What is an idea?

I’m taking this online course in creativity, courtesy of Andy Burnett and KnowInnovation. I’m curious as to what I will learn, making me determined to give it my full effort. There are these little videos with a yellow guy we’re supposed to listen to. Is the yellow guy a guy?

Andy, Maggie, and Stavros helping with animal behavior innovations.

He sure does look like one, or am I too sensitive? Somebody has to be sensitive for all those people out there too shy to take it on. I read a really revealing piece on race while I was at Wellesley College, but have no memory of where it came from. It had sentences like “Is the teacher, person in power, person you will deal with in situation x of your same race?” There were pages of questions and a place you could send away for more, for a fee. I suppose you could substitute sex, or gender as they now like to call it, for race. But I digress.
So, this little yellow guy with Andy’s lovely voice wants us to come up with 25 ideas, good and bad. It makes me wonder what exactly is an idea. It isn’t a fact, I suppose. I have an idea that is a full moon looking in on me. In fact, it is a full moon, today, 4 June 2012. So this is not an idea.
Was going out to dinner for a birthday celebration (not mine), rather than cooking, an idea? I don’t think this is the kind of bad idea they mean for us to reserve judgement on. A trivial idea is different from a bad idea. Ideas should solve problems. I have lots of issues and problems I would like to see solved. Maybe I should match my ideas to problems to solve. I can pick problems, suggest all the ideas that might solve them, reserving judgement, then move ahead. There, that is my first idea.

Nicole and Vanessa shaking loose a little creativity.

A big research question is how to count cells. I go crazy hearing the clickers go click, click, click, as my wonderful team looks through a microscope at cells or spores on a hemacytometer, apparently spending hours on this task. Is this really the best way to count cells? Can’t this be automated, even for sticky Dicty cells?
2. Weigh the cells to get mass and divide by an average.
3. Use the flow cytometer and hope the error is not biased.
4. Keep clicking, but count fewer replicates. Do we really need so many?
5. Take pictures of the cells in fields and post them on Mechanical Turk so others can count them.
6. What would happen if we just stopped counting at all, and just used some estimator?
7. Could we dye an aliquot of cells and then use NIH image or something to count the cells more easily, then use the undyed aliquot?
8. Could we just do the experiments, and have some way of back counting to decide what we had done? After all, we can’t use Mechanical Turk if we need the count to set up an experiment.
9. How thoroughly have we explored all the ways other people count cells? After all, are they still using a hemacytometer for red blood cells?
OK, that is enough on this most basic of all issues. What other problems do I have? Well, another huge research question is how to determine the fractions of two different populations of cells in a mixture. All the ideas have problems. Here they are.
10. We can dye the cells with Cell Tracker, one population colored, one not.
11. We can use cells that have an internal green fluorescent protein marker with unmarked cells.
12. We can use cells that differ in DNA microsatellite length, and amplfy that region with PCR.
13. We can plate the cells out clonally, then amplify different clones for the microsatellite, and get the proportion from numbers of each, avoiding PCR bias.
14. We can find a tiny single nucleotide polymorphism and use pyrosequencing to measure proportions.
15. We can scour the literature and see if truly no one has a great technique for this problem.
Well, I could go on and on with research questions about where Dicty carries bacteria, what are the most important things to work on, where we can find a good field population of Dicty close to St. Louis, how they recognize, how social genes evolve, and on and on. Actually, I confess that a lot of these ideas are not new ideas, but old ones. Never mind. It is the first assignment. In the spirit of creativity, there are other issues. How can I use my time more effectively? I worry that it gets sucked away in the constant stream of small tasks that come in on the email feed. Those are things that are usually important to someone, even if they are not important to me. By being too conscientious on the small things, am I not leaving time for the big things?
16. Only check email in the afternoon.
17. Set daily goals on the important things.
18. Stop sleeping ;).
19. Get more exercise.
20. Always be in love with a project, so I can hardly put it down.
Hmm, these all seem to be rather small ideas, solving technical problems, not big ideas. Actually, I’m a little shy of sharing my biggest ideas here. And I think I probably should be. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have them. I could say the last five are those big ideas I’m not sharing, but I won’t. I’ll move to another realm. I was at Wellesley College for my mother’s 70th college reunion. There were 14 registered and about 9 were at the main dinner. All were over 90 years old. Another one or two showed up for the all-important parade. Here are some ideas besides the banal ones that keeps them going, perhaps as lessons for the rest of us.
21. Keep caring. These women cared enough about their college from 70 years ago to convince their families or friends to make it possible to attend the reunion.
22. Talk and listen to people. Even if you can’t hear them, or understand them, and they can neither hear nor understand you.
23. Have strong opinions. One lady said she didn’t much care for a certain person those more than 70 years ago and still didn’t.

