In 2001, 21-year-old Whee Ky Ma obtained his doctoral degree in string theory at the RUG. He was one of the youngest PhD. candidates ever.
Immediately after, he announced he was ‘bored’ with physics and was going to focus on neuroscience. He was going to figure out consciousness.
He now calls that ‘megalomaniacal’. For years, he barely paid attention to what really suited him, and his social life was pretty ‘fucked up’.
During his PhD., the wunderkind finally encountered people who were smarter than him. He was procrastinating. ‘There was no future for me in theoretical physics.’
Now he is a professor in neuropsychology and runs his own lab. He enjoys teaching and does it a lot. Nobody remembers how young he was when he started.
He thinks it is important to show young academics that there is more than one road to success. Insecurity and mistakes are all part of the deal, he says.
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He was suffering from megalomania a fair bit. What was he even thinking, that he could just unravel the mystery of consciousness? In hindsight, it is embarrassing, although he did not realise this at the time. To be fair, nobody did.
It has been thirteen years since Groningen wunderkind Whee Ky Ma, one of the youngest Dutch PhD. candidates ever, left for America. He was 14 when he started studying physics at the RUG, graduated at 17 and quickly moved on to do a PhD. He was 21 when he obtained his degree in string theory, which back then was a fairly new and hopelessly abstract theory that sought to unite quantum mechanics and gravity.
He was in all the papers, appeared on television, was interviewed by talk show host Sonja Barend. And nobody realised what it meant when he said that he was ‘bored’ with string theory and theoretical physics; that he ‘wasn’t really interested anymore’; that he was switching to neuroscience and that he was going to tackle the next big thing: consciousness.
Looking back now, Ma – who returned to Groningen this week to deliver a lecture for Studium Generale – thinks he was being fairly arrogant. He is 37 now and a professor of neuroscience at New York University (NYU).
He has his own lab and puts a lot of energy into teaching which, in contrast to many of his colleagues, he enjoys greatly. Almost no one around him knows how young he was when he got started. He writes, works for an organisation that lobbies for better education in the Chinese countryside – his ancestors hail from the area around Yantai – and is known as a researcher who wants to do even the smallest thing right. ‘That is what makes science evolve’, he says. ‘I no longer have a need for grandiosity.’
In actuality, says Ma, he was at the start of a quest in 2002. Because up until then, his life had been far from ordinary. He skipped four grades in elementary school and attended university when he was still very young. ‘My social life was completely fucked up.’
That meant that when he got his degree, he had never considered the question of what he liked. ‘It seems strange, as if I didn’t know what I wanted and just switched my field willy-nilly. But I was so very young and immature in my thinking about what I could do and what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t very good at separating that from what my environment expected of me.’
The bigger story
Not that anyone had forced him to study physics, or do his PhD. in string theory. He enjoyed it and was fascinated by the ‘bigger story’ he hoped to discover. ‘But the research practice in theoretical physics is really very removed from the experimental side of it. Every day, you have to research abstract maths. There are people who are very intuitive in this, but I was not one of them.’
This is not the false modesty of a genius. Although his doctoral research into string theory might look like a big deal to a layperson, he knows the truth is a different matter.
‘I sometimes joke that they only gave me the degree because they knew I was leaving the field. I had no future in theoretical physics.’
His degree, he explains, was based on two articles which he wrote in close collaboration with another PhD. candidate. But, he says, the majority of ideas had come from that other person and not him. ‘So it never felt like my work.’
And that hurt. For the first time in his life, wunderkind Whee Ky Ma was confronted with the fact that there were people smarter than him. He blamed it on disinterest, believing he needed a bigger challenge. He started procrastinating. All the work he did to promote the sciences at high schools, his political activities, volunteering for nature? It was all procrastination. ‘I was on the defensive against all this overwhelming work. For years, people had been telling me how incredibly smart I was. And I told myself the same thing: I must be able to figure out that problem.’
Even the NWO grant that allowed him to leave for foreign shores was undeserved, he admits now. ‘That idea about consciousness got me that scholarship, but the review committee should never have approved it’, he thinks. ‘Either someone was asleep at the wheel, or they approved it because it was me. It was unrealistic, much too grandiose.’
If he ever has kids that are super smart, he is not sure if he would make the same choices that his mother made for him, even though he knows she really thought things through and still knew it was not an ideal situation. But he’s not complaining. ‘It would be too easy to say that I regret it. It’s opened many doors and I’ve had experiences that I would have otherwise missed.’
One of those doors was his departure for the US, he feels. It was easier for him to obtain scholarships and postdoctoral opportunities. And in America, he ultimately found his way. ‘Gradually, I started to realise that hierarchy is not what matters. Theoretical scientists are not smarter or better academics than psychologists. You have to find something which clicks, which resonates with you. There is not one mould you have to fit in order to be successful.’
This is something he really wants young academics to know. Too few people tell them about the problems and insecurities, which causes them to doubt themselves. ‘When you’re a PhD. candidate, you think your professor is a demigod. That they are brilliant. But that’s bullshit. And if they do come across as such, it’s because they’re pretending.’
This is why Ma often gives a lecture for young scientists, called ‘Growing up in science’. He wants them to understand that insecurity is part of the deal and that making mistakes is normal. And there is a surprising amount of scientists who are willing to help with this, he found. ‘I received a moving reaction from a colleague who is known as someone who is very confident. Arrogant, even. He suffered from it too, and there was even a name for it: impostor syndrome.’
It is the name for the feeling many academics – but also athletes, entertainers, or artists – get when they start doubting themselves. ‘When you start thinking: my supervisor may think I’m smart, but I’m not. Or: someone must have made a mistake admitting me. It really happens a lot.’
Ma struggled with it himself, for years. ‘It didn’t change until three years ago, when I was offered this job at NYU. I must have really shown them something. I couldn’t think of any other reason they offered it to me. I knew how critical these people were.’
And what is next? Research. And he will not limit himself to just one subject: Ma discovered that he enjoys having several irons in the fire at a time. If he thinks he has found a new way to explain other people’s results, he also enjoys replicating their work. He likes to ask himself difficult questions and satisfies himself with the small, concrete steps that can lead to the answer. He loves to teach. And he enjoys the social process that makes science so great: sharing results with colleagues, brainstorming and teaching young people. ‘Science in and of itself is hard enough. You have to be able to do it together.’
Whee Ky Ma
Whee Ky Ma was born in Delfzijl in 1978. He learned how to read when he was three years old and attended the Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium in Groningen when he was eight. At 14, he started studying physics in Groningen, later adding mathematics. He graduated in 1996 and 1997, respectively, both times with distinction.
His doctoral research, for which he obtained a degree in 2001, concerned string theory. Then, he switched to neuroscience. He accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Rochester and the California Institute of Technology. Then, he became a lecturer at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In 2012, he became senior lecturer at New York University.