Badass Women: Laura Dern Interviews Boundary-Breaking MIT Scientist Neri Oxman
Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.) In this conversation, actress Laura Dern talks to lauded MIT scientist Neri Oxman about how Oxman's work reinvents the word "science."
Laura Dern: To start, talk to me about your origins—I think it’s interesting that I was raised by actors and you were raised by scientists.
Neri Oxman: And architects and engineers.
LD: Your work in material ecology, from biologically inspired fabrics to building-scale 3-D printing, is reinventing the word “science.” How did you become brave enough to see it all differently?
NO: When I came to MIT, there were four rubrics: science, art, design, and technology. And as you entered your degree, whether it was a master's or a PHD, if you were a citizen in one domain, you were a traveler in the other. I started thinking about each rubric’s aim: The role of science is to explain and predict the world around us; engineering, to convert scientific knowledge into utility; design, to convert utility into behavior; and art, to question human behavior and create new perceptions of the world. In the age of enlightenment, we defined people by their skills and hence, by the domains or disciplines in which they excelled—a scientist, a technologist, a designer, an artist, what have you. But now I think we’re shifting and transcending this age of enlightenment to what I like to think of as an age of entanglement where there is more connection between disciplines and domains.
A good analogy would be the salad and the soup. I tell my students that enlightenment is a little bit like a salad. You have the cucumber and the tomato. You have the science and the art. But I think today, in the age of entanglement, you have a soup. You don’t know exactly if you’re consuming biology or math or physics because they’re so interlinked—when you’re developing a new app, you’re applying as much math as physics. Or when you’re designing a wearable that can sense your skin, you’re using synthetic biology, but you’re also questioning the physics of that material.
LD: You’ve talked about your collaboration with Björk on the 3-D-printed masks she wears onstage. You describe the mask as “a hole that is broken, a face without its skin.” Vulnerability—that is what we’re experiencing with our planet.
NO: We need to treat the planet as a system, and up until now we’ve operated more as if the world were made of separate parts—this part is environment, this part is economy. But everything is connected. You can’t fix global warming with a PhD in thermodynamics!
LD: I agree. I also think it’s key for this new generation of girls and boys to see women forging ahead as CEOs and scientists.
NO: For me, it’s been one long journey of transformation. It starts with the little things, like communicating to my female students that they don’t need to be afraid to get pregnant while they’re doing their Ph.D.’s. I encourage them to bring their kids to the lab and teach them to play with robots and to program and to celebrate knowledge.
LD: What advice do you have for younger women who are finding their way in their careers?
NO: Look, I went to medical school after serving in the Israeli Air Force for three years. I was sort of the rebel in the family. I loved helping people, and I thought medicine would be the perfect combination of science and human compassion. Then I entered the architecture field in my late 20s, early 30s. It took me many years of education, but I felt like I had finally found my home. So I always tell my students: Take the long way. There are no mistakes. It’s the scenic route—that’s where all the wonder happens. And then, in terms of femininity and being a woman, I have good days and I have bad days. Because there are various environments, as I’m sure you know, that are all-boys clubs. On good days, I tune in to the qualities associated with being a woman and think about how they enrich my work and way of being. On bad days I say to myself, “Just get on with it!” Most of the time though I try to focus on just doing great work. It is only through hard work and awareness that we can truly own our identity.
LD: What I hope for is that girls and women reading about your work are inspired and it makes them say: “I’m a scientist, I’m a leader, I’m a politician, I’m a writer.” Not: “I’m a woman writer, I’m a woman scientist.” Before we end, I wanted to share that I love that quote of yours, “I believe in the balance between dreaming and building.”
NO: If you believe in Cinderella, and if you can suspend your disbelief at midnight, then you can believe in the interdisciplinary midnight, the “in-betweens” and become fortunately entangled, moving from art to science.
For more on Oxman’s work, visit neri.media.mit.edu.