About the department:
IDC Herzliya, established in 1994, is a private research college, which is unique in Israel. A quarter of our 7,000 students are international, which is also unique in Israel. I'm part of a small group of computational biologists in the School of Computer Science.
About the research:
I study evolutionary biology and cultural evolution using mathematical, computational, and statistical models and collaborations with experimental biologists and sociologists. My main focus is studying the evolution of processes that generate and transmit variation, both genetic and phenotypic. This includes the evolution of genetic processes like mutation, recombination, and aneuploidy, as well as cultural processes like learning and imitation. I'm also interested in analysis of evolutionary experiments using model-based approaches. In my first year here, I found that computer science students at different levels are very intrigued by basic questions in evolution and keen to learn how they can apply their computational know-how to study evolution.
What has been the biggest challenge as a new PI so far?
Prioritizing my increasing number of responsibilities. There are just so many conflicting short, intermediate, and long-term tasks. Fortunately, a fellow postdoc (Andrew Letten) introduced me to the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, and by proxy, “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. These books have deeply changed how I handle my time and attention. For example, I quit WhatsApp over a year ago and have recently switched from iPhone to Nokia (i.e. “stupidphone”).
Do you remember your first publication in Evolution or Evolution Letters (acceptance or rejection)?
Of course! My first publication was in Evolution (Ram & Hadany (2012) The Evolution of stress-induced hypermutation in asexual populations. Evolution 66 (7): 2315–28). It was previously rejected from two other journals, and it was also initially rejected at Evolution. However, the associate editor offered tips on an analysis that we could do. These turned out to be very helpful, and we were able to complete the mathematical analysis and resubmit the paper, which was accepted (after another minor revision). The whole experience was very influential, because I got to experience how the journal peer-review system can significantly improve my work.
Do you teach evolution? What concept blows students’ minds?
This year I taught evolutionary modelling to computer science students, both in an undergrad advanced course and in a graduate seminar. They were surprised to see how simple evolutionary models (e.g. Hardy-Weinberg, Wright-Fisher) can produce complex and counter-intuitive dynamics. One example is the extinction of cooperation due to invasion by cheaters, and how it can be prevented in subdivided populations, where group selection can act efficiently. Another example is the complex mutation rate dynamics that can occur in adapting microbial populations. Lastly, they were very intrigued by gene-culture co-evolution models and other topics in cultural evolution.
Are you involved in evolution outreach? Tell us about it.
The last couple of years I gave a Darwin Day talk in my son’s school. I try to convey the time scales involved in evolution, the processes (selection, mutations, drift, gene flow), how no one species is “better” than the rest (tree vs. ladder). Then I give some examples and evidence of evolution: industrial melanism, drug resistance (e.g. Kishony’s “Mega-plate”), lactase persistence, dog domestication, etc. The kids are really interested and have surprisingly good questions.
Do you have a time management tip to share?
If you find it hard to carve out blocks of time for concentrated work, read “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. It’s full of strategies and tips, as well as some important counter-intuitive thought provoking ideas.
What one piece of advice would you give to a postdoc?
Invest time in professional development. Seek out soft skills workshops (e.g. management, negotiations, speaking) and grant writing academies at your institute. I found these well worth the time investment (and you can always just leave in the middle of the workshop if it doesn’t pan out). In some cases, you get to learn from top professionals on a subject they have studied for decades.
Did you ever have something go wrong in a talk?
At the beginning of my first talk at an international conference, my legs were shaking bad, totally out of control. Fortunately, my PhD mentor, Lilach Hadany, insisted I practice my 15 min talk again and again. So, I just stood there shaking and reciting for the first 5 minutes; after that, I somehow relaxed and even managed to enjoy the rest of the talk. I was surprised to receive good feedback from the audience – I thought the shaking was really bad. After attending more conferences, I understood that most people sympathize with you if you seem nervous, rather than criticize you, as long as you are well-prepared and honest.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Hiking; reading books, lately mostly sci-fi (The Expanse is fantastic); sitting in the yard with my family (four kids, two dogs, one cat). I’ve recently started making cocktails at home, and it’s much more fun than I thought it would be.