Cooking Up Creative Solutions

More collaborators and more data are the key ingredients.

By | May 1, 2012, MHJ


There comes a time in every scientist’s career when the mind seems to hit a wall. You’ve been there: you can’t think up an experiment that hasn’t been done before, or figure out how to crack a problem that is blocking your progress. The easy questions have been answered. You go back to the wellspring of your creativity and find it dry. What to do?

Being able to depend on a continuing source of inspiration and creative ideas is essential for scientific success. When a field of science is brand new, all experiments are novel and all results are interesting. It’s in trying to address unresolved problems in old fields that the real challenge begins. Unfortunately, humans are creatures of habit and tend to think of the same ideas and approaches over and over again. When you’ve been in a field for a while, it is harder to think your way out of the box.

The most common way that established scientists expand their creativity is by taking on graduate students. The best ones arrive in the laboratory with a solid background in your field of research, but often with a fresh perspective. It is positively inspiring how someone with relatively little experience in a field can propose some of the most original ideas. However, unless you are assured of a constant stream of bright students, this is not necessarily a reliable solution for generating creative ideas.

Boning up on other areas of science as a way to generate new ideas in your own field is also a good idea in theory, but the current explosion of knowledge in almost every field of modern biology makes its implementation almost impossible. Most scientists have a hard enough time keeping up with new work in their own subject, much less trying to understand what other scientists are doing.

Humans are creatures of habit and tend to think of the same ideas and approaches over and over again. When you’ve been in a field for a while, it is harder to think your way out of the box.

Because I work in a large, multidisciplinary research institute, I am constantly exposed to a great many different areas of science, albeit in a mostly superficial fashion. Although many are interesting, I can’t say that they have inspired any new direction for my own studies.

Oddly enough, lately I’ve been inspired by watching cooking shows on television. Not only do they stimulate my taste buds, but they have, surprisingly, made me think of some new approaches to keeping research fresh and exciting.

I like these shows, especially those that pit one chef against another. To win these culinary contests, you must be very creative. And the most creative dishes, interestingly enough, usually result when the chefs are given the most restrictions. On one show, the contestants are given a series of bizarre ingredients and less than a half hour to produce a dish. How are you supposed to create a dessert from cherry tomatoes and tofu?

I am always amazed at how well these contestants do and how appetizing the final dishes actually appear. Necessity does indeed seem to be the mother of invention. The take-home message, for me, is that new and unusual ingredients foster creativity by forcing the contestants to consider possibilities that would otherwise not present themselves. Creativity, of course, is not a sure-fire recipe for success. It might be very creative to sprinkle pork rinds over chocolate ice cream, but does it actually taste better than traditional dessert toppings? Perhaps not, but having access to a greater variety of ingredients, however odd, will inevitably provide more opportunities for real breakthroughs, as well as some interesting duds.

It might seem obvious that forcing people to use novel components to solve a given problem will inspire creativity, but is such an approach practical in science? In biology, the “ingredients” of research are data, and the more types of data we have available to us, the greater the potential for creative solutions. Unfortunately, most of the biological research laboratories I know suffer from an acute shortage of good ingredients.

By and large, measurement technologies in biology are complex, labor-intensive, and crude. The amount of information that we get out of most of our protocols is surprisingly small. For example, Western blots and other gel electrophoresis–based measurements are visually appealing and simple to master, but they essentially produce binary information. Is the protein present or absent? Do the levels go up or down? At the other extreme, microarrays and global surveys produce such large amounts of data that extracting significant relationships from a single experiment can take weeks or months of work. In the end, we usually are left with a general correlation between a pathway and a response. With so little information to work with, perhaps it is not surprising that we struggle to come up with good ideas that can be definitively addressed by our experiments.

In other words, we frequently run out of creative ideas in biology because we are using so few ingredients (i.e., types of data). The solution is to expand our range of options, and that requires incorporating new data-generating technologies and approaches.

Interestingly, biology is witnessing an explosion in new technologies and approaches for measuring not only the levels of cell components, but also their distribution and dynamic behavior. This potentially opens up entire new areas of research and could provide creative new approaches for solving old problems. The difficulty, however, is that many of the new technologies can be expensive and difficult to master, which restricts their general use. So we have a conundrum: is it better to use a large variety of simple assays that only provide crude, qualitative results, or use just a few sophisticated assays that produce accurate, quantitative data?

The reality is that it is best to use many different types of data “ingredients” in our research, each of the highest possible quality. This will give us the greatest opportunity to discover new relationships and extend our science. But doing this within the constraints of a small lab run by a single investigator is all but impossible. The solution, of course, is to add more cooks: to collaborate with other scientists who can generate the needed data. The complexity of modern biological research essentially demands such a solution.

Collaborating with researchers who are investigating problems from a different data or analytical perspective is the best way I know to kick-start research creativity. Such collaborators not only can provide new data, but they also bring their expertise on how to get the most “flavor” out of the ingredient that they contribute to your problem. As the complexity of the important biological problems continues to grow, joining forces to concoct “fusion cuisines” will become a hallmark of the most creative research, giving lie to the old saw that too many cooks spoil the broth.

H. Steven Wiley is lead biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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