How to increase research creativity: work differently!

Isn’t it too bad there isn’t a simple formula for having the best ideas? Isn’t it too bad you can’t easily find the best thing to study, something easy, fun, high impact, and easily published in PNAS? It may seem like there are no secrets to brilliance or creativity, but actually, there are. Here are a few, including some from the exceptionally innovative structure of the Guarda Evolutionary Biology course, and also some tricks I learned from the great team at KnowInnovation.

1. Separate gathering possible ideas to pursue from judging them. The KnowInnovation team does this with lots of discussion and writing on post-it notes, so ideas can be sorted later.

2. Work in teams often and listen to the quietest voice. Pay attention to how often you interrupt. Assume you are wrong and try to imagine why someone else is right. Tweak each other’s ideas to arrive at something new.IMG_5631

3.Work alone, brainstorming on your own into your most tangential thoughts, then bring them to the group for honing, sorting, operationalizing.

4. Stay away from previously published work and the internet, for awhile at least. This one is tricky, because of course you should read a lot (see next point). But, as Dieter says, you don’t want to think just like someone else, canalizing your possibilities into those paths taken previously. The Guarda course strongly discouraged any internet access at all.

5. Read a lot. You should know what others have done in the areas you work. You should also read broadly, so you know much more than what might be useful today. You should think about recall too. Can you list five big ideas in evolution of communication? mimicry? social behavior? metabiomes?

6. Push yourself to do things differently, in research and in presentations. If others use Powerpoint for their talks, give an armchair talk with words only. If others have posters for their presentations, treat your paper as a blackboard. Have a game if you can to spark the audience, but make it relevant (this group did). Would you dare to give a handwritten simple poster at a national meeting? Rosie Redfield did, at the Microbial Population Biology Gordon Conference a few years ago.

7. Don’t be afraid to be unusual. This might be in your approach, in your research question, or in the kind of team you work with. I’m still puzzled that of all the amazing things one might work on, most of the student teams at Guarda last week chose microbial projects, often involving mutualisms.

8. Write all the time. Write up your research, even the boring stuff. The writing is good practice and it might lead somewhere. Write reviews, minireviews, or even opinion pieces.

9. Be a good mentor. We learn from others whether they have more or less experience than we do. Find someone in your group, your class, and your lab, and listen to them. Talk to them. Teach them and let them teach you. This is why I like to do things like participate in workshops like this one.


The wonderful cave-like bar where we talked and watch the World Cup.

10. Connect things that don’t connect and don’t throw out weird ideas too quickly. This ties back to the first point, that you should collect ideas before judging them. Find links from different fields. Keep your standards high. Wonder, for example, how much the microbiome people might learn from actual ecologists.

The Guarda course assumed that students and faculty work in certain ways and did it differently. The students brainstormed without recourse to published work. The faculty talked without powerpoints. We grouped the students and did not give them an escape plan for difficult people. We encouraged them to take a single idea and develop it into a research project. We combined frequent conversations with the students with two rounds of paper comments and formal meetings. It is a wonder we had the energy for the bar each evening and the bonfire de fin. Next I’ll be modifying this for our own students here at Wash U. IMG_3435  IMG_5601 IMG_5555 IMG_5548 DSC00318 DSC00303 IMG_3387 IMG_5451 IMG_5488 DSC00407



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How to collaborate successfully

IMG_3520 IMG_5676 IMG_5629 IMG_5399 IMG_3260 DSC09819 IMG_2982Successful collaboration is essential for a productive research career for most people. With collaborators we can tackle bigger problems. With collaborators we can see old problems in new ways, or find a path where before were only cliffs. With collaborators we can meld the joy of personal interactions with novel research. A collaboration may be like a mutualism where different people bring different talents to the project. It may be like a social group where the parties have similar talents, but together can achieve more than any could accomplish alone.

Collaboration brings responsibilities to oneself and to the others. We must trust our collaborators and be trustworthy ourselves. We must be honest with both our data and with our ability to deliver results in a timely fashion. We must be open and share any problems. If a collaborator sends us a manuscript, we should read it promptly.

Don’t pull rank with collaborators. Many collaborators will be your own students or postdocs, or advisers, current or former. Whatever your role, get back to the others quickly, or let them know where you stand.

Be on the lookout for new collaborators with whom you might do a project neither of you would even think of alone. Make a friend at a meeting? What can you do together? New ideas come as much from talking as from reading in many cases.

I hope we facilitated some new collaborations among the young graduate students of the Guarda course in evolutionary biology. Here’s the album.

At the last bonfire I could see friendships had been forged, nearly all across nationalities and universities. I could see trust blossoming. I could see excitement for research, for their budding careers. I could see cooperation, whether it was huddling in the rainy dark for warmth, or cooperatively roasting meat, cheese, or vegetables.

