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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stupidity or Insight? Hmmmm....

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”- J. R. R. Tolkien

I read a great post today on “Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde” about feeling stupid doing science:
What a great post. I’m writing in response to that post with the, perhaps, delusional approach I’ve taken to this problem. I’ve reframed this feeling of stupidity such that I now think of it, and work with my students to think of it, as using unexpected events to provide opportunities for insight that drives our science.

To summarize, here’s how I’ve created this process for myself and my lab using the example of my UG thesis:

Case Study:
•My 1988 undergraduate thesis project: Effects of Food Type on Body Composition in Rats
•Early data: Looked great, but preliminary…
•Submitted abstract for regional meeting: selected for an oral presentation!
•Final dataset: YIKES!!! No statistical significance!

•Unexpected events cause stress
•With some effort, it’s possible to find equally unexpected value in what has happened
•This “reframing” of the event can have short and long-term benefits…

Short-Term Response: Making Lemonade out of Lemons…
•I reframed the study as a pilot study because is was small
•I talked about the statistical limitations of my study
•I suggested alternative hypotheses
•I presented some next steps for other studies

Long-Term: Growing a Different View of Research
•I learned cognitive flexibility
•I started to anticipate “the unexpected”
•I began to develop the ability to reframe and re-approach problems
•I learned not to panic J

All this helped me learn that taking advantage of the unexpected outcome provides an opportunity for insight, perhaps by necessity, as when it doesn’t go as I expect, although I may feel stupid at first, I have to take the time to step back, think, and as a result, move forward.

Why is insight important? Insight occurs when people recognize relationships or make associations between objects and actions that can help them solve new problems.

To be insightful, you must…
•Be expectant of change
•Be prepared to be flexible
•Be eager to reframe

Thus my favorite quotation: "Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur
A Prepared Mind…
Observes. What IS, not what may be
Reasons. Moves from the known to the undetermined
Imagines. Envisions the possibilities
Decides. Chooses a path with consequences in mind
Learns. Keeps a developmental mindset
Reflects. Looks backward, forward, and inward

- from The Prepared Mind of a Leader, by Bill Welter and Jean Egmon

All this flexibility, seeming failure, reframing, insight, and forward motion creates the The “gestalt” of a research career. As in other parts of life, things expected and unexpected combine to create a career in research greater than the mere sum of the experiences themselves.

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