our labs as nurturing environments? And he would perform songs. He has a lovely ukulele video where he sings “scoop, scoop, scoop, scooped. It scooped again.” This thing is what scientists fear. I’ve been scooped. He was at Harvard visiting and we met and talked about performance and improv. And I said, “I want to do improv with scientists.” And he said, “great, let me invite you over to Harvard, and we’ll do an improv workshop.” And so I went with Evelyn Daugherty, who was a dear colleague, had been my social therapist when I was in Boston, but it was a colleague now. And she and I went over to Harvard to systems biology, into the conference room and we had 12 scientists who were primarily theoreticians. Meaning that worked at a computer and working with mathematics of biology, looking at biological system. And we played for an hour and a half. And we said, “what do you think?” We said it was an experimental workshop of improv for experimentalists. That’s why it was actually funny. But it was a question: is this useful? I always have the question. I don’t want to do something that we are not interested in. So the scientist in the room said, “yeah, this is interesting.” So we did more. I created an independent company so that it would exist at the needs of our scientific community. In other words, it can exist as long as it is needed because scientists and our scientific communities will hire improvscience as long as we are needed.

Art Assoiants: So just in terms of operations, it sounds to me like you don’t spend much time branding, advertising. It’s a question of when there’s a need we will come.

Raquell Holmes: We have a website and of course we’re on social media. I am a dear colleague of scientists. I’ve lived in research environments and the questions that we have of how to support the development of our graduate students, of how to do better science, of how to do better collaboration and teamwork, how to grow an organization. Those are things I know intimately. It is colleagues who bring me in to do work. It is people who experience the workshops who then two, three, four years later come back and say, “can you come do this with us?” So there’s a lot of referral. There’s a lot of long time commitment with people that I’ve been working with. We’re in our fourth, fifth year at Harvard for presentation coaching. We’ve been doing workshops in bioinformatics at Boston University for almost the same amount of time. Then there are other colleagues that have brought me in to do staff development. It means bringing improvscience in to work with a group of people who may need to develop how they’re talking to each other, not getting into fights or figuring out how to advance a project together. Or that they have to talk to people outside of their team and don’t speak in ways that they can be heard. That’s learning how to speak to people who are outside of their functions, who may be researchers that are their superiors, researchers who are in a different field. How do you speak to them? That’s a development process, learning how to be present with what you know about your work and yet responding to the person you’re speaking with and learning how to create a meaningful dialogue around your work. Essentially, it’s universities, professional societies, small groups of five or six people in a team or larger groups that are like, “we’re bringing a hundred people together and we want them to be able to have some really intense conversations quickly. Could you come in so we can actually form, you know, intimate conversation groups quickly.”

Art Assoiants: What are some things you do together?

Raquell Holmes: There’s a common improv exercises and games that are building the group or may stretch different things. We’ll play zip zap, zap, word association games, sound ball when you pass the ball. So we’ll play games like that. It’s a way of breaking down the hierarchies that exist in the groups so that they can actually become, this humanizing, they can be vulnerable in front of one another. The games are one way that people begin to go, “okay, I’m awkward and silly with these people from here. Everything else is good.” That’s the basis for building the group, and from building the group that can talk about their experience or at least given expression to what it was like for them to do something silly. We go on and do things that are a variation of form theater, where people create skits of what is going on for them and their work or in their careers. And then we transform them or we play them in different ways so that instead of being abstract, when someone says, “Oh, I have a really hard boss and they’re always bullying me.” We have no idea what that means. Everybody’s imagining something different. So when you create a scene, when you invite people to perform what that looks like and then invite them to perform it differently in any different way, it makes it very concrete. And it also helps people see that they have choice in their responses. We did one workshop where a woman would come every meeting, she was looking to become full professor. She would go every meeting of the faculty to the meeting with her stack for review because they should be talking about her for full promotion. And the chair and two other faculty would take the conversation completely somewhere else all of the time. This would have been time and time again. We created a performance of that scene and it was of her going to that meeting. And at some point people would say “freeze!” And they would change. They would go and take her place in the meeting and they would perform a different response. And then somebody else was a freeze and they’d perform a different response and they’d perform a different response. She came to me the next year and she said, “I went in and I did something different with the meeting. I related not just to the chair, but to my other faculty colleagues. I’m a full professor.” That’s awesome. Whether she became a full professor or not, the very fact that she could go do something different, um, it was and wasn’t alone because of what we created. That’s awesome.

