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Dialoge mit Pascal Wallisch II

[Author’s Note: The first Dialoge mit Pascal Wallisch was several months ago, where Pascal joined the first-year graduate student office at CNS for an afternoon and talked about whatever was on his mind. This Dialoge was arranged for the Advanced Science Communication Workshop with Stephen Hall at NYU, where the prompt was to write a character sketch on a scientist]

“I remember being three or four or five and telling my father that I wanted to be a magician,” begins Pascal Wallisch. “He told me that there is no magic so I said fine, I’m going to be a scientist.” Since then, he has deviated little from his primary ambition. In high school, he briefly considered politics or a career in the military. Says Wallisch, “I was always fascinated with strategy. But conquest today is not like it was a thousand years ago. If you were the Romans, you could kill everybody and it’s yours. But today if you take something and win you still have to give it back.”

We sit in my office only a flight of stairs below his laboratory. The constant hum of problem solving and foot traffic of my eleven officemates fills the crammed space. Pascal’s presence in the room does not go unnoticed. A known character in the department, his nearly six feet of stature seems to unfold when he sits. He sports a buttoned-to-the-top dress shirt. Under a thick set of dark hair and glasses, his deep set eyes and teeth are wide as he speaks.

“In high school, in Germany, we had majors,” he says, adding that he chose math and physics. Not until he visited with a professor of physics did he have an importance realization. “The professor could not vocalize his thoughts or ideas. His laboratory was a cave. His post-doc looked like he literally had not seen sunlight in months. And advancements anymore require billions of dollars, just look at CERN. Some science works out details and some science is about advancing the field. I wanted to advance.”

He spent his year after high school in the national service taking care of mentally handicapped individuals. During this time he travelled extensively, including to India. While in a Calcutta hostel, an 18 year old Wallisch had a vision. He saw that he needed to not only move to Berlin – a city of much greater magnitude than his hometown of Neufra, population 2000 – but that he would study psychology at university, a shock to everyone he knew. Growing up in a town with only sheep and mountains, as he describes, Wallisch had never met anyone who attended college. “My grandfather worked a factory and my father was a carpenter. The whole idea was not to go to college.”

In the spring of 1998, Wallisch would enroll at Free Univerisity, in Berlin. His time there was a whirlwind: Wallisch completed 80 courses in a two year span while living on a liquid-only diet. “Some of the people I cared for during my national service year lived on liquids. I calculated that I could save huge sums of time if I did the same.” So he drank three or four 500 calorie shakes between classes every day. “It was crazy. I actually decided to go on a fucking liquid-only diet. What was I thinking?”

Besides his coursework, he worked in labs studying sleep, social psychology and cognition. Through his research though, he realized that he had just scratched the surface. “Trying to infer [brain] mechanisms from psychophysics is impossible. I needed something more.”

Late in college while working at the Max Planck Institute, Wallisch met Gerd Gigerenzer, an acclaimed professor of psychology. “I was surprised that he gave me the time of day. I was a peasant in the labs. But I told him how I felt. That I was not pleased with what I knew.” Gigerenzer told the young Wallisch that if he was truly serious he needed to do two things: he had to get an education in neuroscience, and in the US. Moreover, he told the impressionable Wallisch that there was only one real university in the world: the University of Chicago, where Gigerenzer was formerly faculty. Wallisch would soon gear up for another major life change.

Wallisch flips through a photo album on Facebook of his early years. The young Pascal has the same thick dark hair and glasses. A scene of his backyard looks like a page from the Polar Express: train tracks divide pastures from snowy mountains. Other shots are of barren lands.

An abundant mash of eccentricity, obscurity, and charm, Wallisch beams of thoughtfully opinionated gratuity [1]. He sits in the front at guest lectures [2], not hesitating to interrupt the talk to inquire about details. But he speaks not just to hear his own voice, as happens so often in academics. Rather, he wants to understand.

“I was a fucking highlander from the fucking mountains.” Looking at images of a toddler Pascal playing with dominoes and bringing in the harvest, he speaks without nostalgia, as if reading ingredients on a label.

“I was back just recently,” says Pascal, “growing up there I was in the cave and only saw the shadow. You know the cave?” I nod. “I only knew I was in the cave once I left.”

Before applying to the graduate school, Wallisch received an offer to work as a research technician in the lab of Steve Kosslyn at Harvard. Wallisch had suspected that he was in another cave, having already escaped his small hometown to live in Berlin. Given the opportunity to join Kosslyn’s lab at Harvard, Pascal’s outlook was clear cut and simple:

“My country sucks. I’m going to the US.”

Back on a solid food diet, he moved to Cambridge to study the relatively new technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The field was emerging, but its potential for studying brain mechanisms was still unclear to many, including Wallisch. Unsatisfied with the research, he followed Gigerenzer’s advice and moved to Chicago in the fall of 2001. Little would be the same.

