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Conversation With Michael Quick

The USC dean of research reflects on what matters most to him, including honesty, neuroscience and faux-food restaurants.

Conversation With Michael Quick
Professor Michael Quick, dean of research for USC College, is one of the most compelling lecturers on campus. He’s also one of the hardest working. He rarely takes vacations, he said, because he truly would rather work than do anything else.

AE: Your “What Matters to Me” talk last November was so provocative that I hardly know where to start. Among other pithy comments, you said honesty was overrated, friends are more important than family and chain restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s are ruining America. Any explanations?

MQ: Uh oh – did I really say those things? Since I teach a course on scientific integrity, I better clarify the statement about honesty!
That came from a conversation with a student who said a friend was angry over an “honest” opinion about that friend’s behavior. The student was shocked that the friend did not really want an honest opinion. In those cases, I totally vote for lies. I mean, I just had a haircut recently, and I don’t really want people to be honest about that. Who wants honesty all the time?
My family is great (especially if they are reading this article right now). But I would not say we are a close family. When I mention to people that the last time I saw my parents may have been a year or two before, they give me that sympathetic nod that makes me feel like my life is completely off track. That’s when I give them the “why don’t you go spend time with people you can choose – your friends” speech.
As for the pseudo-upscale faux-food places, they are the American Idol winners of the restaurant business. These restaurants are popular because they make food that is the least offensive to most people.

AE: You often give a one-hour demonstration lecture on neuroscience for parents at summer orientation that is nothing less than astonishing. What is it about neuroscience that makes it the fastest-growing major at USC?

MQ: That’s easy. How does this collection of cells manage to do the amazing things that it does? I can reason – once in a while – and I can be frustrated – most of the time – and I can stand up without falling over – some of the time – and I have a sense that I am a unique individual. I can imagine things that don’t exist, I can communicate using a very complex language system, I can learn things and I can even continue to do the same stupid things again and again even though I know the outcome is going to be the same bad thing. If a person can’t get excited about learning more about those things, there is no hope for that person.

AE: Your research laboratory is notable for the number of undergraduates working there. How do their contributions differ from grad students?

MQ: Now that I have taken on administrative duties, I unfortunately have had to cut back on the number of undergraduates I can have in the lab. But I have several presently. Their experience is not very different from those of my Ph.D. students. I am blessed at USC in that we have undergraduates here much smarter than I am. I used to be surprised at how much they accomplish. Not anymore.

AE: You’ve said that learner-centered education is overrated and what students actually do want is “the sage on the stage.” How do you swim against the tide promoting group learning?

MQ: I guess it is my contrarian nature coming back to haunt me. When I think back to my undergraduate career, the “sages on the stages” were the people that brought to life the world of academia. They made courses exciting and informative and sexy. So all I want to point out is let’s not forget that there is a place for what we might call “teacher-centered” education. The classroom experience should flat-out buzz with the excitement of learning and changing the world around us.

AE: Last November, you rattled off the “Top 10 Myths About the World That I Thought Were Truths When I Was 20 Years Old.” Number one was the myth of early commitment, or whatever you decide at age 18 is what you do the rest of your life. What were some of your early commitments?

MQ: I don’t have a problem with people who know what they want to do early on, although I am skeptical about how they know it so early. And I wish they weren’t so damn smug. It puts a lot of pressure on those of us who really don’t know what we want to do or who hope to try lots of different careers through our lives. Had you asked me at 18 what I would be doing on January 27th of my 30th year, I probably could have told you because I thought I had it all worked out. I since realized that my predictions were not even accurate when predicting the next day.

AE: Another of your myths is that humans use logic to make decisions. Instead, you say, we make emotional decisions unconsciously and use our cortex to rationalize them. Can you give an example?

MQ: When I was in college, I thought the way one made decisions was by creating a list of pros and cons and adding them up. In neuroscience, we know that emotions and other unconscious brain processing is taking place that influences our decision making. As I get older, I more and more believe we rationalize so much and selectively use facts to support our already-formed decisions. For example, I don’t make a pro and con list to choose my friends. I just somehow have a gut feeling that I like that person or I don’t. If I like you, I use my brain to selectively pay attention to the facts that make you a great person and ignore the facts about you that make you a lousy person. And for the facts I can’t ignore, I rationalize them away.