Art Assoiants: And what’s the impact on the science process for folks that participate in this these kinds of workshops and activities? What’s the quality like of the science that’s produced, the outputs, the outcomes?

Raquell Holmes: I think the quality difference is people’s relationship to it. When you do an experiment, you’re constraining or you’re making a particular box in which you’re putting things in and things are coming out, your relationship to it, your understanding of what it is, your interpretations, what you create with it. Because the process is, it’s people are doing a process through which we create a very particular picture. Its meaning is still in what people do with it. So I think that in some ways it’s completely changed and it’s not changed at all. The processes is people are less isolated. They don’t have to be tortured. We don’t need to be tortured in order to do good science. We don’t have to be put in boxes and isolated or related to as if we’re, “Oh, they’re happy being in a little box, not talking to anyone.” Were people. Let’s create the conditions where people can choose to do that if they want to, but they don’t have to do that in order to be in science.

Art Assoiants: What’s your vision for the ideal form of science?

Raquell Holmes: Ideal is problematic for me. I don’t know. The part where I’m excited and where I hear others being excited is that it’s a context in which people are asking questions pursuing the answer to the question. In the process of doing that science, people can value being kind, accepting human beings with one another. That you don’t have to attack people personally in order to do science. There’s something about having a nice positive vision. And I think overall my picture of what science would be in terms of like, I have a video on my site that says The Happy Scientist. What would it be like for scientists to just constantly be able to be joyous. To have that smile that we have at socials at the same time we’re doing the work. I think it’s possible and I don’t know, but I think it’s possible for us to do exceptional science with positive selection, meaning being able to pursue each other positively, to work with the elements that we’re like, “Oh, that works. Let me take that idea. Let me build with it.” And also there’s things that don’t work right. And it’s like, often for graduate students, there’s this thing that happens, it’s not just graduate students, but particularly they give the best expression to it, which is like, “I didn’t get a result.” I was like, “well, what do you mean?” It’s like, well, “I did the experiment and it was negative.” And it’s like, “well, if you did the experiment well, negative or not having something come out of it is a result.” It’s like the negative space. It’s kind of like in a picture of your painting. It’s like, it’s the blank space. Like that’s a result. That’s a finding. That’s something that talk about that and we’re still learning how to make use of free space, breathing space, negative results in a way that doesn’t again become character assassination, and the words go big. I know I go into a hyperbole like characterization assassination, attack. I think we could speak passionately. It’s okay to be passionate about things that we work so hard on. I gave this one talk, you pursue years of studying. It can be a micro, it could be a centipede, it could be a butterfly, you could be the moon. You’re passionate about it. You love these things. And then we learn that the way to talk about it is to not show any of that emotion. Maybe you have to talk about it in some data. I think my vision for science is that we’re skilled enough intellectually, scientifically that we can handle emotion. That we can handle a range of emotions where someone’s like, “I’m really frustrated. I don’t know how to get this experimental work. Here’s the data, here’s what it’s showing.” And we can use that. We don’t have to run away from emotion. It’s there. And the ways that we tried to run away from it, I think become dangerous for people. It goes closer to your epistemological violence.

Art Assoiants: Something that really stands out to me is that, and maybe it’s a selection bias, maybe when you hear folks talking about the doing of science, there’s often a narrative around splitting one’s emotional investment in the process or the outcome from the work itself. And I see in debates as well. It’s like, you know, take away your investment and the work look strictly at the data as if looking at the data is not itself a question of assumptions and perspectives. So where is the fit in the doing of science and emotion? Because that seems radical to me as a consumer of the practices of science and a person that lives in today’s zeitgeist. How do you see the connection between science and emotion?

