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Getting out of the box: startup your creative and innovative capabilities

“Everyone knows that instant judgment is the enemy of creativity,” (Edward de
Bono, 1995)

Today I want to share with you folks a story that I hope many will learn from. I have, for sure…

Two years ago, when I just started my PhD, I have purified a His-tagged protein. It was behaving very nice up to the point I wanted to remove the tag through the use of Thrombin, a protease which cleaves at a certain sequence (Leu-Val-Pro-Arg*-Gly-Ser). Running the treated protein on a gel, I was surprised to see the cleaved protein accompanied with additional multiple degradation products. We quickly came to the conclusion that the protein seems to have a cryptic Thrombin recognition site. This behavior was common to at least two other recombinant proteins and thus we’ve accepted the possibility that this protease has non-specific cleavage.
This week I wanted to use this characteristic to show a biochemical property of the protein so I have repeated the experiment with the same protein batch as positive control. You can’t imagine the surprise that I had on my face when I saw that the protein was cleaved without any other fast moving buddies. The positive control turned into a negative one!

What changed, you might ask (except for the fact that I have aged by 2 years)?
In the past two years we have used two different products of Thrombin, one from Fischer and one from Sigma. Couple of months ago we have switched the Sigma’s Thrombin product with a similar product from the same company due to low digestive efficiency of the first product. This last product is the one that have not degraded my protein and most probably didn’t contain an anonymous protease contaminant that degraded my protein…our initial judgment of the results was wrong though it seems that there certain cases that are too hard to predict beforehand. The ability to predict such cases can be attributed to thinking out of the box OR to acquired experience.

Talking about innovation and how it emerges in one’s mind, I think that the best example is the invention of the PCR by Kary Mullis (cited from his 1983 Noble prize lecture):

And again, EUREKA!!!! I could do it over and over again. Every time I did it I would double the signal…I stopped the car at mile marker 46,7 on Highway 128. In the glove compartment I found some paper and a pen. I confirmed that two to the tenth power was about a thousand and that two to the twentieth power was about a million, and that two to the thirtieth power was around a billion, close to the number of base pairs in the human genome. Once I had cycled this reaction thirty times I would be able to the sequence of a sample with an immense signal and almost no background….”Dear Thor!,” I exclaimed. I had solved the most annoying problems in DNA chemistry in a single lightening bolt. Abundance and distinction. With two oligonucleotides, DNA polymerase, and the four nucleosidetriphosphates I could make as much of a DNA sequence as I wanted and I could make it on a fragment of a specific size that I could distinguish easily. Somehow, I thought, it had to be an illusion. Otherwise it would change DNA chemistry forever. Otherwise it would make me famous. It was too easy. Someone else would have done it and I would surely have heard of it. We would be doing it all the time. What was I failing to see? “Jennifer, wake up. I’ve thought of something incredible.”

So, if we want to think outside the box, or want to improve innovative/creative thinking, what can we do?
It is a common perspective that sometimes innovation struck from nowhere, when we do things which are not related to the problem we face or try to solve. While there is more than a grain of truth in this assumption, the PCR invention story is a classical case demonstrating innovation growing from thinking evolution, in which each thought play leads to a conclusion, which can be played again and lead to another conclusion. Much like PCR itself, the extension of each thought/conclusion can lead to the realization whether your innovation struck or a dead-end. We can improve the chances of innovative/creative thinking if we keep a routine that will enable our neural network to connect in a way that it didn’t occur before.
• Master your field as much as possible – being a professional is crucial for understanding what is innovative and what is not (critical thinking).
• Remove thought restriction – open yourself for other theories and challenge current assumptions. This is challenging, especially if you’re a professional in the field (see above) and accustomed to “truths” or axioms which can take you farther rather than closer to the creativity zone. This is one of the reasons why novices in many fields are those that seed the next innovation – the novices has yet to develop enough knowledge that presents thought restrictions.
• Connecting unrelated topics – Many times our creativity is not coming out because we are looking for answers or ideas in our own well-known (and comfort!) niche. Expanding our knowledge and our exploration to different unrelated fields can add a different perspective.
• Take risks and embrace failures – innovation, creativity and discovery requires exploration of uncharted territory, whether on the bench or outside within a desolated land. We take risks when we choose this or that path and we might fall or at the least, waste resources; remove the fear of failure and embrace it when it hits you in the face. Fear is the enemy of creativity and innovation.

When was the last time you had an innovative idea?

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