Clayton Aldern & Phil Yao: "A lot of the pressing questions of today are inherently imbued with science"

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Mar 12, 2015
by Stuart Milne
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Clayton Aldern & Phil Yao: "A lot of the pressing questions of today are inherently imbued with science"

Rhodes Scholars describe their approaches to science in the public sphere and their common mission with Salzburg Global Seminar Phil Yao and Clayton Aldern speaking at Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art

Rhodes Scholars Clayton Aldern and Phil Yao are interested in different aspects of the relationships between science and the public sphere. Coming from a neuroscience background, Aldern is concerned with the role of science in policymaking, while Yao is passionate about encouraging creativity relating to Math and Science in the American education system.

As participants in Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, the pair spoke to Salzburg Global about how the session influenced their thinking, and the similarities between Salzburg Global Seminar and their own international program.

“The Rhodes Scholarship cares a lot about what it calls ‘fighting the world’s fight’,” Yao said. “Essentially it means addressing some of the thorniest but most important issues that face the world. What they look for in a Rhodes Scholar is someone who has a passion for furiously attacking those problems. I think there’s a very natural harmony that you have between the Rhodes Scholarship and Salzburg Global Seminar, and I think it is a partnership that is looking to be fostered a bit further looking onward.”

One of the themes Salzburg Global Fellows repeatedly drew on during the session was the need to push scientific discovery out of the lab and into the wider world, a requirement Aldern feels is especially timely.

“A lot of what I would argue are the pressing questions of today are questions that are inherently imbued with science,” he said. “This is stuff like climate change, antibiotic resistance, and infectious disease – Ebola. A lot of the questions that people are forced to think about and respond to require scientific literacy.

“I’m interested in the use of scientific literacy in the policymaking process. You tend to have the science leagues ahead of the ethics and the policymaking, and so what I’m interested in currently is trying to play catchup.”

Yao approaches science from a different angle. Currently studying education and business at the University of Oxford, he also has a wide range of practical experience, including spells with Indian NGO Pratham and the office of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. His biggest passion is fostering creativity and innovation at K-12 level in the United States.

“Coming from an undergraduate background in Physics, I really thought a lot about how you could get high school students to be inspired by Math and Science courses and to have more creative approaches,” he said. “The best mathematicians and physicists we have are very creative minds as well, but I think that’s being lost in the educational system.”

Yao believes that creativity can be partly rediscovered through the phenomenon of teacher training through massive open online courses (MOOCs), the subject of his recent dissertation.

“Teacher education used to be something quite distinct from the practice,” he said. “You would be educated either before you started teaching, or you would take time off.

"But these teachers are learning while they’re still teaching in the classroom. It’s a simultaneous process, and there’s a lot of feedback there too. I think it’s part of a more creative future of learning to teach, and that’s going to change how skilled the body of teachers out there in the world will be.”

Bringing people from such a diverse range of backgrounds for this session was not without its challenges, among them the need to be sure that everyone was able to understand exactly what their peers were talking about.

Aldern said: “Language is particularly important in something like this, because I’m surrounded by a lot of artists, and the way that an artist talks about a brain structure or a cognitive phenomenon is going to be different from the way that I talk about it.

“One of my strengths is not only being able to understand and frame the science in a manner that I’m comfortable with, but being able to articulate it in a way that I think others are comfortable with as well.”

Both Rhodes Scholars found the small group discussions provided a valuable balance to the main plenary sessions.

“The small groups were really good for opening up,” Yao said. “I really appreciate that some participants in the session were very frank with how they felt, and also sharing deeply personal experiences and perceptions. It was a wonderful forum to essentially explore deeper how some of these concepts felt for us personally.”

Aldern added: “I know session co-chair Charles Limb is very interested in designing experiments that arise from conversations at Salzburg Global. Artists are talking about x and neuroscientists don’t understand x - how can we design an experiment in which we’re actually getting at x? Being able to wrestle with that x in a small group for an extended period of time is when the experimental design actually starts to pop out.”


Clayton Aldern and Phil Yao were participants in the Salzburg Global session The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, which is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. They were both able to attend thanks to the H D H Wills 1965 Charitable Trust Scholarship which enables Rhodes Scholars, past and present, to attend Salzburg Global Seminar programs. The session was supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/547.

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