With the course organization we tried to encourage different kinds of cooperation. Dieter Ebert and Sebastian Bonhoeffer put the students in four houses, then put no more than two people from one house in a research group. We mixed genders in the houses, and universities in the research groups. We made sure no group had only one woman or only one man.

We then visited the groups frequently, witnessing the budding collaborations, occasionally redirecting conversations. We saw individuals that were dominant at the beginning listen more at the end, as they gained respect for other’s ideas. We saw real teamwork even among researchers forced into teams, like arranged polygynandrous marriages. Enduring collaborations from the group will be more voluntary, but it may be that the most important thing we helped these young researchers learn is how to collaborate, how to trust, how to listen if you are talkative, and how to talk if you are quiet. I await news of their next steps with curiosity.

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Big ideas from the famous Guarda, Switzerland course in evolutionary biology


Yes, we had a free day in the middle for hiking!

Why is it so hard to come up with a big idea and a way to test it? What if you could choose any idea in any system, then plan an experiment unlimited by funds or manpower? What is your best idea? What are the most important questions in evolutionary biology? What new tools or approaches might help you solve one of them? How important it is to learn to think carefully before picking up a pipette or a butterfly net, or buying a plane ticket? Could you work with an international team to get to a brilliant project?


Dieter Ebert and Sebastian Bonhoeffer looking at flowers.


Sebastian meeting with a group.


View out our window.


House 61, with groups upstairs and downstairs. Other houses were 89, 67, 70, and 33.


Relaxing in Parsepan well after midnight.


Ready to meet with us!


Guarda, Graubunden, Switzerland.


Hearing what the faculty have to hear on their proposal at the first round.


Brainstorming is hard, even with big paper!


David Queller explaining genetic relatedness in the bar.

What questions to ask is so neglected in our teaching and learning. We learn concepts and tools, facts and history. But how do we learn to cut the newest edge? Obviously you need to know the field, its history, and the promise of new techniques, but you also need to learn to be creative. This perhaps more than anything is learned by doing. Perhaps no one does it better than the brilliant course offered to early graduate students from around the world in Guarda Switzerland by Sebastian Bonhoeffer and Dieter Ebert, along with a changing cast of visiting professors.IMG_3435

Imagine brainstorming with a group of four or five other students high in a high Alpine village. The other students come from universities in nine countries with even more nationalities among them. English is the language they use. How will group dynamics work? Can you come up with a better project in a group than you could alone? I hope so, but at the very least, science is all about convincing others of the adequacy of your approach and the importance of your methods.

This course has some unique elements. Teams of four or five work all week on their project. They turn in written versions three times, Tuesday at 11, Thursday at 4, and at the end, Friday at 2. At the last time they also give a talk on their project. They get written and oral comments from the 4 faculty members on the first two written drafts. We expect their responses to these to impact and improve the final approach.

But more than these written stages are daily personal visits by the faculty where they can ask any questions, or we can interject as they discuss on their own. Imagine brainstorming with your own group of young grad students interspersed with these expert visits, resources for any question, though of course there is nothing to say the experts will agree with each other.

Oh, did I mention this is literature free work, with the internet not allowed. What can you do just thinking hard and talking, not getting canalized into other people’s ideas, as Dieter would say.

Interactions are not only formal. The students live and cook in four different houses in groups separate from their project groups. We mixed them in all possible ways, gender, nationality, background, university. The groups also invited a faculty member for dinner each night.

Besides interacting with the students, the faculty gave armchair talks, beginning with their academic history, then moving to describing some of their research without any visual aids.

Though the faculty talks were at 9pm, we somehow found the energy to go to the private bar a hotelier opened just for us on an honor system, Parsepan.

I hope the students have learned to love science, to have an appreciation for the intricacies of designing experiments that answer interesting questions. I hope they didn’t get too frustrated with their most recalcitrant team members, and that overall they have a whole international community for their next decades of research, and feel it all began in Guarda, thanks to Sebastian Bonhoeffer and Dieter Ebert, and to the visionary Steve Stearns who started the course decades ago. With this course I hope this group can convince Sebastian that their proposals are both interesting and feasible.

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Have you started your students on writing for Wikipedia yet?

The education program at Wikipedia has as its motto: “The end of throwaway assignments and the beginning of real-world impact for student editors.”

How can we embrace this powerful motto and have our students learn through contributing to Wikipedia? I put together a slide show on this topic you can get from Slideshare: here.
Here are some principles I will try hard to get across.

1. Wikipedia is not technically difficult. You do not have to teach how because there are tons of online resources.
2. Every student should do their own piece.
3. The rough drafts, with references should go straight up on Wikipedia before polishing so they can get feedback.
4. They should be turned in separately for grading because things change rapidly on Wikipedia.
5. The work should be done in pieces. We did 500 words plus 5 references, then twice 1000 words plus 10 references. One could even do just the first piece and make a difference.
6. Look at other student’s work and comment on the talk tab.
7. Revise the work and put the changes up.
8. Additional revisions responding to the community are also good, but could be informal, not point based.
9. Join a Wikipedia project for better feed back.

