Meet the Labbers: Ed Boyden

MIT Media Lab

In our ongoing audio series, Meet the Labbers, we hear people from all roles across the Media Lab talk about what they do and why they do it.

Today, meet Ed Boyden.

"My name is Ed Boyden, and I am a professor here who directs the Synthetic Neurobiology group, which has the goal of understanding and repairing the brain through new technologies.

Well, I was always very philosophical as a kid, you know, always wondering about the meaning of life and what should we do. I studied a lot of math and physics and chemistry, and about halfway through my time at MIT where I worked at the Media Lab as a student, I decided that it really was about the brain. We need to understand how the brain works because in some ways, you know, we make sense of the universe and the universe runs on the laws of physics and the laws of physics implement all these chemicals and stuff that’s inside our brains. 

So, it’s kind of a loop. And I decided that for my career I should work on the weak point in the loop, and that’s ... how does our brain generate the mind. To do that, we need new tools. We’re going to try to start to map the brain and to simulate it, to be able to hunt down the root causes of disease and scale up our ability to comprehend the circuits in our brains that generate things like thoughts and feelings.

I was always very philosophical as a kid, always wondering about the meaning of life and what should we do. 

I came to the Media Lab because, frankly, they offered me a job. When I was looking for a job with the vision of putting together engineering and neuroscience, I was turned down by most of the places that I applied to. Neurotechnology is a cool thing to do now but 10 years ago it wasn’t. I think a lot of the engineers were thinking that the brain wasn’t ready for engineering, and I think in neuroscience there was a deep skepticism of tools. At the time, very few tools that were developed for the brain worked. To propose then to make a whole career out of developing tools didn’t seem realistic to some people.

And now I’m trying to do on purpose what the Media Lab did for me accidentally. It’s that we want to hire misfits and give them room to fuse ideas that most people would not even dream of putting near each other. And a lot of our recent faculty hires have been at the intersection of biology, engineering, society, and design but being able to sit in sort of a neutral spot and feel no pressure to go in any direction and then feel the freedom to put things together in all the combinations. I think the Media Lab is a great launching point for connecting ideas.”

Music: "Éole" by dj dramah

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