After moving to Chicago, Wallisch met JR Banks [3], a high-energy, distinguished young neuroscientist. Banks had recently published a series of high profile research papers at a time when funding and the spotlight on live brain recordings was rapidly climbing. Pascal soon joined his lab. In his first two years in Chicago, research was productive and Wallisch enjoyed the high-gear approach led by his mentor, Banks. But by 2003, Wallisch began to notice that the mood in the lab was dark. A product of the classic narrow academic track, the Banks Lab prized slaving over work day and night. Research began consuming the life of Wallisch, too, so he sought outside activity. He fell in love with teaching, an interest that would keep Wallisch balanced when the Banks Lab began to show signs of wear.

“In 2004 I received my Masters degree and had the opportunity to leave the lab. My wife begged me to. I saw before my eyes that the lab was self-destructive. That it could not be sustained.” But a strange sense of loyalty kept Wallisch in the lab to pursue his doctorate.

Wallisch would teach a total of 14 classes while at Chicago. At the end of his graduate work, he won a competitive university-wide teaching award, going against students from many highly regarded departments, including economics and social sciences. He would later compile his teaching material and publish a book, MATLAB for Neuroscientists. These outside interests and accomplishments helped Wallisch stay afloat while the lab sank.

Wallisch received his PhD in August of 2007. A month after completing his work, the Banks Lab shutdown. “I finished at the right time,” says Wallisch. Doctorate in hand, he accepted an offer to begin post-doctoral work at NYU, where he began work a week after leaving Chicago.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, go out. It can be hard to socialize. I don’t read fiction.” I get mildly upset when I learn this last part. He is quick to cite several papers on the negative effects of reading fiction. When asked if he might be missing out on some external inspiration, he sits up and smiles.

“I’ve always had a lot of ideas. I’ve had nine ideas that I’ve written down today,” he says, adding that he doesn’t need any more ideas. “It’s hard to execute one in a year.”

A voice from the other side of the office announces technical difficulties and insults MATLAB.

“There’s nothing wrong with MATLAB,” says Wallisch. He pauses and reflects on his words:

“That’s not true.”

In the spring of 2003, Wallisch enrolled in a course in Human Memory. Each class, he sat next to a cute brunette by the name of Kira, an undergraduate from New Jersey. With only a week left in class, Wallisch spoke to her for the first time, borrowing a pencil from her. He returned it the following week on the last day of class.

“I think that impressed her, that I remembered the pencil,” says Wallisch, seemingly baffled at the situation. Talk moved to what courses they were taking in the fall, and they discovered that Kira was signed up for a class that Pascal would teach.

On ethical grounds, Kira thought that she should withdraw from the course since she had conversed with Pascal. Parting ways, Pascal was displeased with the turnout of their interaction. He approached the professor and asked him for Kira’s email, explaining that he would try to convince her to still take the class in the fall with another teacher. The professor obliged. Pascal sent Kira a note asking her to stay in the course. At the end of the message, Pascal invited Kira to join him at his house that night for a get-together with his fellow graduate students.

“She came over and it was a bit awkward, this young undergraduate with me and all my classmates, some of whom were her TAs.” Nonetheless, Pascal walked Kira back to her dorm that night. They would see each other every day for the next five days before she boarded a plane to volunteer for a month helping orphans in New York.

The young Kira was to stay in New York all summer, to take an LSAT class. Wallsich convinced her that she should take the same class in Chicago after finishing the volunteer work. Not having a place to live, she moved in with Pascal. “It was crazy. Her parents were from a Jewish settlement, and their daughter wanted to move in with some older German guy she had just met. It’s really fucked up if you think about it. I mean, who does that?” A practicing attorney at age 23, she wasn’t about to just move in with anyone. “Kira is a no-bullshit person. But she moved in with me. Fortunately, she never left.”

By the time he arrived in New York, Wallisch was 100% focused on a career in academics. He wanted to “do the faculty thing.” He would attend a competitive-entry high level course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, whose attendance is often indicative of careers in academics. While in the course, Wallisch noticed that many attendees were children of academics. “My life was very unintellectual until the age of 20. I didn’t grow up with professors as parents, so I had a lot of catching up to do. While so many of the other students were incredibly smart, so many of them lacked in so many other ways. No balance in life. No sense of self. And they all go on to careers in academics. Call me arrogant, but I see this now in faculty. Their personal well-being is so atrophied.”

Wallisch soon saw that he was heading in the wrong direction. It took a visit to a doctor’s office for him see that his single track mentality, the track that was the root of his former adviser’s collapse, was plaguing him. His “notion of becoming,” was the wrong approach, and his health gave all the signs.

Wallisch gained sixty pounds without realizing it. “Every number on my blood test was alarming.” Having neglected everything about his personal self, his body was paying dearly. Wallisch soon made drastic changes to his life, starting with data collection: he wears a device that records brain signals when he sleeps and a pedometer to track every step he takes. He meticulously documents every calorie and vitamin that he consumes and burns, all the while collecting subjective data on mood and feelings.