It may seem a little challenging at first, but the energy of students doing original writing and defending and revising what they say is worth it!

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Whose work is that anyway? Excess lab PI credit

There is going to be a race of social amoebae and other single motile cells today. Our lab has an entry. This is a fun thing to do, one that required some work. I encouraged our group to participate because publicity for research is a good thing and because I’ve always wanted to get more going with microfluidic devices. But that is about the extent of my involvement.

Debbie Brock led the team. Tracy helped a lot. I’m not sure of the other involvement, but I’m guessing many in the group had something to say about it. But then you read the write up in the Wash U press release, and you would think Dave and I were leading the whole thing. It is embarrassing. But all I did was alert the press office that this would be a newsworthy item. I talked to no one. In fact I was in Finland when they put this together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe larger question of course is about how much credit the lab heads should get and for what. Or the even larger question is who gets credit and who knows? In this case, the article should have been about the team putting together the ideas and strategies, not about the PIs.

I hope our wild Dicty show their stuff in the maze and win!

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Expertise is not enough for effective science communication

If you have spent your career working on, say black-crested titmice, I’m going to defer to your greater knowledge in any discussion. This isn’t to say that I won’t have questions or be skeptical, but I will understand that our positions are not equal when it comes to knowledge on this subject.

According to Susan Fiske in her excellent talk on the Science of Science Communication at the annual National Academy of Sciences meeting, the public usually gives us the respect our expertise has earned us. This may not be true all over the world, but in the US, the public has a high opinion of science, the overall scientific enterprise, and of us scientists.

So the big question is, why, if this is true, do so many people disbelieve large chunks of the facts of science in areas as diverse as climate change and evolution, vaccination, and genetically modified crops? Part of the problem comes from the other half of effective scientific communication. This is that people want to know what our motivations are. They understand that we are not science producing automatons, but imperfect beings with skin in the game. Getting them to believe us is therefore made up of both compelling facts, interpreted correctly, but also a clear indication of our own interests. Leave either one out, and you will lose people. So, early on in your talks to the public make it clear why you care.

There was a lot of good advice in these talks. No doubt the best place to turn for more are the recent Sackler Colloquia on the topic. I’ll just share one more important piece of advice. That is that people will tune out information that makes the situation sound hopeless. If there is nothing they can do, then there is little point to them listening to you. Even if you think there may be little hope of amelioration, give people something they can do, a hook into the problem. Otherwise they’ll turn to less pessimistic speakers, no matter how unrealistic they are.

There were lots of other good ideas I can’t resist quickly mentioning. For example, the public may trust their common sense or experience more than scientists do. Kathleen Hall Jamieson had a good script for talking. The basic point was to use all the skills we have for really making sure people get our talks. Don’t rush through a figure for example, but build it, one data point at a time, so people live the change if the X axis is time. Her code words were leverage, involve, visualize, and analogize. It is so important to understand that just saying something doesn’t mean anyone understood it. So say less, let us know why you care, and build your argument slowly and carefully. What could be more important to a scientist than actually communicating results?

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Why homogeneity is not required for cooperation

Sometimes you need homogeneity for cooperation. Imagine two horses pulling a cart. The job will simply go more smoothly if they have similar sizes, gaits, and strengths. Other times the opposite of homogeneity is optimal. In lichens the fungus and the algae bring very different things to the interaction. In basketball a team of all centers would not prevail, as my son reminded me. How about scientific cooperation? Is homogeneity an advantage?

I hope it mostly is not. If homogeneity were so crucial would I, a red-headed, left-handed field biologist and mother with some attitude ever have thrived in the science establishment? Have we not flourished exactly because we bring different perspectives to thorny problems, collaborating from the vantage of difference, not similarity?

I bring this up after reviewing a research program recently as part of a team. In the report one of the other reviewers kept using the word homogeneous as if it were a good thing, not the thing that sent shivers down my back. International teams with different first languages may have more challenges to communicating than are immediately apparent. I don’t know if this is one of them or is a difference in perspective.

I hear that in hiring decisions employers often look for commonalities even when the are irrelevant to the job. Why should playing golf matter, for example? You might say that friendly outside of work interactions facilitate communication, but that is something that can be developed directly. I love my grandmother’s German cooking, but enjoy the meals served me by my Indian or Peruvian friends even more, to give just one example.

In collaborations it is easy to misunderstand the contributions of very different teammates. I cannot know exactly what went into figuring out the chemical structure of the small molecules that our social amoebae use to manipulate. I trust it was hard. I trust that the work was done well. I love the collaboration, for from our diversity comes mutual strengths none of us have alone. Remember not to confuse cooperation with homogeneity!

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