On the high seas with Florian Engert and Bence Ölveczky

The two neuroscientists leave this week to take on the most dangerous leg of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race — sailing from South Africa to Australia through the fabled “Roaring Forties,” latitudes of the Southern Ocean known for their towering waves and prevailing gale-force westerlies.

Florian Engert and Bence Ölveczky in a lab.
Crewmates: Ölveczky, left, convinced Engert, right, to join the race by telling him they would pass through the biggest waves and the strongest winds on the planet.
Photography by Simon Simard

As neuroscientists, Florian Engert and Bence Ölveczky are always looking for ways to tackle new challenges. Later this month, the pair — who have been friends for two decades — are booked to bring that same ambition to the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. On 15 November, they plan to join a crew of other amateur sailors on board a 70-foot yacht, racing from Cape Town, South Africa, to Freemantle, Australia. That leg of the race, one of eight in total, passes through some of the world’s most dangerous waters, a stretch of the Southern Ocean known for its 30-foot swells and steady gale-force winds.

Engert, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, explores how changes in neuronal activity reflect variations in behavior in zebrafish and other organisms. A mechanical engineer by training, Ölveczky is now professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard, where he studies how rats learn and execute motor skills.

The sailor-scientists completed organized training for the race over the summer and sat down with The Transmitter in October to discuss sleeping and cooking on the high seas, as well as their annual lab retreats and volleyball rivalry. Check out the crew diaries to follow Engert and Ölveczky’s progress as part of team “Washington, D.C.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Spectrum: Why this race?

Bence Ölveczky: I’ve sailed for much of my life. My father was a national champion in a variety of different sail groups and was a professional sailor trainer for the Tokyo Olympics. So I’ve been in a boat since I was 2 years old. I just love it.

The leg we’re going on in November holds a particular fascination for me — it is the white whale for sailors. It’s the one that must be conquered. It’s the ocean that fewest people have crossed. And that’s for good reason, you know? And so I decided, we have to do this. And I got this guy on board.

Florian Engert: I would never have done this without Bencie. I think what got me was when he told me this is the track where you get the biggest waves and the strongest winds on the planet. And I found that very appealing.

To me the biggest challenge was probably just getting seasick. It’s very uncomfortable; all of your senses are being assaulted. It’s cold; you are dirty; it stinks.

Florian Engert


S: What was the most challenging aspect of the training?

BÖ: It’s the social setup — to get along with all 20 people in a relatively small boat. The boat is keeling at 45 degrees, there are diesel fumes, and you’re charged with making dinner, and you’re kind of throwing up in your mouth. I’ve never been seasick, other than on that boat.

FE: Personally, I like being in close quarters with a lot of interesting people. To me the biggest challenge was probably just getting seasick. It’s very uncomfortable; all of your senses are being assaulted. It’s cold; you are dirty; it stinks. No showers; the food is bad, usually, because people like Bencie need to cook it.

S: What about sleeping?

FE: You don’t sleep, really.

BÖ: It’s four-hour shifts — so four hours on, four hours off. So you never sleep more than basically three hours at a time, because it takes a while to get your clothes off and on. But you’re so exhausted that you sleep like a baby for those three hours, and then you wake up. The exhaustion helps you fall asleep because otherwise, it would be completely impossible.

S: Did you always know that you wanted to be a scientist?

BÖ: No, not at all. In fact, it was something that developed very slowly. I wanted to first be an architect and then a theater director. But I discovered that I just don’t have the talent to do either of those creative things. And so then I convinced myself to enter a field where you can do incremental things, and build up things over time. That’s how I initially chose mechanical engineering. And then, after many years, neuroscience.

“The leg we’re going on in November holds a particular fascination for me — it is the white whale for sailors.”

Bence Ölveczky


FE: When I was 4 years old, I declared that I was going to be a scientist. And that was because I liked animals. And I was athletic. So I knew I could survive in the jungle. And then when I was a teenager, after high school, I switched from biology to physics, and only moved back to biology and neuroscience for grad school.

S: Who has been an important inspiration or mentor in your work?

BÖ: It came through art for me. I was interested in the psychology of how we perceive things and had read several books by the art historian Ernst Gombrich on the psychology of pictorial representations and schemata, etc. And so for my Ph.D., I worked with Markus Meister, who was studying how the early parts of the visual system process information, and that connected me with ways of thinking about visual perception in art and beyond. Meister showed me that I could come from engineering and physics and make meaningful contributions in neuroscience and biology.

FE: If I had to identify a person, it probably also would be Markus Meister, who did a sabbatical in Munich, Germany when I was a Ph.D. student there. It was influential, and impressive to interact with him.

S: What big questions drive your research?

FE: I want to know how things work. In terms of neuroscience, it’s really the question of how the brain works. Specifically, how it manages to generate adaptive behavior. And more specifically, how does it allow animals to solve the problems that they need to solve to survive and reproduce? It’s different in each species, but in all cases, it’s a brain that sits at the hub.

BÖ: Similarly, I’m fundamentally interested in how the human experience is shaped. But being a mechanical engineer and wanting to reverse-engineer the system that produces our behaviors, we have to go to simpler models. And so I work with rats, and I’m interested in understanding how behaviors are produced. How do we move as effectively as we do? How do we learn new skills? What’s the logic by which our brains implement these types of control functions and the computations necessary for learning and executing complicated behaviors? One of the reasons we want to understand sensory movement control is that we think that all of these other capabilities that are fundamentally human are built on the same sort of network structure. I think that it’s one of the big questions in brain science.

FE: I think that’s a hard problem to solve.

BÖ: Yeah. The late Marvin Minsky once said that easy things are hard, and hard things are easy. We think the structural organization of the nervous system was built to make these hard things easy.

S: What kinds of traditions do you have in your lab?

BÖ: I have the lab over at Christmas, and maybe a couple of times a year to celebrate various things.

FE: We have a Christmas party, and we have a winter retreat that we always go to in January. Then I usually take my lab for a week to Tuscany for a summer retreat.

BÖ: I should be a PI in his lab. The other tradition is the Harvard summer volleyball tournament. And I’m proud to say that I’m probably the most decorated player in the history of the tournament, which is called the Rhino Cup. I think I’ve won it five or six times by now.

FE: All I can say is f— you. It is quite competitive, this volleyball thing. But I keep coming up short against Bencie and his lab. And it’s not easy for me to cope.