Raquell Holmes: It’s funny because to me it’s all emotional. So one of the things I say sometimes is, I swear at scientists. I say things like, “play, fun, emotion.” I ask people how they’re feeling all the time. I’m the feeling gal. So I think it’s a misunderstanding of emotion and a misunderstanding of what it means to create scientific artifacts. So we’re emotional about our work. I think people can use that they’re invested, they’re heavily invested, they’re putting their lives years of time, hours, usually 10, 12 hours a day, if not 16. We put enormous hours into the work we’re doing. How can that not be emotional? That’s passion. It’s commitment. And the findings and how they’re delivered or what’s being presented, I think if we’re not sharing where our emotions lie, and I don’t mean then that because you’re committed and passionate, you should, shout, scream, cry, whatever. But I think by recognizing them we’re able to be more honest about the work that we’re doing and where it lies. Because I hear a like, “Oh, well you have to be objective.” It’s really somebody saying, “I don’t like what you’re saying about my work.” Wouldn’t it be nice if you could say, “I don’t like what you’re saying about my work. I really, I can’t hear you right now because I think this is his great work.” Which is different than saying, “well, you’re not being objective.” It’s a dishonest, I think we use those dishonestly. So all the work is emotional. What’s interesting, and I’m learning this, I listen occasionally to what people would call conservative or right wing radio. When I listen, what I realize is that they’re are emotional arguments. And, and I’m like, “it’s quite, quite compelling.” It’s quite skillful. I don’t think I could do that. What it is, is making statements that draw on people’s emotions without giving concrete data for people to reflect on. So it doesn’t, there’s ways that doesn’t deepen information. So I think when people are saying, “like be dispassionate, whatever,” they’re saying, “don’t make an emotional argument around it. Make a scientific argument.” We’re not even that skilled at saying that. We just say, “don’t be emotional.” That’s impossible. I’m a human being. Of course I’m emotional unless I’m a sociopath. I don’t think I’m a sociopath. I don’t think scientists are sociopaths. We have emotions. We are with people. So learning how to make an argument, learning how to make a scientific argument is a great skill. Learning how to be logical. I took a post picture of a poster about logical arguments. I was like, “wow, interesting. I’d never learned these things.” I think people try to make logic override that there is emotion and to act like by making an intellectual argument, it dismisses emotion. It doesn’t, it’s not one or the other. They exist together. How do we want to use them? What do you want to do with them? I think people in some of the twitterverse really lovely. In particular, we have, “let intelligence make a pass.” Because you’re intelligent, you can be a jerk. Why is that acceptable. And that shouldn’t be acceptable. We act as if one can go against the other. I am so proud of a colleague at the Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling as a researcher. A biophysicist and Jewish practicing observant Orthodox. And when we had the anniversary of the center and we were doing this who were we gonna invite as the keynote speaker to celebrate and recognize the center. And we had these different names that were put on the table and someone said, “no, that person’s not nice. That person isn’t kind. That person is not collaborative.” It’s kind of like, “Hm, yeah, that’s that not a decent person.” And I was like, “well, should that be a standard?” And we went, “it’s our meeting, it’s one of our standards.” I’m like, “I think that’s okay. I think that’s awesome.”

Art Assoiants: So being a dick is not a pass for doing objective science?

Raquell Holmes: Doing excellent science is not a pass on being a dick. And being a dick doesn’t make you a good scientist. And that we could unpack that word in a whole bunch of ways. All the women are going, “of course not!” People will try to bully their science. How does that make your science good. That doesn’t make your science good. It just makes you mean. I have another colleague who said, one of the things about communication is he felt like he knew people who were really good at schmoozing, networking, being political, I would say. And using language to manipulate people so that then this question of communicating, of being with people becomes problematic. I think we have to take on straightforwardly what is the politic, what is our culture. Those are emotional things that affect us as human beings who are doing science. You can’t get the best science to the top if what you’re doing is using the emotions of anger, the emotions of being dominant, of having to dominate, whatever those emotions are that go with that, being righteously above. How do we get the best science out of that? We may get elite scientists, science, but not necessarily the best. So I really believe if we open the doors and we actually have lots of science coming through, because of the way science is done, if we’re actually having an open comparison, and review, and process, I believe we’ll have the best emerge, whatever best means at that moment.

Art Assoiants: I envision a conference where, let’s say somebody’s presenting and another person says, “well, what do you think about this that’s been done that runs obviously counter to everything you just said?” The presenter goes, “well, it kinda hurts to hear that being said, but you know, here’s some thoughts that I have.” That’d be pretty cool.

