At first glance, it might seem surprising that a marine biologist, a cryptographer and an AI expert would forge an alliance to work together on one project. But when you hear that they were fellows at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, it all starts to make sense. The Radcliffe Institute is one of the world’s leading centres for interdisciplinary research and exploration. Every year, the Radcliffe Fellowship Program invites 50 of the most exceptional minds from disciplines, including the sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences, to spend nine months developing ideas they’re passionate about. The fellows are given the space, time, and intellectual freedom to explore projects that push boundaries and advance our knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
In 2017, David Gruber, a renowned marine biologist and Distinguished Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Baruch College and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, began his fellowship with a plan to write a book detailing the history of jellyfish and their extraordinary properties. As he was researching the book and making use of the Institute’s excellent facilities, like the Schlesinger Library, he began to be intrigued by another topic – the vocal sounds emitted by sperm whales. “I ended up, as many fellows do, exploring these other ideas, catalyzed by meetings and conversations with Shafi Goldwasser [Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences] and Michael Bronstein [Professor of Artificial Intelligence], who were also fellows. They opened my eyes to applying advanced machine learning to whale bioacoustics,” he says. “And what started as an interesting pilot project during the fellowship led to a paper with a Radcliffe research assistant.” Radcliffe fellows can employ Harvard undergraduate students to work alongside them on their projects.
A two-day Radcliffe Exploratory Seminar in 2019 laid the groundwork to further transform that venture into Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), founded by David, along with his co-founders Shafi and Michael. The Radcliffe Exploratory Seminar Program provides funding for former or current fellows to evaluate early-stage concepts for interdisciplinary projects. In 2020, Project CETI was formed when it was awarded funding by the TED Audacious Project enterprise. Today, it’s a nonprofit, scientific and conservation initiative on a mission to listen to and translate the communication of sperm whales.
David leads a scientific team comprised of world-leading experts in machine learning, robotics, natural language processing, marine biology, linguistics, cryptography, signal processing, and bioacoustics. They’re installing a large listening station off the coast of Dominica to eavesdrop on the 30 or so whale families who call it home. He hopes that this project will bring us closer to nature. “We’re playing with the hypothesis that by listening to and understanding their voices, we’ll be able to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation, in a similar way to how “Songs of the Humpback Whale” inspired the “Save the Whales” movement and prevented several whale species from being hunted to extinction.”
As a scientist, David valued the twice-weekly seminars at Radcliffe where fellows from all disciplines got together and presented their work, either in a public lecture or private talk with the group. He says, “All of these interactions brought the level of discourse to a much higher level, especially having so much input from amazing scholars across many disciplines including the humanities and law.” There were also lunchtime working groups, and it was during one of these (organized by Shafi Goldwasser) that he shared whale sounds with the group and the seeds for Project CETI were sown.
This kind of cross-disciplinary discourse means that fellows can explore other creative outlets for their work. In David’s case, collaborating with artists during the fellowship inspired him to co-curate an exhibit called “Who Speaks for the Oceans?” containing 15 interdisciplinary artworks. He’s also currently collaborating with the artist Joan Jonas on a piece that will form part of her retrospective in the MoMA in 2024.
Speaking about the impact of the fellowship on his own life, David says, “It was a monumental shift in the trajectory of my career. It gave me the time to think and allowed me to explore collaborations.” Throughout the fellowship, he says there was a real sense of community and a thoughtfulness and eagerness to understand each other both as people and scholars. “There was just so much discourse, so much openness to listen to and hear ideas – I felt like we never got tired of talking. I also felt that, for many, it was a time of engaging and rigorous scholarship and a time of reflection.”
Dr. David Gruber is a renowned marine biologist and Distinguished Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Baruch College and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.