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2007.09.10
Some of the lab members who read my last column "Researchers need to have a vision" asked me to expand further on improving their creativity. They wanted to know more about how to go about describing their visions. Well, this is something each one has to struggle to find ways that work for him/her, but let me tell you some of the things you can do.

1. Explain your research using common analogies.

Try to come up with an analogy for your research by using everyday examples that non-scientists can easily relate to. For example, I would often use dust that collects in a room to talk about protein aggregations. In this analogy, the room represents a cell, and a vacuum cleaner or changing rooms, etc. is used to explain about neurodegeneration mechanisms. You might find that coming up with an apt analogy everyone can relate to may not be as easy as it first seems. To be able to make an effective analogy, you must have a good grasp of the topic and a sufficiently comprehensive perspective. It is also possible that in the course of putting an effort into making an analogy, the perspective on your research may expand. And as I've mentioned before, having perspective has bearing on creativity, which is why I encourage you to try making analogies.

2. Get ideas from daily life.

If dust and litter in a room can be likened to proteins, to continue with the above example, a garbage bag may be thought of as ubiquitin, and the garbage collecting truck that collects the garbage-filled bag---ubiquitinated protein---may be thought of as proteasome. Now, a garbage truck only stops at designated garbage collection spots. Would there be such collection spots for ubiquitinated proteins? Do proteosomes have a predetermined route as does a garbage truck? Or does garbage (ubiquitinated proteins) have to be transported to the garbage truck in order for it to be collected? You get the idea. It is fun to think of various possibilities, and it might give you different perspectives as well.

3. Ask (scientific) questions about everyday mysteries.

The current CREST-funded research we are engaging in started with a simple question: "Why do babies have such large heads compared to adults?" If we are to believe that there is no such thing as a purposeless feature in living organisms, what would be the reason(s) for babies to have large heads? What purpose is possibly being served by that?
It is a good exercise to ask questions about those seemingly trivial mysteries on which we usually don't bestow much thought. Why do hairs turn gray or become thin when you get old, for example. “Old age” alone may not paint the whole picture, and you can ponder about the possible reasons, other than the old age, for the phenomenon. You can try to think of hidden reasons behind everyday phenomenon we are familiar with.

I'm left-handed, by the way, and that's another everyday phenomenon we can take as an example. Are there left-handed mice or fruit flies? If there are, how would you go about ascertaining the handedness of mice or fruit flies? The train of thought might lead you to something of interest in terms of the localization of brain functions, which is an important neurological theme---you never know.

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