Sometimes, the shortest distance to an answer isn't a straight line. For centuries we have been conditioned to believe that the best results come from a lot of work and no play. But scientists now believe that a bit of play and creative innovation might lead researchers to a Nobel Prize and veterinarians to an effective treatment.
Rodney Dietert, professor of immunotoxicology at the College of Veterinary Medicine, will co-teach Tools for a Lifelong Career in Research, a new course offered this fall based on the premise that creativity can be learned, with Jerrie Gavalchin, associate professor of animal science. The how-to course will provide undergraduate and new graduate students with tips to make the most of their research career and tools to activate their creativity.
"Even if we may feel stuck in one place, we can use creativity-inspiring tools to overcome roadblocks in all aspects of life, including research initiatives," said Dietert, who has spent his career researching how to protect children from chronic immune dysfunction diseases. "Effectively using tools such as sleep and play allows us to broaden our capacity to access and use information from diverse sources to address challenges and solve the problem at hand."
Dietert's approach is supported by Albert Einstein, who had insights while playing the violin in his kitchen and said, "I often think in music," and Cornell physicist Richard Feynman, who devised a Nobel Prize-winning calculation of electron orbits after watching students spin plates in a dining hall.
Dietert's passion comes from personal experience. "One of my hobbies is researching Scottish history," he said. "When I began looking at the information through different filters and using the tools that we will teach in the course, I saw patterns of information that I had previously missed. These revelations developed into a completely new picture of the role Scottish women played in the goldsmithing profession."
Dietert said the tools he used to make progress in his hobby have led to revelations in his research program, where he is using Venn diagrams to find hidden patterns and buried relationships among 28 chronic diseases. In addition to looking at information from different vantage points, Dietert encourages scientists to:
Students in the course will use Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and Legos to represent a research problem. Once built, they will tear it apart and rebuild it in a different form, noticing how the old pattern has shifted.
"Playing through the problem is one way we will teach students to shift their perceptional awareness, enhance their access to patterns of information and overcome roadblocks, whether in scientific research or other aspects of daily life," Dietert said. "These tools are fully teachable. Using them effectively will enhance our students' creativity and innovation, improve their educational experience and provide benefits that will extend throughout their lifetimes."
Stephanie Specchio is director of communications at the Vet College.