Circle of Willis
Conversations with and about real scientists
About Circle of Willis

"There is no such thing as a Scientific Mind. Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics. What sort of mind or temperament can all these people be supposed to have in common? Obligative scientists must be very rare, and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead." — Sir Peter Medawar

Hey, Everybody!

My name is Jim Coan.

I'm a clinical psychologist and affective neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, here in Charlottesville, where I direct the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Lab.

I started CIRCLE OF WILLIS as an extension of an idea hatched by my wife (Cat Thrasher) and I back in 2015 to interview scientists around the world. The idea was that I would interview them and she would photograph them and then we'd put it all together into a beautiful book, I guess as a way of humanizing these lovely people as much as anything else.

Anyway, that project got too expensive. But those interviews! I couldn't stop thinking about them. I wanted more.

Yes, I'm interested in the science. But the scientists—just as people—are fascinating, too, and I want to help them tell their stories.

As Peter Medawar reminds us in the quote above, scientists are a diverse lot, just like everyone else. Of course, Medawar also argued that, in the main, scientists were pretty boring. So I guess I don't agree with Peter Medawar about everything.

Since starting this project, I've recorded conversations with dozens of individuals, most of them practicing scientists at the top of their game. Without fail, their backgrounds are fascinating. Often enough, they are also quite surprising.

And along the way, I've discovered that there are many folks involved in the process of curating scientific work—in getting the work that scientists do out in front of reporters, the public, policymakers—and their stories are interesting too. So I'll be talking with science writers, reporters, even a novelist or two.

In the end, what started as a fun side project has become, for me, a near obsession. I love these people, and think that you will too. Have a listen!

OK, but what is the Circle of Willis, really?

In addition to being a cryptic and loosely metaphorical podcast name, the Circle of Willis is a key mediator of blood to and throughout your brain. As cool as that is, it gets even cooler.

See, the Circle of Willis is arranged as a redundant blood supply, meaning that if any one part of the flow of blood to the circle gets blocked, other sources can compensate. That's why it looks like a circle (and, to me, sort of like a little man—like a little blood man!).

When I first learned about the Circle of Willis about 3 bazillion years ago, I marveled at its redundant "design"—and the fact that it looked like a little blood man. That inspired a persistent interest in the vasculature of the brain that continues to this day.

I also thought, "hey, Circle of Willis would be a cool band name."

More recently, I thought, "hey, Circle of Willis would be a cool name for my podcast," which, you know...

Anyhow, thanks for reading! Hope to see you back soon!


© 2020 James A. Coan, Jr.