There is one ability that, over the years as a PhD and postdoc, I have come to realize is often undervalued in science (and probably other professions), and yet is crucial for success: creativity. While creativity is a trait typically recognized in painters, authors, musicians and other artists, imaginative thinking is also the driving force behind novel discoveries in science.
Firstly, scientists need to be able to go beyond accepted dogmas and (re)examine scientific questions from a new perspective, in order to be capable of devising interesting, testable hypotheses. One of the best ways to stimulate your scientific creativity is to read widely, in order to get ideas from other fields and other people, and get exposed to different ways of thinking.
Secondly, scientists spend a significant amount of their time designing new methods and trouble-shooting experiments, which also requires a degree of creativity. It is one thing to be able to follow protocols (using skills more commonly associated with scientists such as accuracy and numeracy), but a true, creative scientist shines in unchartered territories and the development of new techniques. It takes some inventiveness to imagine what may be causing a problem, and how to circumvent it. Nowadays, a lot of experiments at the bench just require following a manual (kind of like ready-made meals), but breaking away from accepted methods and devising new ways of doing new things is incredibly valuable for the advancement of science.
Last but not least, creativity is important in teaching and communicating science. Finding a good analogy to explain biological mechanisms to students and the general public can change their understanding of science and in turn, stimulate their interest in the subject. The design of visually-pleasing figures and diagrams carries a lot of weight when conveying ideas and results via poster and oral presentations, as well as in reports, textbooks, news and peer-reviewed articles.
As Picasso said, “the chief enemy of creativity is good sense”, so once in a while, don’t be afraid to forget what your boss told you to believe in, and just follow your imagination! Get in touch with the left side of your brain and cultivate your creativity! Who knows where it will lead you.