Convergence Conversation: Asking What-if with Research Leader Dr. Bradley Hyman

Every now and again you cross paths with a rare leader who concurrently embraces the urgency of the day and the importance of peering into the future. My work with the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust created the wonderful opportunity to meet one such leader. Dr. Bradley Hyman (Brad, as he invited me to call him), is a research leader who currently holds the John B. Penny Chair in Neurology as a Professor at Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Massachusetts Alzheimer Disease Research Center and Memory Disorder Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Brad has a passion for mentoring tomorrow’s leading researchers. He has created a leadership mentoring program to help young researchers better plan and prepare for the future. By setting aside time to explore new mental models for understanding the dynamics of change, he strives to improve his mentee’s ability to ask the right questions to assess what beliefs and methods are relevant for the future, which ones are outdated, which create risk, and which create future opportunities. His hope is that these emerging leaders can shift to a position wherein they can adapt their efforts and mindset to rapid change. It is a gift he deeply desires to give young researchers to carry them throughout their careers.

In this Convergence Conversation, Brad and I discuss why it is important for future-focused thinking to become a learned behavior for future leaders to advance medical research.


Exploring the Idea of Research

Deb: What is research?

Brad: Research is the intellectual enterprise of trying to learn new things. Sometimes that's relearning old things from the prism of current knowledge. Sometimes that's learning truly new things that no one has ever learned before. The joy and fun of research are when you get to learn something new by connecting dots of things that are known and discovering that they work together. Science is the formalization of curiosity.

Deb: How has research changed over the years?

Brad: What hasn’t changed is that researchers are filled with curiosity and hope. Hope in the sense of being able to use curiosity to do something useful and good for others. I think this drives the best scientists. Not being willing to give up on trying something different after the attempts didn't work the first or the second or the third or the 15th time. That hasn't changed. Researchers need to be willing to suspend disbelief that a current failure isn’t the future forever.

But what has changed, at least since I was in graduate school, is the way science is done. It used to be that most science was performed by individual contributors or researchers. Now it’s the opposite. That’s in part a change in culture, and a large part because of technology. The idea that an individual contributor can make major contributions isn’t really present anymore. Today’s science is about collaboration. It takes a multidisciplinary attack from different types of expertise to solve problems. Make no mistake that there still is a role for the individual contributor — some people are so brilliant that they can see more than the average person can, but these people are very rare.

Where science is done is something else that has changed. It used to be that there were only a handful of places where you could do cutting-edge science. Now science is worldwide. Of course, some places have a high concentration of individuals taking part in cutting-edge science because the local culture facilitates it, or there are facilities dedicated to these activities. But I think because communication, technology, and individual skills can fit into other models of research, we are seeing a massive shift where research can be done in a distributed way – and certainly, first-rate work can be done in most fields almost anywhere now.  Wherever you are, if you're innovative, the rest can kind of come together. I think that's part of the reason why there's just so much more science going on now than ever before in history. I used to subscribe to printed science journals and page through them over lunch to see if there is anything new. Now, science shows up in my inbox every day; and the scientists who contribute to the papers in those journals are from all over the world.

Old Models and New Solutions

Deb: You mentioned the intellectual enterprise of learning old and new things. Is the learning of old things to bring competence up to a certain level or it is to see if any of those old things are relevant for solving today’s problems?

Brad: It’s both. For example, most of what's in a textbook is generally right. But it applies to whatever situation someone was looking at during the timeframe it was written. There is a lot more heterogeneity of the universe than we can publish in a textbook. Because it’s dated or limited in scope, the information doesn't always apply to the problem that you are trying to solve right now. You always must be just a little bit skeptical. I’m always telling my trainees they should not always believe what they read in the textbook because, odds are, I wrote it. I know for certain that it reflects what I knew ten years ago. Hopefully, I've learned something between then and now. Most likely, my perspective has changed.

One of the challenges for new researchers is keeping up with the amount of new scientific information being generated. Researchers are learning and publishing at an incredible speed. It’s an amazing environment for researchers to exist. They can do an astonishing number of things. The challenge is to sort out which ones are important and relevant. We have to assess whether research will produce data we can interpret and use to connect dots and challenge assumptions. Today’s research environment is like a smorgasbord with twenty entrees and a hundred desserts. If you try to taste all of them, you will never leave the dining room. Choices must be made to confirm that you’re on the right research path. It can be overwhelming at times, especially for a junior investigator. This is why they sometimes choose to study something they are comfortable with — scientists are just as risk-averse as other people – and miss the opportunity to see something new. That’s the skill we need to communicate.

Mentoring, Influence, and Process

Deb: You recently reread Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and you have stated that it influenced your thinking about mentoring and leadership. What is influential about a book written over fifty years ago?

