Enhancing the success of underrepresented STEM students by teaching unwritten skills beyond the curriculum 


Research Roadblock?

Change your environment! Get those creative juices flowing by changing your scenery...

Conducting research involves a great deal of creativity.....

I believe the most successful scientists and science presenters use both art and science to generate masterful work. Contrary to what most people believe, creative thinking is central to science. Albert Einstein eloquently stated, “The great scientists are artists as well.” In fact, I would argue that research (in the life sciences, social sciences, and humanities) involves 60% creativity and 40% logic.

Although scientist must adhere to the scientific method in collecting data and analyzing it - activities that seem both methodical and rational- yet each step of the scientific method requires creativity. First, a problem or question must be identified; the research question is not always obvious and requires one to think 'outside the box' and find a hole in a body of scientific knowledge. Second, a plan for answering the research question has to be constructed. Developing a protocol consists of choosing certain tools, stringing them together in innovative ways, or even developing new tools - all requiring the use of imagination and creativity. Finally data analysis requires figuring out how to generate a coherent reasoning of the data and presenting the data in a meaningful way.

"The great scientists are artists as well" Albert Einstein

The environments where scientific research is performed have not caught up to this important fact - many wet labs and office spaces are small, cramped, and visually unappealing. Science and research buildings are usually the oldest buildings on a college campus, and not very visually appealing. It is quite common to work in a lab or office that does not have windows or any decoration, yet graduate students spend 8-10 hours a day in these spaces. Think about it... if the walls of your office are gray, highlighted by a bright yellow fluorescent light, you feel cramped and limited. If you feel limited, your creativity is limited, and thus the solutions to your scientific questions are limited. It is crucial for scientists to go outside of their lab space to spark those creative juices flowing to make their science a beautiful body of work.

Varying your work space may enhance your creative thinking and improve your research productivity.....

If you need to change your thinking to overcome writer's block, or must find innovative ways of approaching your research, try changing your environment. But where do you go ?

1. Coffee shops

First off... FREE WIFI! More importantly, the aesthetic of coffee shops are relaxed and inviting to promote conversation or isolation. While your experiments are running, instead of sitting at your desk reading a journal article , try going to a cafe on campus for an hour to read. It is motivating to focus on your work, when others around you are immersed in their assignments. Plus it gives you a walking break to clear your mind.

2. Hotel lobbies

Hotel lobbies are a perfect balance between noise and quiet. As patrons move through the lobby, the dull whispers can be a welcomed hum to allow you to focus on your work. The added benefit of comfortable chairs, a roaring fireplace, and mood lighting can support a stress-free environment to grade papers or study.

3. Friend/Family home

If you are like me, people watching is a relaxing hobby to pass time. So a large gathering of people would encourage you to focus on the old lady trying to send a text message rather than creating a Powerpoint for tomorrow's lab meeting. Instead, go visit a friend! A friend's apartment can provide the seclusion needed to focus on tough analysis and provide new scenery to approach a problem from a different aspect. Moreover, a family or friend's home can also serve as a welcomed reminder of the community supporting you.

4. Park or Pool

Say it with me... FRESH AIR! Yes, go outside and breathe in fresh air. Taking a walk around a park stimulates endorphins to provide a natural energy source rather than that extra cup of coffee. The warmth of the sunshine combined with the idle flow of a swimming pool will give your eyes and mind a break from staring at a computer screen. The quiet hum of this space is perfect space to draw on nature as a source for creativity.

5. Public library or Student Resource Centers

Finally the stereotypical space to work, a library. If you need to be near your lab, try working in a library. Many graduate students shy away from working in the library for fears of running into their undergraduate students. I say take the risk, but work on the highest floor of the library. The higher the floor you go in a library the quieter it is. Moreover, libraries may also have dry erase boards that can help you draw your ideas before putting them on paper.

Bonus: In addition to spurring your creativity, you may discover varying your work environment may help you achieve certain tasks.

Designating certain spaces by tasks may help your mind focus on a particular goal. If you prefer to read journals in Starbucks, grade papers in the library, and write your dissertation in your cousin's basement you become trained to focus on each task individually. Moreover it gives you added push to manage your time so that you can be more efficient in your day.

Instead of forcing yourself to work creatively in your lab space or office, branch out and explore different working environments. Let us know what you discover in the comment section below!

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