Research creativity and the importance of vacations

My day is full, couldn’t be any more so. Meetings, teaching, preparing for teaching, reading, lab meeting, journal club, a few minutes for paper writing, data analysis, even a quick peek through a microscope, and maybe a few seconds for lunch with your group take up all the time. We progress and the group manages to put out a few papers every year. How could it be better? How could a vacation do anything but slow down the process?

A week or two away from the rich feast that is a research laboratory lets me dare to put things in a new perspective. It’s like the famous metaphor in Madeline d’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time. The shortest distance between two points is not a line if the points are the ends of a string. In another dimension, they can simply be brought together, like an airplane makes going from Boston to London a mere step over the pond. How can we do that in science? Two ways, at least, deadlines and vacations. Here I focus on the latter, saving the magic of deadlines for another time. (Meetings, seminars, retreats may also help.)

What exactly can a vacation do for you? It can help pull the focus back to the big questions. It can help you jettison a hard, time-consuming technique when a newer one comes along, even if the new one requires some activation energy and someone in the group has invested a lot in the old one. It can increase your comfort level with risky, creative new endeavors. It can let you stop doing something you do very well, but that is no longer revealing very big answers.

Does this mean I think you should spend your vacation reading review papers, thinking about work all the time? No! Quite the contrary. It is a rest that your mind needs, or, if not a rest, then a focus on something else. We spent last week at Las Gralarias, a field station high in the Ecuadoran cloud forest near Mindo, and we focused on hiking, on birds, on wasps, on photography, and on seeing the strong conservation efforts of Jane Adams Lyons first hand. We hiked the trails, saw the waterfall, hated the invading cows and pipelines, watched Angel call in the ant pittas, after revealing the Andean cocks of the rock (and the hens). Back at our room, we tabulated the birds we saw, watched the buff-tailed coronet defend his two liters of sugar water, and watched the mist roll in.

As the 737 pulled sharply up among the volcanoes that surround Quito, I got out my computer, smart phone, pad of paper, depending on elevation and airline permissions. What are our big research questions? How are we doing with answering them? Are they really big questions, or have they become small? What can I personally do to help? What are the biggest impediments to progress? Should anything be dropped entirely? Who is floundering? Who is soaring? Does someone else also need their vacation? How can teamwork be enhanced?

Of course, I could have asked these questions without a vacation, but the mind is a funny thing, making what is most immediate take precedence. The vacation puts a little distance, perhaps letting a hope of the fainter but possibly brilliant project squeak forward. The next challenge is to remember that list made on the plane when every day life crushes in. Take the steps you need to take. For us, we’ll be having a lab retreat next Friday out at Tyson where fall colors are most glorious. The raining down leaves are feasts for bacteria; bacteria are feasts for social amoebae, so we’ll also collect.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career, Natural areas. Bookmark the permalink.

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