In conversation with Shimon Vega

“Shimon Vega, noted for some of the most insightful research in the area of magnetic resonance, both electron and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), has influenced professionally and to some extent personally the lives of many who have come in contact with him. This could be in the form of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, colleagues, course students, or listeners to one of his great talks packed with science, wit, and active involvement. His enthusiasm has been often contagious and his understanding deep enough to compel chairmen of his talk sessions to give him enough time after regular sessions to explain to the particular conference audience nuances of his theoretical ideas. These are always done with deep flair to packed audiences. Shimon is indeed one of those rare combinations of openness to new ideas, but with a deep rooted knowledge on sound, pen-and-paper principles than going after the pursuits of transient fashions. He belongs to that genre with a great willingness to share his knowledge with others and being a restless researcher ready to question the so-called established paradigms. His inquisitiveness has always motivated his colleagues taking the respective research to even higher levels. Of the many contributions Shimon has made, some of them to highlight are in the magic-angle spinning experiments in solid-state NMR, breaking the barrier into understanding quadrupolar spins, introducing Floquet theory to understanding and developing various experiments and improving resolution and sensitivity of solid-state NMR experiments, and in the last few years providing insights into the important field of dynamic nuclear polarisation in NMR. Shimon, originally from the Netherlands, moved to Israel for his PhD in the Weizmann Institute of Science where he became and is a faculty member after a post-doctoral stint in Berkeley. He has been to TIFR and TIFR-organised meetings in India a few times.”

P. K. Madhu, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Shimon Vega’s group.

Shimon Vega attended the ‘NMR Meets Biology’ meeting at Khajuraho (India) in December, 2018. During this meeting, he had generously given us an interview.

Anusheela: Since some of the readers may not be very familiar with your area of research, could you please explain what you work on, in very simple way?

Shimon: Okay, let me start (by) thanking you for today. Magnetic Resonance is a field which has enormous impact on many many aspects of exact sciences. By exact sciences, I mean Chemistry, Biology and also Physics. In the spectrum of the subject, the direction where my interest is that is the methodology and understanding of the spectroscopy. And that has an effect, during the years I was always on the boundary of doing experiments, explaining them or developing techniques or thinking about applications but eventually not doing them myself. So, that is the way it came out, and that is not which I planned before. Therefore, when somebody asks me what I do, I generally give an answer which has nothing to do with my work. That is the only way to solve it, because you know I cannot talk about basic quantum mechanics to somebody. What happens nowadays, if somebody doesn’t know me I say do you have any idea what MRI is and then you let it flow by saying there is something there which you see, which is very hard to explain. And I am working on to understand how that works. It’s a little bit of a trick, because if I say too much people start asking questions and I don’t know how to answer them. Or I make mistakes, that’s also a possibility. Therefore, I always try to talk about the more general way about the things what I am doing, than what I am eventually doing, because even in the field of NMR itself, many many people don’t understand what I am doing. And I have realised it, so you have a niche insight in this big field that helps. So the fact that I cannot give an example of that I saved a person, or I saved a chemical problem. I did some applications but not really as a long term project. And even at the moment I am working on a field which is very very popular in magnetic resonance as DNP. But also there I am not doing the nice things, I am trying to understand what kind of tools they use to get the results and that is sometimes frustrating.

Anusheela: But I think that’s how fundamental science works, right? In basic sciences, you do not have a direct application exactly at that moment itself, but who knows?

Shimon: Yeah, and you create a language also. I mean I am not saying in my case (and) perhaps that’s not a very good example to talk about myself, but you create the way. How are you allowed to think about the way you understand something? And that happened many times, that people have concepts, which sometimes are not according to the theory, but they become the language of the field. Unfortunately or fortunately that’s what has happened each time.

Anusheela: Have you faced a challenge in convincing anyone who may think that this is probably not that important?

Shimon: In that particular case, it is a little bit more than this, because you know that without basic understanding there wouldn’t be any NMR, and now people have so many possible applications, you think you don’t need it anymore. You also meet students who don’t realize that you should know the basics. Coming to the DNP (Dynamic Nuclear Polarisation), I sometimes quote myself which is not what I should really do, is that I realise that some concepts of the DNP are wrong,but they created the field. And then you realize later that the concepts are different, but in the meantime the field is flourishing.So, you should give an enormous amount of credit to the people who have an intuition and that is something which I really appreciate.Sometimes you talk to people and you really understand that they don’t understand the way I understand it. But they push the field forward, not 20 people doing it. So you have to know your place,sometimes people don’t have the patience for the more fundamental stuff but you know, in the work we did with Madhu, it always came down to writing equations, trying to understand what the effects are.But then he does amyloids, and I don’t know what an amyloid is.

I have a problem with oversimplification, which is my personal take.But you also have to be practical, you cannot expect from people who really understand amyloids and know what it means to get an illness from it to know what a Hamiltonian is, they might not, they cannot.

Anusheela: Switching the track a little bit, how did you know this field was the one? How did you get into this journey of becoming a scientist?

Shimon: It goes back to high school. When do you decide the direction in which to go, you (consider that you) have to have a job, you have to do something, after high school. In my case, I was so bad in languages but reasonably good in physics and mathematics that I decided to study physics. I realised that it was a choice, because I was just stupid for other things. So that is that. Then I studied basic physics and mathematics, and then after my physics degree, I had to decide the direction in solid state physics, and then something happened. My brother was five years older and he was one of the students who worked in EPR those days, when NMR didn’t exist. He was so excited about it, because it was a combination of spectroscopy and experiments and theory that I just got affected by him and I got into a group which was doing NMR. (The time that) I am talking about is in 1960’s. So I did my masters working in solid state NMR, in antiferromagnets.

