TOP > Message > Struggle for research ideas

2006.07.26
How does one come up with ideas regarding researches? This is a recurring question I'm often asked by research students. Is there anything one can do to gain inspiration? What is the way to expand our insight into a new research theme or research in progress? Well, there is no easy answer, and an approach adopted by one researcher may not work for another. Still, I'm hoping you will find an anecdote from my early research days helpful. I sometimes tell this story to show that having a wide knowledge of things extending beyond one's own field as well as having friends in different fields of expertise can be valuable asset to one's research endeavor.

I left clinical practice and started my postdoctoral fellowship in the Salk Institute, San Diego, CA when I was 30 years old. That's when I started getting into research full-time. There was a nice library with wood paneling at the Salk Institute, and there were plenty of books there. My English was not very good at the time, and I was inexperienced as a researcher. I don't remember now how I came up with the idea, but I started to routinely check all the titles of articles from some 20 magazines. Perhaps, it was merely my attempt at gathering information. Internet did not exist then.

Partly because I was not skillful enough at sifting through magazines to find articles specifically related to my own field, neurology, and partly because magazines for fields other than my own such as cancer, immunology, and endocrinology often contained neurology-related articles, I did not restrict my selection of magazines to my field alone, and checked titles from variety of magazines. It may not have been the most efficient way of gathering information, but hindsight tells me that the effort was well worth my time.

I did not always fully understand the scope of articles by looking at the titles, but there was always at least one article in a magazine that caught my attention. I would then read the abstract and also the introduction of the article. In time, I was able to have some idea as to what was being actively researched in each field. Also, as the time went by, I began to understand what it took for a paper to be published in a magazine.

Very fortunately for me, there were about ten Japanese researchers of various expertise in the Salk Institute at the time. When I was not certain about my understanding of the article I was reading because of unfamiliarity with the field, I could ask them questions for clarifications. In this way, by talking to the experts of different fields, I learned much. Over the years, knowing those people from different fields proved to be of great help to me.

Now, this is my experience and some of the ways in which I tried to come up with ideas or gain inspiration. It may or may not work for you, but I hope it will help you in some way.

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