Raquell Holmes: It’s kind of the like, “Oh wow. You know, I’m surprised you got going with the stuff that I did present, but yeah.” It would be interesting. I mean, when you said conference, I was like, “Oh, you know, I have a conference.” We have a conference called Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research. It’s a look at performance, performing, performing arts, culture, including humanities, so it’s predominantly academic, but it also includes practitioners. We had it at the Goodman Theater in 2017 in Chicago. The plenary talk was a skit. It was an improvised skit on the challenges of integrating humanities and arts into science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum, into the natural sciences. The title of it was “How Do You Know?” It was a skit on the lives of faculty and deans as they struggle with, “can we create this innovative program?” It was awesome. Essentially it’s a conference that it mimics Performing the World, in that it invites people with different understandings, of what it means to build community, of what culture is, of performance and performing, the value of that. To come to come together in relationship to the STEM, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, to look at the relationship across what’s beneficial about it, how do we think about it, what do we do in our projects. And we ask people to bring what they are working on and to share their process so that the experience is growthful for the people who are attending the conference and who are creating it. So each conference is very different. It’s been 40 people. We’re going to be in New York June 20th to 22nd 2019, New York City. At the New York Institute of Technology hosted by Jim Martinez. And it really is this beautiful moment where people come in and they say, “I get to be who I am as a complex human being. Somebody who loves dance and physics. Somebody who’s a playwright and a chemist, somebody who is an improviser. Not a scientist, but enjoys working with and helping scientists grow. Scientists who are interested in our history and find ways of using history to give a better computing class.” People who are working in out of school projects, bringing technology to poor communities all coming together saying, “how do we learn from one another?” This is a new performance of STEM in the world and in education and research, it’s exciting and everybody should come. So improvscience is the company because we have multiple contractors and other leading people who are leading changes, leading conversations about performance, communication in science are part doing improv science.

Art Assoiants: Well, this has been a very nourishing conversation. One more question. I do. I mean, it’s the signature question. Who are you becoming?

Raquell Holmes: Who are you becoming. Who and what are interesting words. I wonder that all the time. I wonder if it’s even ever possible to answer that question. So I believe who I am becoming, my experience of who I am becoming, is an ongoing leader and supporter of people who want to create something positive in the world in relation to science, technology, engineering, and math. And one might say I’m already doing that. Where I’m growing in the becoming is to enjoy, like there’s so many people who are looking at how they are political in the world and how they are creating in the world. And what they’re building as scientists, as human beings, as being part of the world. And I’m learning how to take more joy in what it is that they’re building and finding the challenge of growing with them. So I think who I’m becoming is increasingly, I want something with the word morph in it. Morphy. I’m becoming morphy. Maybe I’ll be junior Morpheus. I don’t know. We’ll find out.

Art Assoiants: We’ll keep in touch and keep asking that question. Do you have any questions for me?

Raquell Holmes: It sounds like you have a conflicted love of science. And you may wonder, why do I feel that? But I’m wondering, is that at all close or no, would you say yes or no?

Art Assoiants: A conflicted love of science. Yeah. I feel like at this point in time, that’s an accurate way of saying it. Yeah. Conflicted love. I like that. What I’d say is I love the conversations around the process of signs doing right and, I’m not intellectually invested enough to spend a lifetime pursuing the philosophy of science, for example. But I do love talking with people and engaging in that work emotionally and intellectually. But also, I think that there, there can be a danger in taking up science without having the skill sets and tools to explore the impact of that work. And of looking at it blankly without recognizing that, and many scientists will agree, that just because there there’s a particular outcome that was published, you know, it doesn’t mean that it’s applicable and we didn’t look at the power, we just looked at significance. And one more thing about my conflicted love of science. I don’t think that there is one science. I don’t think that there is one scientific method. I think that different communities that call themselves scientists or say that the practicing science may have a very different approaches as to what it means to go from what it means to collect data, what it means to analyze data, what it means to be impacted by that work too. I would call myself a critical realist and say that there’s a lots of questions to be asked about the process of science doing. It is, can, and has been a very healthy and therapeutic human activity that can bring us a lot of joy and love, and also could alienate and strip us away of our humanity. So, yeah. Conflicted love. Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve asked the question. I think you made a statement and I just went on a monologue.

Raquell Holmes: I appreciate it, it was meant as a question. I think the way in which you spoke about how you see what science is doing, I think Americans have a love of science. And that’s actually what research will show, is that we love science. I think we do a disservice to the growth of science when we make science everything, or we think that we should approach everything in life from a scientific lens. I think it doesn’t allow the evolution of our scientific approaches, and or our humanity when we do that. I think it’s fine that people love science. I think it’s helpful as we get closer to understanding what is cultural and what is science. So I’m always saying I take a cultural approach to my work cause it’s human development. And I think that’s important. I think that we can, and scientists that I work with, that are at that conference, are interested in growing our compassion. Thank you.

Art Assoiants: Thank you. This, this is lovely. I’ve been looking very forward to, to speaking with you because you could hopefully feel how much curiosity there was in this conversation. And the various ways in which you pulled together so many threads that I find I find to be compelling: development, improvisation, high-tech computing. This has been lovely for me. This has been very nourishing. And I look forward to talking to you, ongoingly, perhaps at some point we’ll explore that conversation.

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