I’m currently a departmental fellow in Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. In 2016-2017, I was a fellow at Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and later an affiliate. I received my PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT.
Much of my scientific work lies at the intersection of cognition and biology. To what extent can cells, like single-celled microbes, learn from their past and anticipate their environments? How sophisticated are the information-processing capabilities of single cells and how are these constructed from noisy molecular parts?
I’m also interested in the history, philosophy and politics of science—especially biomedical science, computer science, and the points where the two meet. I am particularly interested in how scientific projects are influenced by fields sometimes thought to be external to science, like journalism, economics and law. What questions are prioritized, and which directions get sidelined, by these seemingly external considerations? And how do these factors affect the building of a scientific “commons”?
I studied philosophy and artificial intelligence at the University of Maryland, where I spent more time than is healthy thinking about logic (and non-classical logics especially). I went to graduate school at MIT, hoping to move into cognitive science. Initially, I worked on probabilistic models that operate over structured symbolic representations (such as taxonomies) (Katz et. al., 2008).
But then I was drawn into the alluring world of molecular biology and genomics, and changed course. Borrowing ideas from cognitive science and Bayesian statistics, I first worked on developing probabilistic models for analyzing and visualizing RNA sequencing data, with the hopes of understanding how RNA-binding proteins regulate alternative splicing (Katz et. al., Nature Methods, 2010, Katz et. al. Bioinformatics, 2015). I then turned to experimentally study a class of highly conserved RNA-binding proteins, the “Musashi family,” which were long used as markers of neural stem cells. The study started in embryonic neural stem cells, where we could overexpress and knockout Musashi genes and profile their effects. Somewhat unexpectedly, these proteins also turned out to be involved in regulating cell state transitions in breast cancer cells (Katz et. al., eLife, 2014).
By the end of graduate school, I wanted to revisit earlier questions regarding the biological basis of cognition and probabilistic reasoning (partly inspired by David Marr’s approach), which seemed intractable to study in nervous systems. Yet there was an intriguing (though usually ignored) history of studying cognitive behavior in animals without traditional nervous systems, and even in microbes. I’ve explored this direction since, looking at how microbial adaption can be framed as inference, and how protein signaling networks (of the sort found in a single cell) may instantiate probabilistic computation (Katz et. al. PeerJ, 2016, Katz et. al. arXiv, 2018).
On the future of neuroscience and artificial intelligence, featuring an interview with Noam Chomsky:
Noam Chomsky on Where Artificial Intelligence Went Wrong. The Atlantic, November 1, 2012. (single page). Selected videos from the interview.
On ownership in molecular biology, and the CRISPR patents:
Who Owns Molecular Biology? Boston Review, October 28, 2015.
Videos from Berkman Klein workshop: What should universities do with their patents?
Science and the media:
Cheerleading with an agenda: how the press covers science, 3:AM Magazine (2016) (reprint at Jacobin)