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Focus on Stuart Firestein

Focus on Stuart Firestein

By In Leadership Program, Leadership Program 2015, Mentors On March 2, 2015

Stuart Firestein will be a mentor during the Leadership Program 2015.

To learn more about him, keep on reading:

Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences where his he study the vertebrate olfactory system with colleagues, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell?

Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science. Recently he was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching.

In his book: Ignorance: How It Drives Science, Firestein argues that pursuing research based on what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know. The book was largely based on his class on ignorance, where each week he invited a professor from the hard sciences to lecture for two hours on what they do not know. No audio-visuals and no prepared lectures were allowed, the lectures became free-flowing conversations that students participated in.

Firestein explained that most people believe ignorance precedes knowledge, but in science, ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions about data that sometimes don’t exist or fully make sense yet. “I use that term purposely to be a little provocative. But I don’t mean stupidity. I don’t mean dumb. I don’t mean a callow indifference to facts or data or any of that,” Firestein said. Instead, thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community’s understanding and seeks to resolve them.