It had to be said because people seem surprised when I tell them I am a biologist and part-time artist. Someone once asked, “What, so you took an art class, and now you make these?” I replied, “No, I’ve just always made art.”
I cannot do science 24 hours a day. I can’t do any one thing all the time. I find that answers to a question I didn’t know I had come to me in a dream, or when I switch up the scenery, or when I put my hands to work on something else. That is a creative process.
The other day I walked into my advisor’s office. He was hand painting beautifully carved Horned Lark wooden models. The plan was to put them into the field to lure these wily birds into his nets. We had a short discussion of the various ways that creativity plays a part in science.
Problem solving is one. You have to open your mind and think of a way to find a solution, especially when resources are limited. I’ve been trying to capture nighthawks in my nets for years. But, their eyesight is very keen, and they were able to stop short of falling into my nets. Then I consulted with some nighthawk researcher buddies in Canada. The answer was Maurice, a cardboard cutout of a nighthawk they placed in their net. Nighthawks could still see the net, but their desire to rid their territory of an invading male superseded their caution. And voila! They fell into the nets.
Empathy is another. This requires some creativity. Opening your mind to what drives an animal to live like it does can help you understand it. You have to think like a nighthawk to out-think a nighthawk. It required some creativity and empathy for my northern colleagues to come up with Maurice.
Empathy and creativity also play a part in generating hypotheses. It helps to expand your thoughts to understand a process. If you cannot do this, you encounter the pitfalls of scientific bias. See this excellent blog on the nine types of scientific bias.
Lastly, there is the ability to communicate. Finding ways to convey what you do and why it’s important is crucial to reaching your audience. Eleanor Lutz, with her blog and illustrations (including the one above), are an excellent example of creative communication. Her illustrations explain in an economy of action and visuals what an onerous PowerPoint in a classroom cannot do. Trust me, I know.