Brad: Besides being well written, the book is very insightful and probably more relevant today than it was decades ago. But if I need to drill down to the core message, it has to be that change is how we move from day-to-day. This is probably truer in science than in any other field. In science, if things haven't changed from one day to another, something is wrong. This is absolutely a core principle of how we researchers behave. And yet, I don't know any scientists who have articulated the notion of how to think about and manage change. How do we stay on course with change happening so rapidly?

Many of the things that we have come to believe about our research, world, and even universe get challenged or blown up literally every week. The pace at which information comes at us is becoming more and more frantic. Learning how to think deliberately about the changes happening so you can make sense of them is a learned skill. You don’t learn this capability during your Ph.D., and you certainly don’t learn it during your postdoc or as a young faculty member.

You do learn how to juggle more balls because you keep taking on more responsibilities, but really that's just doing your best not to sink. Many young faculty members also are young spouses and parents. They have a lot of balls in the air. Trying not to drop any of them is a lot of stress and worry. Having the ability to see and assess the changes happening around you in a plausible and logical way can help alleviate some of the stress of feeling like things are out of control. Of course, you can’t completely anticipate the future and you most certainly are not going to solve all of the issues that you see ahead of you. But at least you can create a strategy to approach the future. And that counteracts that sense of just being overwhelmed.

Frameworks for the Future 

Deb: Over time and through experience, you have developed frameworks for understanding the future. What I hear you saying is you hope to help your mentees build similar frameworks earlier in their careers so they don’t stress as much about the future and possibly see opportunities to pursue.

Brad: Yes. These types of frameworks give us the ability to look forward and see some plausible futures and how things may turn out. Some are much better futures for me as an individual. Some of them are not. But just having that ability to do this exercise allows us to cope and adapt.

In part because of the career I've chosen and in part because of the fact of who I am, there is a strong desire to do something useful. There is also a piece of me that wants to make sure other people can do something useful too. I’ve so enjoyed having kids of my own. And I am insanely happy with my little one-year-old grandson. He has me wrapped around his little finger. I care deeply. This is true of the students I get to work with closely. I invest in them. I’ve gotten close to them and I am thrilled about their successes. I feel for them when things aren’t going well. I do my best to support them through these times. It is who I am. So it feels very natural for me to start a future-focused thinking course to give them some tools to help them cope with change and anticipate the future.

Successful scientists allow themselves the freedom and flexibility to ask “what if.” It truly is a privilege and luxury to dream about what could be possible. Because of the research culture, we seem to be given permission to do it. By formalizing time through our future-focused thinking workshops, we can begin to shift the culture to a place where people can ask themselves what-if questions. Young researchers can start to feel like they are allowed to spend precious time without feeling guilty. It’s really important to give people permission to do things that are just a little different than what has been deemed acceptable in the past. Sometimes going down rabbit holes leads us to incredible discoveries.

There is an increasing possibility for more interaction and open science. New ideas come together from various different places and investigators asking what-if.

- Dr. Bradley Hyman

Consider if we had all the data from the failed drug trials across the different companies pursuing the COVID19 vaccination. What if we put all that together and asked what went wrong? Are there patterns that we might not have been able to see in individual data sets that we could see when we look across all of them? Was there a subset of responses that we could have predicted had we only known how to look? What new learning could we gain by opening up the way we do science?

The phrase ‘what if’ starts a lot of creative thought and helps us identify problems that might keep us from asking deeper questions that, in turn, help us to figure out ways of approaching these problems. The opportunity is to turn over dogma and obsolete knowledge that may have been in place for a hundred years. One of the lovely things about science, and a reason why I love it, is that over relatively short periods of time, things go from “that's impossible” and “that's ridiculous” to a confident assertion that we always knew it.

Looking Forward

Deb: What is your hope for the future?

Brad: The end of Alzheimer’s disease. It is only one segment of things that tortures humanity. But it's incredible torture for those individuals who suffer from it or have been affected by someone they love having it. I am very optimistic that the end is within sight, or at least we'll take a big bite out of it. It feels as if there's a convergence of information coming together that answers many of the questions we have about this disease and will lead to solutions to overcome it.


Dr. Hyman has brought futurism back into vogue. As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, many leaders and their organizations face a rising urgency to transform to thrive amid power shifts that began decades ago. The global environment is chaotic, hyperconnected, collaborative, and competitive. For today’s leaders, the consequence of this fast-paced environment is a need to anticipate and adapt to new and changing situations, constraints, needs, and priorities. Yet many continue to struggle to transition from a mindset characterized by order and standardization to mental models for innovation, creativity, and growth. Asking “what if'' may be the first step in this new journey.