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Creativity in Science: How a Good Imagination Can Help Your Research

A boy with a parachute to represent boosting research by supercharging creativity in science.

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We scientists are wholly logical, rational folks who present data in ways that are easy to digest and understand. Unfortunately, that often leaves much of our creativity—and outside-of-the-box thinking—as the unsung heroes behind the scenes. Let’s explore how we might put creativity in science center stage!

While creativity may be considered ‘less important’ in various professions, it AND a healthy imagination are integral to scientific progress. You don’t have to just daydream to be creative; you have to be willing to run through intellectual exercises that thoroughly explore the question, “what if I try a different way instead?”.

Developing your creativity can help you find new solutions to current problems that may be impeding your scientific progress.

How Can Imagination Boost Your Research?

So, how do you spark and develop a great imagination?

Everyone imagines differently. Imagination is a process not often taught or handed down but developed through trial and error, experience, practice—and patience.

When presented with a new project, new equipment, or someone else’s idea, my brainstorming generally falls into three categories. I begin with a broad scope of what is possible and then narrow it down to a focused way forward.

1. What Are Your Possibilities?

This step is my “big picture” category. Let’s visualize how we want to go about collecting data.

  • Do we want to try and incorporate new technologies, use tried and true methods or modify existing methods before we start?
  • How much data do we expect to be collected, in what format(s), and can it be easily saved, processed, analyzed, and presented?
  • Do we need to fabricate a new jig or tool or invent an application that combines multiple pieces of equipment to work in tandem?
  • And more importantly, is this something that can benefit through collaboration?

Lots of open-ended questions lead to even more open-ended answers. This step is where I look to see what additional knowledge and skills I need before sketching out all the details of experimentation. This step is also where I start thinking about standardization, so I’m not reinventing the wheel in the future—but building upon someone else’s fresh creativity and imagination instead.

2. What Goals Do You Want to Achieve?

This second category focuses on the data and what you want to collect. A goal can be something simple, like a proof-of-concept experiment to detect differences between two or more known groups.

The goal can be highly complex, gathering data that tells a story of learning and memory, activity tracking, pattern recognition, behavior, or other time- or treatment-dependent actions. This category is where I begin making a list of “experiments I would like to do”—if time and resources would eventually permit.

3. Choose Your Adventure: Plan & Run Your Experiment

Now it’s time to choose the way forward. Pick your favorite method from the first category and an interesting purpose from the second category, and sketch out a detailed experimental plan to run. This step is your creativity in action!

8 Tips to Supercharge Creativity in Science

It pays dividends to think creatively about your research. Let’s look at several tips for ensuring a great environment to help that imagination flourish.

1. Remove As Many Distractions As You Can

Random interruptions from people, emails, texts, phone calls, and the like, short circuit the creative process. I find that when one great idea pops up, another quickly follows.

2. Ask Others For Input and Feedback—Regularly!

Asking for feedback is not just collecting your thoughts and convincing others of your ideas. Instead, it uses others as a sounding board to help your way forward become clearer.

I like this step the best because I get a different viewpoint from my own, and my colleagues have a unique way of looking at things I may not have considered before. They are also brutally honest and say if my ideas are too ambitious, not fleshed out enough and whether or not they fit in with current projects in the lab.

There’s more than one way to solve a problem. And the more varied input you have on the matter, the more unique your solution is in the end.

3. The Only ‘Bad’ Idea Is the Unexplored One

Do remember not to take that feedback so personally. Every idea is malleable until you begin collecting actual data, and even then, the process can send you in an entirely new direction you didn’t think of before.

4. Embrace Every Speedbump As Much As You Would a ‘Win’

It would be nice if every plan becomes a breakthrough success; the reality is that you encounter speed bumps often because things don’t always go as imagined during new ventures.

The great thing is that you reflect and learn what to do through trial and error to help you be even more successful with the next go!

5. Cultivate Side Projects

Side projects have a funny way of becoming main projects in the same way pilot projects drive new, publishable data and grant applications.

Random curiosities drive “just to see if I could,” experiments, and smaller-scale things like hand-forged tools, custom data analysis, and applications drive everyday innovation and efficiency in your work.

6. Broaden Your Interests

Take time to let the mind play. Before the conscious—and subconscious—the mind can naturally bridge various abstract concepts into a “Eureka!!!” moment. And stretch your mental muscle through games, hobbies, and extracurricular activities that may be entirely unrelated to science.

7. Diversify Your Connections

Change doesn’t happen if all the people in your circle see the same way. You are guaranteed faster results and faster forward progress when you have a great group of folks diverse in ideas and educational backgrounds.

8. Most Importantly, Take Time to Rest

A scientist’s mind is always active, making it even more essential to incorporate idle time into your day. Idle time can take many forms: sleep, meditation, a trip away on vacation, or simply going home to do things unrelated to your benchwork.

When I hit a roadblock, it is time to get up and take a quick walkabout to let my mind rest. And in many cases, that is just enough to start again fresh. Remarkable things happen when you give yourself space—and time—to think.

Enabling Creativity in Science

Take the initiative to create more flexibility in your lab where everyone can creatively explore the open-ended question “Why?”. The payoffs will help make your science more engaging, more efficient, and even more interesting—to the point that you’ll see the creative process behind the data on the same level as the outcome itself.

You might even capture pretty pictures to share with the world!

Where will imagination take your research today? Share your examples of creativity in science in the comments below. 

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