Tuesday, October 4, 2016

This one weird trick can help you think of a project (maybe)


I’ve had several PIs tell me during grad school, ‘Ideas are cheap.’ (This phrase usually comes up in conversations discussing the challenges of carrying a project to completion.) It’s certainly true that finishing projects requires creativity, innovation, thoughtfulness, and persistence. However, I think that really good ideas are extremely rare and precious.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in grad school thinking about new avenues to pursue and new questions to answer, and I find it one of the most challenging parts of science. A really good idea for a project requires a number of attributes, including a well-defined question to answer, interest, novelty, technical feasibility, a ‘go-or-no-go’ point such that you can quickly decide if the project has merit, and so on.

Here are some things that have helped me try to identify interesting projects:
  1. Practicing thinking: One of my favorite books is ‘The Creative Habit’ by Twyla Tharp. Her thesis is that people do have innate creativity, but that everyone can improve with practice and effort. In any creative field, spending time every day reading works of your idols, and thinking critically about your work and the work of others can improve your ability to come up with good ideas. (Plus breaking out a classic Michael Elowitz or Marc Jenkins paper always makes me appreciate how cool science can be!)
  2. Reading papers: I find this essential. I try to read papers in my direct subfield, to keep track of what other scientists are thinking about and what interesting questions they raise, but also more far afield, to try to learn about new techniques, questions and experimental styles. Also reading classic papers can be very important: too often we have an idea of what the field thinks is true, and it’s often illuminating and surprising to look at how ‘the field’ decided this. Often these conclusions may be more nuanced or not as firm as you might think-which can open up new avenues of inquiry! (Also you get to look at old-school stuff like gel-shift assays, which I feel strengthens my character. Takes like ten minutes every time to understand those.)
  3. Not reading papers: Arjun is a big fan of this one. I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that feeling beholden to the literature for everything can be paralyzing. Spending time trying to think critically about what questions are interesting (apart from where the field is) can allow you more originality and freedom.
  4. Changing location: I’m a big fan of wandering around campus (and Philadelphia in general) when I try to think of ideas. This has several benefits: first, no one can find you to ask you questions! I’m very easily distracted so this is essential for me. On a related note, in lab I always have a laundry list of tasks, like splitting cells and doing lab chores, so it’s easy to feel drawn into doing those instead of reading or thinking. Finally, I think that going new places might help give me freedom to think in non-habitual ways. 
  5. Lab coffee breaks: This is an important step that I use to test ideas- coffee breaks with lab mates (also, hopefully this balances out the misanthropy implied by step 4!). I’m extremely lucky to have intelligent, helpful, and critical lab mates who are always willing to chat about ideas. Though sometimes this can be tough on the ego, often I haven’t considered all the sides of a potential idea until discussing it at Starb’s. Also those tiny vanilla scone things definitely inspire creativity.

I’d love to hear if anyone has other suggestions or habits when trying to identify new directions in science!


  1. Going for a run (or bike ride or swim or whatever you prefer for exercise).
    Getting adequate sleep.
    Getting up early.
    Writing thoughts down (much easier for me to organize my thoughts this way than just thinking about them).
    Not drinking coffee. :)
    Not consuming too much sugar.

  2. Exploring books available in library: Though books generally carry what has been established, many topics still remain hot field of research and new books (and sometime old ones) help us revisit the things. In that direction, spending time in library and going through the book contents/preface may give an idea about the trend in a particular field. Perhaps it is more suitable if one is starting in a relatively newer field.