You are in the field, and it goes on. I did my Ph.D. in the end of1960’s, in 1970’s I was looking for a place. Based on my personal environment, since I am a religious Jew, I tried to find a place to do my Ph.D. in Holland. I grew up in Holland. It was a very bad time.Phillips had a beautiful physics lab and then they closed down. So then my wife and I, I was already married at that time, tried to see what’s happening in Israel. And that was very successful, I was accepted in a hallway by meeting somebody I didn’t know, in NMR and that’s the way I decided to go to the Weizmann Institute. Professor Luz, whom I met in the hallway, asked, “What are you looking for?” I told him that I was looking for someone to talk to, who wants to take me as a Ph.D. student. He said, “What is your interest?”, and I told that I am doing NMR. Perhaps after 10 minutes he said, “If you come back with your wife I have a job for you.” Then, I did my Ph.D. with him. I also interviewed with other people and I didn’t know (that) I will end up in NMR, but he was the person, one of the most marvelous people that I have met in my life.

Anusheela: You have been involved in NMR for a really long time, and NMR research started not too long ago in India. What is your take on how the field has evolved in India?

Shimon: For me, at least what I knew about NMR community in India, it was only Anil Kumar. I didn’t know about much about the Indian scenario in NMR until Madhu joined me. It’s not totally true. Before, I knew what was going on in high resolution in Mumbai, but for me Anil was the spectroscopist. I knew his papers of course, with Richard Ernst, and we had a scientific overlap. They looked at double quantum effects aswe do. I was very impressed, but I was not aware of the starting point of the development. When I really got exposed to the NMR community in India, it was from Madhu, when he joined as a postdoc, after that I don’t know how many times I have visited India. I guess, in the order of 10!

Anusheela: After his Ph.D., Madhu started his career in your lab. Your association with him has been especially long, and now when somebody talks about NMR research in India, Madhu’s name stands out. How does that make you feel?

Shimon: I feel lucky. I didn’t create his mind, he came to us. He has these general ideas, even before he knows how to do it. And at very important times, he guided us with his ideas. He also did work, not saying he only had ideas but he had this vision that was important.He has this capability which not many people have, that is that if he answers something, he tries in his mind to make everything better. Take a starting point and make it better. For example, he is the leader of this FAM (fast amplitude modulation) business, but then later he suggested a change in the pulse sequence to get it better,and that is Madhu. He was very much involved in PMLG (phase modulated Lee-Goldberg) development, with Elena and later with Michal. He tried to do the next step when we were doing the first step. I am sure you have the same experience with him. He has an enormous knowledge about what is going on, but he thinks about how to do it better. I don’t know anything about his interests in going to applications, because I am not in that field, amyloids are outside my knowledge. However, you can see rCW (refocused continuous wave). It is a very simple idea but (he) figures out how to do it and then he knows also to activate you, where he needs you. I don’t want to use need, need in a positive way not a negative way. Even in rCW, he came to us and said, “Ask Michal, can you do the theory for that?” That is Madhu for me.

Shimon Vega, during his talk at the ‘NMR Meets Biology, 2018’ meeting

We had very good contact, personal contact, of course. Otherwise things don’t work. And it just flows. We are in a group and I was lucky to have very good students; together or under his guidance. That contact stayed not so much in the sense that when he wanted us to do something, in that framework that we will do it together. An important person is not made by other persons. They are special in their own ways and when they get basis, they stand out. I don’t believe I created scientists, I was lucky that they were good scientists and we did it together. It turned out that they did good jobs. I give credits only to others. That’s how I look at it.

You know, the appreciation of what people contribute is important, especially, if you are in the period of your own development. Sometimes, we forget where ideas come from and what the dynamics to create these ideas was. I am not saying to overdo it. Perhaps they couldn’t have done it without me, that I agree but the credit goes many times to their questions, their ideas and to their pushing in certain directions. That’s how I look at science.

Anusheela: Coming back to science, if you think about a scientist’s day to day life, you face failures quite regularly. It is not every day that you get positive results. It may take months to get something that is remotely pointing towards success. How do you deal with failure?

Shimon: I think many people have that in parallel; you work in your field in one or two directions. One may not be going the right way, but you make some progress in the other direction. Now in my case, because my group was always small, and that Madhu will also tell you, I had daily contact with everybody. It is because of the fact that theoretical part needs guidance; it is not that I invent it but it needs to be guided, and it needs this personal contact. And there the failure is different, the failure is not that you did an experiment and it didn’t work out as predicted. It goes together; you create a theoretical framework, do experiments and try to fit the results. And then the question comes: which is correct? Experiment or theory? And there sometimes, it is more of a frustration than failure in my case.

I tried all kind of things that didn’t work. But then you know you are stuck with some kind of concept. I always used to work out the theory, but I am not a theoretician. You have a mathematical model to explain something, and you believe in that so you say, “Okay this experiment should have given A.” So, we need to modify that model or the experiment does not belong to that model. So, of course, there were failures, but I don’t think my career was filled up with failures. Disappointments, yes. But it is not the same in my eyes.You hope something will go in a way, but then in the experiment you see it is totally different, you go back to your way of thinking and see ‘Oh! There I made a mistake. I should have thought like this, or written it like this.”

Anusheela: It is the learning curve!

Shimon: Yes, all the time. But then the price you pay is that you are busy 24 hours. That, for your family, is terrible. I realise it today. I do not have the patience to read a book. I am near the end of my career and I would like to finish few things, so when I go home and sit with my wife, I don’t read a book, I sit with my laptop. She is used to that, but that is the price you pay.

You think about your science. You try to solve it, and there is also something in science, you think that you are almost too late, because somebody else is going to do it.

(Shimon Vega was interviewed by Anusheela Chatterjee.)