Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Speaking Frankly: Encounters of the scientific kind

Frank Leibfarth is a graduate student trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter @Frank_Leibfarth.

I am finishing the third year of graduate school and finally starting to feel like a real scientist. The feeling of inferiority that comes with being a young researcher is still hiding just under the façade I’ve fashioned to hide it, but I’m slowly learning that I cannot and should not know everything, that no one does, and that maybe that’s OK. So now I’m blogging, hoping that my musings on the philosophy of science, how we conduct it, communicate it, and interface it with society will entertain, enrage, or otherwise interest you. Either way, I hope the topics I bring up here will only be the start of vibrant discussions, which I encourage us to continue through the comment thread or other social-media outlets.

With that, I wanted to discuss the role of creativity in science and how our current education system helps/hinders it. Inspired by a recent conference I attended, where revolutionary ideas and those pursuing them shone brightly, I pose the question: Can you learn (or teach) creativity? I feel both humility and excitement to know that my generation will soon be expected to carry the torch of scientific innovation… but what will we create and how do we go about doing it? ‘Creative’ is a verb usually reserved for artists and musicians, but was Linus Pauling creative in the same way as Bob Dylan?

To push the frontiers of knowledge, one must first understand their boundaries. Graduate education seems adept at this: an immersive education style after which you surface with a lot of knowledge but not much direction in terms of applying it. There is a fundamental disconnect, however, with the consumption and creation of knowledge, and I contend that our education system provides no mechanism to teach us how to make that leap. The best advisors foster creativity in their students, but should we rely solely on their abilities (after all, there is also no mechanism to ‘teach’ one how to be an academic, but let’s save that for another post). Creating new products, ideas, and understanding is the pinnacle of scientific achievement, and one of the strongest reason governments have for funding academic research.

Like many things, I suppose there is no ‘correct’ answer. Personally, I am trying to make this transition, trying to emulate the creativity of my scientific elders, and it is not easy. At the same time, I do not think anyone can magically teach me to create. I’ve always found that if I keep banging my head against a wall, eventually the bricks will start to crack. Let’s hope for the best. In the mean time, does anyone have any suggestions on fostering this elusive creativity from their own experience?


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    Kamlesh Bornani said:

    Hello, I am from india and soon would be starting my graduate studies @ university in US.

    Research projects do involve direction that one desire.

    I was not that happy with masters dissertation. I have been sulking since then trying to analyze as to how to conduct research that is so called ‘Top-Notch’. Obviously, there is no direct answer to it. Trying to analyze ’What exactly separates normal research from the ones done by Nobel Laureates. It was then I understood that creativity forms an integral part. May be thinking differently adds an extra dimension to the current pattern of your research.

    Totally agreed with the author.

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    Frank Leibfarth said:

    Hi Kamlesh,

    Thank you so much for your comments…but don’t sulk! It sounds like you have some more education to reinvent yourself. I wonder, however, did most Nobel Laureates realize the magnitude of their contributions when they were working on them? In many cases, I think enthusiasm breeds creativity, and from what I’ve read about outstanding scientists, they usually have lots of enthusiasm.

    It seems your capacity for self-reflection will serve you very well. That is a skill that is under appreciated in our discipline. Good luck with your new adventures!

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    psi*psi said:

    Read a lot of science at the edges of your expertise. Go to seminars that are interesting but way outside anything you’ve ever done. Make connections. Come up with stupid ideas and then read enough to convince yourself they’ll work (or not, more often).

    (Also, I was under the impression you were way past your third year!)

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    Curious Wavefunction said:

    -Trying to analyze ’What exactly separates normal research from the ones done by Nobel Laureates. It was then I understood that creativity forms an integral part.

    While creativity is important, the thing that probably truly separates Nobel laureates from “normal” scientists is perseverance, the courage to follow your nose and ’Sitzfleisch"- the ability to stick to what you believe in and sweat out the details.