How I Lost and Found My Scientific Creativity

In my new job, I tried to heed this epiphany. I made a point to think and write a little bit at home each morning, in a room overlooking the large river that runs through town.

Jeffrey McDonnell in Science: As a Ph.D. student, I spent many days and nights standing on a steep forested slope in the rain, measuring how water drops move into the soil. I loved the outdoors, and it was more like play than work. Many nights, I would dream about my research. I was endlessly curious about what I saw in the field and thrilled when I could connect it to what I read. My ideas seemed to flow like the stream I was trying to understand. But when I became a professor, I was inundated with responsibilities and my creative stream slowed to a trickle. It took me decades to figure out how to revive it.

When I started my first faculty position, I no longer had the freedom to focus solely on research or think deeply about any given topic. I was consumed by pressing demands—staying one class ahead in my teaching, completing reviews for journals, the constant drum beat of proposal writing. As my lab grew, I became more of a research manager than a researcher. I let grant opportunities guide decisions about what research to pursue. I was like a scientific dilettante—flitting from one project to the next.

A decade later, I moved to a new university where I didn’t have to chase as much funding. I was able to return to the topic I studied for my Ph.D. research. I took on graduate students and postdocs who were interested in “my” questions. During meetings with them, I learned how to be a sounding board as they considered new ideas and new ways of looking at our science. I found that if I could exist in the moment with them— and not be distracted by my midcareer responsibilities—then I could play a part in their creative thought process.

Creativity crept back into my work life, but I hadn’t yet found a way to spur my own deep thinking. I was at best a creativity manager. Another decade passed before I learned how to get my own creative stream flowing again.

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