“I used to think that caring about nutrition and metabolism was all hippie bullshit, but everything was fucked. I had to make changes. People burn out physically, or mentally, or both. I didn’t have any energy, looking back.”

“I level up every five years,” says Wallisch, adding that since 2008 his focus has been on personal development. “In 2013, it will be all about faculty.” His highly structured sense of development might seem odd, but his intensity is bleaching, as if a five year life-classification design were the most normal approach a human could ever have to life. “From ‘03 to ‘08 it was all neuroscience. Ninety eight to ‘03, psychology.”’ He pauses briefly between each interval. “Ninety three to ninety eight, philosophy.” Before that? “Video games.”

“I played Doom, Starcraft, Civilization. It was all about strategy. I was incredibly competitive. I wouldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t win.”

Wallisch is open about his admiration of Theodore Roosevelt. “He was outright about life being strenuous. For him, the point of life was to not have it easy. Life is hard for everyone.” He sits back in his chair now, opining freely. I stopped asking questions a while ago, telling him to just keep the faucet on.

“Life is about challenges. You must strive for excellence and at the same time have virtues. I’m proud to say that at this point in life no one can look me in the eyes and honestly say ‘you mother fucker, you screwed me over.’ We need more of this in society.” His glasses come off at this point for what seems to be cleaning or emphasis.

“The problem with capitalism is that it doesn’t promote values,” his hands now directing his message. “You don’t need morals to make a lot of money. So where do we get our values? Religion is dead. Everyone needs a code of personal conduct. Do the right thing. Don’t screw people over.”

His tone balances authority with humility, hubris with gratuity. “A lot of people publish and get their names on papers because they can get away with it. They have done nothing for the paper, but they put their name on it. Professionally this is bad. This is not right. I can honestly say that I’m proud of everything that I published. I don’t have many publications,” he adds with sincerity.

“Maybe it will take longer this way. But I am OK with it. People cut corners and get away with it,” he says, going on to reference Marc Hauser, the psychologist whose accusations of dishonesty forced him out of academia [4].

My first encounter with Pascal flashes back: winter 2010, interviewing in New York. He handed out business cards for his book to interviewees, shamelessly promoting his work. The topic of conversation was important factors in choosing a graduate school. He dove into a tirade on rigid honesty. What you do will always come back around. Cutting corners will bite you. Cheating will kill you. Honesty was everything. Honesty in your life’s work. Honesty to others. Honesty to yourself.

“The people that do this, that go hard core into academics: these people are really fucked up,” says Wallisch. “I am who I am. Nothing was given to me. I had to fight.” I question his path. His respond is quick.

“My natural habitat is the academy.”

I inquire as to the last time he did something unethical. He pauses.

“I was in kindergarten,” says Wallisch. “I vividly recall stealing toys from the classroom.
To this day, this is a great source of anguish to me.”

“I take ownership of my actions. Call it a very old-fashioned code of conduct. People cheat in high school or on their spouses. You’ll always find a way to rationalize it, so you have to have a strong set of morals.” Wallisch sits up high, shaking his head so slightly back and forth with each big point he makes. “You have to say No. These ideas aren’t common and that makes me sad.”

He expresses his disappointment that the first hit to come up when you google his book
is a bit-torrent download. “It’s not about the money for me, it is a matter of respect.”
Wallisch has had many people contact him asking him for a PDF of the book (whose
dissemination would be illegal, he notes). Students from Iran, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, and other countries, contact him. They cannot afford the book and ask for copies.

When the publisher rejected Wallisch’s request[5] that they send books to developing countries, he saw an opportunity for charity. He buys the book and mails it to them. “Sure, I could email a PDF. But the world is your personal standards.”

At the end of our conversation Pascal somehow still seems to be gaining momentum. His words hang in the air like smoke in a basement bar around the office dwellers. Occasionally, a message sticks to whatever might reach out as it drifts by. Walking out of the door, he reflects.

“I’m not perfect about any of this. This is just what I think about.”

———

[1] His email tagline reads:

    Note: Please be advised that in order to preserve productivity, I
    intend to check emails maximally once per day (Jackson, Dawson &
    Wilson, 2001), unless forced by circumstance. In case of emergency,
    please use other means of contact. Thank you for your understanding
    and patience.

    References:
    Jackson, T, Dawson, T, & Wilson, D (2001). The cost of email
    interruption. Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 5, 81-92.

[2] Little will he wait to correct mislabeled equations or errant axes: you can’t argue that clarity isn’t key.
[3] Name changed.
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Hauser
[5] But of course, they’re going to reject any request.

1 comment to Dialoge mit Pascal Wallisch II

  • I loved this interview! I actually ran into Pascal in the hallway, and he mentioned your website. Check mine out too if you’re interested in a softer science-mostly psychology and behavior.
    Cheers!

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