Creative Problem Solving — And the Levitating Frog

September 19, 2014
The Column
Volume 10, Issue 17

Incognito believes in the power of creative thinking to solve problems in the analytical laboratory. Do you think creatively?

Incognito believes in the power of creative thinking to solve problems in the analytical laboratory. Do you think creatively?

When was the last time you thought "out of the box" to solve an analytical problem, or to develop a new approach to generating data? I recently asked this question to a group of analysts, and chief among the answers were "Thinking is above my pay grade" and "You assume I have time to do anything other than generate numbers". I guess that these are typical responses these days.

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Higher thinking isn't necessarily restricted to the "higher ups" or the well-paid. If you occasionally need to troubleshoot a leak, correct poor quantitative reproducibility, or understand why your peak shape suddenly became unacceptable, then you have an opportunity to apply some creative thinking.

Over the years I've come across many methods that have been applied to solve problems or encourage novel thinking towards product, separation, or instrument development. Certain approaches suit certain people — indeed I have found some have worked when I tried them myself, but others haven't. I share these approaches below in an attempt to instill a sense of empowerment, so that thinking about our scientific and instrument problems is no longer considered above, or indeed below, us.

It's well-known that we often get so close to a subject that we are in danger of "not seeing the wood for the trees". My Grandfather, who was a mining engineer, used to tell me to walk away from a problem to gain clarity and come back to the problem with a fresh perspective. It sometimes worked, other times not, but there are other ways to obtain this clarity. I recently saw an excellent programme within a large blue chip organization where an "away day" system had been instigated. On the day I visited, several of the formulation department were touring an analytical facility. Some of the physical problems within the laboratory — space, organization, engineering, services provision, logistics, and sample management — were being presented as well as a lingering problem with ingress of contaminant into the laboratory that was giving a raised background signal in some of the mass spectrometry (MS) detectors. Later that day they would split into teams where the "visitors" would participate in troubleshooting sessions with the analytical staff. This brought about two advantages: The analytical staff would need to strip their problem right back to a level which the formulators would understand and could therefore make a useful input, and in turn the formulators would bring a "child-like" clarity to the issue. This initiative was proving to be one of the most successful in years; those with the problem had to present at a level which the layperson could understand. In fact, the problem with the high MS background was solved during the session that day by another member of the analytical team who had attended the presentation.

An old friend of mine recently started a lunchtime chemistry club, for a group of analytical chemists operating on a site who didn't have any particular organic chemistry expertise. I know, we should all be good at organic chemistry, but are we really? After an initially cool reaction to this rather "geeky" initiative, the club grew to be very popular. The "many heads are better than one" approach really helped with problem solving and obviously also taught the group a lot more about the chemistry of their samples and their separation science. I was invited by my friend to present a lunchtime session on MS interpretation and I was very surprised to see the level of engagement from these folks who were all giving up their spare time to better understanding their problems. I thought it was a real pity that their employer hadn't seen the benefits of this approach and hadn't allocated working time for the "club" meetings.

I know of another employer who certainly sees the benefit of this type of activity and has recently established a thriving and highly productive "Biochemistry club" to aid the transition of the business between a predominantly small molecule to a large molecule site. The activities within the club are various, but I'm told that one of the most successful ideas is to have a group member explain a basic concept or idea to the rest of the group after doing some basic fact finding. For example, a club member could present on glycans and their effect on protein efficacy and how one could characterize them analytically. This is a very broad topic but when approached by the beginner it can be explained in simple terms to colleagues who may be confused by an "expert", who often assume a level of underpinning knowledge that simply isn't there. While I agree that "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing", having an expert moderate the neophyte presentation, or guide and answer any higher level questions, can help to avoid any fundamental misunderstandings from being adopted and amplified within the group.

So what of this levitating frog?

Professor Andre Geim of Manchester University (Manchester, UK) is famous as a lateral thinker and is not afraid of taking an unusual approach to problem solving. His famous "Friday Night Club" was attended by students and academics to try out experiments that would not fit into traditionally funded programmes — there were no deliverables expected and no deadlines! One of the main goals was to encourage students to switch subject, study areas that their PhD may not involve, and mix with folks in different disciplines to expand their horizons. This club led to the discovery in 2004 of graphene, a class of new one atom thick graphite materials, for which Geim would eventually be awarded a Nobel prize in 2010. This same club was also responsible for the creation of a super-conducting magnetic field device that could levitate a number of objects, including a frog! Until this experiment, it was not thought possible to levitate objects using magnetic fields. Geim was also awarded an Ig Nobel prize for this work in 2000, highlighting the contrasts in fortune of those who are willing to take a less conventional approach to problem solving. My friend who was initially ridiculed for her chemistry club was at least interested enough to take the trouble to do something. I'm sure Professor Geim probably had other things to do on Friday evenings, but devoted his own time to establishing a forum for creative thinking and doing.

I would like to conclude this piece with a recommendation. I haven't talked too much here about our scientific education systems, primarily because I don't have enough experience to take a qualified view. However, I do know that the ability to think creatively is a tremendous advantage in analytical chemistry and something which I believe should be taught more in mainstream and higher education. If you have 19 minutes to spare, and want to see one of the most inspirational lectures on the need to teach creative thinking, watch the TED Talks lecture by Sir Ken Robinson1 — your life will be richer for the experience.

If you do take the time to watch Sir Robinson's lecture, go back and read the first paragraph of my article here and reflect on the gulf between our current attitudes to creative thinking and problem solving and what we could, and should, be doing in both academia and industry. Long live levitation.

Reference

1. http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

Contact author: Incognito

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