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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

October 2018

Imagination is essential to science, Wilcox says

Environmental Factor interviewed Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., about the role of imagination in science, and the paper he co-authored about it.

Imagination — especially its role in scientific research — has long fascinated NIEHS epidemiologist Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D. In September, Environmental Factor talked with Wilcox and colleague Clare Weinberg, Ph.D., acting chief of the Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch, about their experiences with science and creativity.

illustration of one half of brain colored, one half computing algorithms

EF: The imagination is engaged when we least expect it. Creativity is a moving target.

portrait of Allen Wilcox Wilcox’s groundbreaking studies examine how environmental exposures affect fertility, conception and early pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and childhood health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Wilcox: There is no guarantee it will produce something useful. For me, traveling has also been incredibly productive. To look at my work from a distance has been a really powerful way to reassess what I am doing. Your usual patterns are broken up.

EF: Someone once said: “A writer is working when he's staring out the window.” Tell us more about your own creative processes.

Wilcox: I build time into my week time where I’m not thinking about the nitty gritty of work. Also, I play the piano. My conscious brain is uncoupled from my unconscious, especially when improvising. I feel refreshed without having done anything intentional other than enter the realm of music.

Weinberg: Having too many ideas can also be a problem. My own personal list of things I want to figure out keeps growing.

Wilcox: My academic colleagues who rise up the administrative ladder often retire at 65. Colleagues who stay in research will often work into their 80s and 90s. I love that kind of enthusiasm for work that carries people past the usual retirement age because they love it.

portrait of Clare Weinberg In 2017, Weinberg won the second NIEHS Scientific Director’s Award for Excellence in Intramural Research (see story). (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Weinberg: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is interactions with colleagues.

Wilcox: I would underline that. I share ideas with my smart colleagues, who help me sort them out. It makes me braver about coming up with them.

There’s hardly anything more rewarding for a scientist than exercising his intuition in a scientifically productive way. That’s where the thrill of research often comes. I want to people not to lose track of what makes research fun.

Exercising intuition

Last year, a long-time colleague invited Wilcox to take part in a conference, “The Art of Scientific Investigation – The Value of Intuition as a Research Tool,” at the University of Bergen, Norway.

“It was an opportunity to help create an atmosphere where it would be okay to talk about intuition and imagination in research,” said Wilcox, who heads the NIEHS Reproductive Epidemiology Group. “I believe scientists should develop these skills along with the technical skills we focus on in graduate school.”

The event formed the basis of a paper, co-authored by Wilcox and published Aug. 1 in the journal Epidemiology. The authors of the new paper emphasized the critical, if unpredictable, role of the imagination in scientific research. “The history of science is rich with examples of intuition and creativity at the very core of the scientific process,” they wrote.

Wilcox also addressed the topic in his keynote talk at the Society for Epidemiological Research annual meeting, where Wilcox received the 2018 Kenneth Rothman Career Accomplishment Award.

Citation: Wilcox AJ, Cortese M, Baravelli CM, Skjaerven R. 2018. When intuition invites the analytical mind to dance - The essential role of creativity in science. Epidemiology; doi:10.1097/EDE.0000000000000913. [Online 1 Aug 2018]

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


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