Betty and Sally, 1942 alums, chatting at their class dinner.

24. Eat dessert. I didn’t see a single one of them skipping dessert.
OK, I’m nearly done and can let that moon shine on without me. But I need one last idea. It is about copyright. This class I’m taking is copyrighted. Or the web page and the little yellow man is copyrighted. I’m not really sure what is copyrighted. Maybe I am violating the copyright by saying the first assignment was to write down 25 ideas. I hope not. I don’t really have a problem with people being paid for their work, though I do tons of work for free, like every other college professor. But I no longer understand copyright very well. Apparently life cannot be copyrighted, but molecules of living things can. Words can be copyrighted, even if they are words that were once free for all to use.
25. Be careful about what you copyright. Use Creative Commons whenever possible. Think about what the copyright is for and keep it to just that.
OK, there. I have no idea if this is the kind of thing they were thinking of. I have other issues. How to best water my garden, what to plant, how to get rid of the mice that have entertained my daughter’s cats recently, how to find more time for my birds, how to best help my lab group. Hmm, wonder what the next assignment will be?

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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
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8 Responses to What is an idea?

  1. Well, I guess I should have downloaded and looked at their workbook first. They want only new ideas. I should have thought of some big, crazy ideas, like following instructions. My ideas always seem to be tied to facts. Here are a couple that bother me. What have the imported earthworms done to our soil? How about all that salt that gets dumped by the ton on the roads all round the winter world? Who worries about the salt and what it is doing to our soil microbial communities?

    • Anna says:

      There were a couple of recent papers on a related issue – perhaps you are interested (see below). The main result I think is that salt has a lot of impact!

      Kaspari M, SP Yanoviak, R Dudley, M Yuan, and NA Clay (2009) Sodium shortage as a constraint on the carbon cycle in an inland tropical rainforest. PNAS 106: 19405-19409.

      Kaspari M., C Chang, J Weaver. (2010) Salted roads and sodium limitation in a northern forest ant community. Ecological Entomology online.

  2. I really like this post, and your questions about what an idea is. Of course, in the context of the class, only new ideas count, and presumably good ones. But still, a bad old idea is an idea. I like to think an idea is a creative expression of something churned out by all our mental cogs.

    • Actually, we are supposed to not worry about what is a good idea and what is a bad idea yet. Apparently there are hidden gems among the ideas we might reject at first. One of the big ideas I’ve been struggling with has to do with what an organism is. We think so much of a cat or a dog, a donkey or a sparrow. But fungi weave through the forest, occasionally sending up mushrooms. Clones of aspen can cover the landscape. What makes a microbial organism? We’ve published on organismality, but it is just the beginning, a call out: hey look at this – we think we understand it, but we don’t! I bet you could weave an idea, just as Billy Collins carved his life out of balsa wood, and floated it on a pond.

      • There are definitely good ideas to be had by building on the bad ones. It seems to me that we humans, or at least our culture, are the result of building on layers of good and bad ideas. Definitely you can weave an idea. In fact, without ideas, all crafts would always be the same. Really, without ideas in the first place, there could be no crafts at all. I’ll have to look up Billy C’s balsa life!

  3. Patrick S says:

    I know some sexy, super-fast ways to set up automated cell counting in NIH’s ImageJ. Hit one button and it highlights the cells and spits out a number! The guy I work with wanted to do it all by hand, and I wasn’t having any of it…although I’m sure I’m not the only lazy man to shortcut that process…

    • We’ll have to talk! We’ve played with NIH image, and no one is fully happy with its numbers, but maybe they are good enough. I’ll bring it up again! Can’t wait to see you!

      • Patrick S says:

        For sure — it’s nice because you can set up shortcuts to run entire sets of menu actions, converting a standard image to one where the cells stand out in high contrast, black on a white background (dramatically improving counts). It might usually take 10 menu clicks and adjustment to convert the image, but you can bypass that by recording a set of actions (plus the counting function) and tying that whole set to a single button press. Obviously the effectiveness depends on the nature of the image/cells, but it has some pretty flexible options (setting bounds for cell size, “roundness,” etc.). I was processing awful quality images with high background label, and in a few hours of watching YouTube videos and fiddling with settings, you can really end up saving yourself from dozens of hours of menial work. Plus, when it’s automated, you can eliminate some potential bias.

        Looking forward to seeing you all too!! Exciting to have everyone here!

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