Creativity in Science

Many things we do in the lab involve long centrifuge spins, incubations and waiting around for cells to grow, allowing plenty of time for debating and discussing all manner of topics. Last Thursday, while isolating cardiac stem cells and fibroblasts from mouse hearts (my first attempt at primary culture – and they’re still growing!), I got into a conversation about the future of academic research. My colleague left me with the forecast that academic research is dying, and that one day only a handful of professors will be left to write reviews from which everyone else will learn the science. The scientists, those hands-on in the lab, will each specialise in a particular technique, so that no one person solely works on a project.

Whenever someone learns that I have studied both art and science, they almost always react by saying, “Art and science? They’re so different! What made you switch?” I sink into my well-trodden speech about how they’re not so different at all, listing some examples from my daily activities. Scientists carry out science, that is to say the “intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment” (Apple Dictionary). They record the way the world works. Artists, on the other hand, create. They add things to the world – sculpture, writing, painting, drawing, music – the list is ongoing. Creativity – “the use of the imagination or original ideas” (thanks again, Apple Dictionary) – does not at first sight fit with our definition of science. But scientists are creative in their daily work, which is a point I made in a panel discussion at the Thinking Through Drawing symposium last month.

Scientists aren’t creative in such a way that they fabricate their experimental results (although there are exceptions), but they are creative in the sense that they piece together their findings and communicate them in such a way that they can best become captivating and thought-provoking. My PhD supervisor frequently spoke about ‘the story’ when we’d talk about submitting a paper to a journal or putting together a talk or poster for a conference.

As in art, creativity in science has a strong personal component. I am presently sitting writing this in my husband’s art studio during its Open Studios weekend while he checks out other peoples’ work and forges important new contacts. I look around at his work and know that no-one else could produce work exactly like this, because every piece is borne out of years of thinking and experimenting and experience. Some scientists might ‘fall into’ their area of study, a victim of being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, being automatically assigned a project as an undergraduate or graduate student. But I’d like to think that many more of us are driven into a particular area of research by an inexplicable desire and passion for a particular area of work. One of the greatest pieces of advice my art school tutor gave me was, if it becomes boring, it’s not worth doing any more: if you’re bored, it’s telling you something. This mantra is easily applied to science and the choosing of an interesting research question. My belief is that you must be truly passionate about a subject area in order to make the very best of it that you can, to ask the ‘right’ questions, to feel that you can eat, drink and sleep the questions until you come upon those ground-breaking conclusions, without becoming bored.

This is why my colleague’s prediction sits so uneasily with me. We are all different and have different ideas about what might be an interesting avenue of research. Putting all of the decision-making in the hands of just a small number of professors implies that they have the ability to engage with and think about all possible research questions. I think that there’s a lot to be said for a single researcher seeing a project through, even if it means rapidly picking up unfamiliar techniques. I think that a single researcher fully engaging with a project ideally places that person to be inspired to ask challenging questions, in such a way that a professor over-seeing ten or twenty projects could never do. Science needs creativity, excitement, passion, a sense of ownership and of encouraging the ideas of young scientists. Without these qualities, scientific progress will cease to be made.

“What happens when I do this?” Phosphate-buffered saline, 0.2% bovine serum albumin, autoclaved at 121°c for 15 min.


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