19 June 2018

On creativity in science

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Bonnie McGill. This is a cross-posting of a post originally found on her blog, AGua.

Until eleventh grade I had no inclination to be a scientist. Zero. I was going to be a graphic artist. Magazines, fonts, photographs, and layouts were my thing. The secret scientist in me was awoken in an eleventh grade environmental science class (thank you, Mr. Betts). At the time, I thought I was putting away my artistic side, in a drawer somewhere on the right side of my brain, to be opened up and dusted off only on special occasions.

In the last few months, as I finished my Ph.D. and started a postdoc, I’ve really come to realize how important creativity is to science. So all you painters out there who secretly love reading about the geologic history of the earth, dancers who relish their molecular biology class, poets who have a thing for plants, lend me your ears. Chemists who think they have don’t have an artistic bone in their body, ecologists who don’t think they can dance, I ask you to think again.

No matter the flavor, all scientists must be good writers to succeed. Some scientists might even tell you they enjoy it, but only secretly. Enjoyment of writing is not something we generally brag about unless we’re talking about the number of lines of code we’ve written or publications we have in a top journal (or even number of manuscripts not immediately rejected by a top journal). Often we’re in such a hurry to publish a manuscript that we feel like we don’t have the time to wrestle with it until it is actually enjoyable to read. But the papers that are enjoyable to read are the ones that are the most memorable, right?

Illustration by Joshua Seong. Verywell, 2017. https://www.very wellmind.com/left-brain-vs-right-brain-279500

Creativity is definitely required to make a particularly well-suited metaphor, a punchy sentence, beautiful plots—the graph kind and the story kind, and a catchy title. For example, two of the only journal article titles that have ever stuck with me are “Can’t See the Forest for the Stream?…” (Bernhardt et al. 2001) and “…The Age of the Amazon’s Breath” (Raymond 2005). These are clever and pique your curiosity. Some might say they come with a degree of risk as well. Does a simple title mean your research will be perceived as simple? Nah. Does a catchy title mean you’re not being truly objective? Nope. But sometimes writers and co-authors are unwilling to take that leap. I urge you to take that calculated risk. You’ll potentially reach more readers, and, when you talk with the general public, they’re more likely to understand (and remember) what you’re saying. Taking time for art in your writing and speaking will help you connect with your audience.

Imagination is critical for successful science. Scientists might not realize it, but we use it all the time! For example, we like to explain things. In order to explain something we have to imagine how and why it happened. Then we plan an experiment to test what we imagined. We prepare for it by thinking of all the possible ways it can/will go wrong, so we can do our best to avoid equipment failure, bias, human error, what to do if it rains or if a rodent eats your buried cables, etc. And when we aren’t prepared for something to go wrong, in the moment we must improvise! Improvisation—the most important merit badge of any Ph.D.-scout. I remember the time when I was by myself as an REU in the woods in Montana, and I broke a hose clamp during a night time sampling event—GASP! How did I keep the hose closed after I collected the water sample?! I pulled out my hair tie and wrapped that hose shut! Merit badge earned! #clevergirl

In science, imagination is all around us: asking a question that hasn’t been asked before, questioning widely accepted ideas, figuring out how to measure what hasn’t been measured before, imagining how to make the impossible possible, to see the world a little differently. I argue science runs on imagination.

You might ask, but how do you nurture your imagination as a grown up? I have two suggestions. First, allow your mind a chance to wander. Turn off your headphones, put away your smart phone, and stare into your inner abyss. AHHH! That sounds scary, another way to put it is something like walking meditation—nothing formal, you don’t need to read any books, take any classes on it, or put it on your schedule. You can do it while sitting on the bus or waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting on the john. Let your mind wander, it’s not scary, and its definitely not unproductive.Let questions, problems bubble up to the surface, see if you can turn them around or mold them into a different shape to see them more clearly. I get a lot of good ideas when I’m walking my dog.

Second suggestion for growing your imagination: Read good literature. Novels have a purpose. No they’re not a waste of time. For example, while I am reading a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which unfortunately is not for very long because I tend to devour her books, I can definitely tell that my own scientific writing is better. I can’t explain why or how, but it’s real. Try it for yourself.

So scientists, let your imagination go wild, it will help your science. And parents and teachers of creative and artistic kids, don’t let them rule out a career in science.

Bonnie McGill is a David H. Smith Conservation Fellow and postdoc at the University of Kansas, and she loves drawing on chalkboards.

Works cited
Emily S. Bernhardt, Gene E. Likens, Robert O. Hall, Don C. Buso, Stuart G. Fisher, Thomas M. Burton, Judy L. Meyer, William H. McDowell, Marilyn S. Mayer, W. Breck Bowden, Stuart E. G. Findlay, Kate H. Macneale, Robert S. Stelzer, Winsor H. Lowe; Can’t See the Forest for the Stream? 

In-stream Processing and Terrestrial Nitrogen Exports, BioScience, Volume 55, Issue 3, 1 March 2005, Pages 219–230, https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0219:ACSTFF]2.0.CO;2

Raymond, Peter A. 2005. Carbon cycle: The age of the Amazon’s breath. Nature. 436:469–470. https://www.nature.com/articles/436469a
(apologies for the pay wall.)