Fifteen Questions with Nicholas A. Christakis

Professor of Sociology Nicholas A. Christakis, a graduate of both Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, takes the time to sit down with FM.
By Stephanie M. Woo

Professor of Sociology Nicholas A. Christakis, a graduate of both Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, is one heck of a multitasker. In addition to teaching the popular undergraduate course Sociology 190: “Life and Death in the USA: Medicine and Disease in Social Context,” he is one of Pforzheimer’s two House Masters (his wife Erika L. Christakis ’86 completes the pair). Oh, and in his time off, he likes to do things like publish books, give Ted Talks, and teach at the Harvard Medical School. He also found time to talk with FM.

1. Fifteen Minutes: What got you interested in the study of social networks?

Nicholas A. Christakis: That’s a long story, actually ... In the 1990s I was studying something called the widower effect, which is the [phenomenon] that when your spouse dies your probability of death goes up. The widower effect has been studied since 1858 but if you think about it, the widower effect is the simplest case of a social network[ing] effect.

2. FM: Speaking of social networking, we see you have a Facebook page. Do you screen your friends?

NAC: I accept all incoming friend requests from Harvard undergraduates. I do not make any outgoing friendship requests because I think people would find that creepy. I like to have met someone in real life before being their Facebook friend.

3. FM: Last semester, your CUE guide score for Sociology 190 was an impressive 4.3. If you were to give your students a CUE score, what would it be?

NAC: Five, because I love Harvard students. It’s a scarce commodity to have a slot at this school. It’s important for students to take their studies seriously. It’s my general impression that this is the case.

4. FM: How did you become interested in the topic of palliative care?

NAC: My mother was seriously ill when I was a boy. She was diagnosed with a nasty kind of cancer when I was six, and she died when I was 25. My entire youth was spent with an incredibly ill parent ... I don’t think you can grow up that way and not be marked by that experience. One of the ways it marked me was it gave me an interest in medicine and end-of-life care. We don’t do a good job at giving end-of-life care in our society. It’s fashionable to speak about vulnerable populations in medicine and public policy, but it’s harder to find a more vulnerable population than those who are dying.

5. FM: In your recent book, “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks,” you discuss the relationship between social networks and health. How do you think the way we as college students interact affects our health?

NAC: There are two ways that networks affect human beings. One is what we call “connection,” and one is what we call “contagion.” Connection has to do with the actual architecture around you. Contagion has to do with what is spreading through the network. Given a particular architecture of ties around you, what is flowing through the network? Is information flowing through? Or ideas? Or germs? Or is behavior, for example, binge drinking, flowing through the network? Is the probability that you are binge drinking affected by the probability that others around you are binge drinking? You can be affected by the structure around you, and you can be affected by what’s happening in the people around you.

6. FM: What is your favorite part about being a House Master?

NAC: The best part is that you get to dress up in ridiculous costumes, like the polar bear costume. For some reason the students are finding reasons for me to don this costume, and the number of reasons seems to be increasing every year. The other part I like is the opportunity to get to know students. Pfoho students will know it’s a secret we have up here that there are late-night candy runs. I’m not going to explain. You’re going to have to ask around.

7. FM: Be honest. Does it suck to be Quadded?

NAC: I was just so glad that I wasn’t Rivered.

8. FM: What’s your favorite HUDS dish?

NAC: I hope Erika, the [Pforzheimer] Co-Master, doesn’t read this, but my favorite[s are] the chicken nuggets and French fries.

FM: You’re an M.D. Should you be eating that?

NAC: I said that was my favorite. I didn’t say I eat it.

9. FM: Have you seen any crazy and unpredictable things during your time at Harvard?

NAC: Well, the most entertaining thing that Pfoho students have done is the Housing Day videos. Ours are surely the best on campus, far and away. This is a quote from Jane Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pfoho Housing Day videos are the best.”

FM: You’re a Jane Austen fan?

NAC: I was ignorant; I used to think of it as chick lit. My wife made me read Jane Austen on my 40th birthday, and I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t believe how lacking my education had been. Trust me, if you pick up “Pride and Prejudice” and read the first 20 pages, I guarantee you’ll finish it. It’ll blow your mind.

10. FM: You completed your undergraduate degree at Yale. How do you think Harvard’s undergraduate experience compares?

NAC: Any comparisons would be fairly uninformed [on my part]. I know a tremendous amount of what the undergrad experience at Harvard is like, but I don’t have a lot of information about what it’s like at Yale. It strikes me that Harvard students have a greater sense of humor. I am endlessly amused by Harvard t-shirts and pranks.

11. FM: What was the best class you took in college?

NAC: A class in anthropology where we studied deeply the Kapauku Papuans [an ethnic group located in Western New Guinea] and anyone in my family who reads this sentence will roll their eyes right now ... Let’s just say I remember a lot about the Kapauku Papuans.

12. FM: You have a Ph.D, M.D., and M.P.H. How have these three disciplines affected your view of the world?

NAC: I think the best academics are able to see how the questions in their own discipline relate to questions in other disciplines, and I think that innovation in knowledge emerges from the intersection of disciplines. I think we are in a special moment right now, in what I would call a rising importance of bio-social sciences, and I think that findings in biology will raise questions in the social sciences and push it.

13. FM: Let’s say alien invaders came to take over Earth, and forced you to relinquish two of your degrees. Which one would you keep, and why?

NAC: That’s like “Sophie’s Choice.” I couldn’t pick. I think I would choose death.

14. FM: You are involved with research, teaching, and House life. How many all-nighters did you pull this week?

NAC: I’m too old for all-nighters. As for lifetime prevalence of all-nighters, I would compare myself head-to-head with anyone, because between college, medical school, and residency, it’s a life of all-nighters. But at this stage of my life I don’t do all-nighters anymore. Zero all-nighters (laughs).

15. FM: You’re a complete baller. Did you know that?

NAC: (Laughs.) No, I did not know that. I feel very fortunate to enjoy the confidence of Harvard undergraduates.

In The MeantimeFifteen Questions