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Dialogue: “Successful investigators often have a sixth sense”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Spring


Ingenuity and creativity, qualities essential to advancing scientific and medical knowledge, are the focus of this issue of Yale Medicine. We spoke with Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., about how institutions can promote such an atmosphere.

How does a medical school foster creativity? What are the conditions that make innovation likely?
There are a number of ways to enhance creativity. First and most importantly, you recruit the best people, who have a track record of creativity. Second, you provide an environment with opportunities for significant interactions, and you make certain they receive outstanding mentorship early in their career. Third, you provide access to the best technologies. And then you let them loose and see what they accomplish.

When you recruit faculty, are you thinking about how they will interact? What do you think makes those interactions creative and productive?
The goal is to recruit people who will have varied skills and knowledge and can facilitate each other’s research. The best collaborations are between people who share a common interest yet have very diverse training. I think that’s the key thing for a medical school, to bring together faculty with different backgrounds, different expertise, but enough of a common interest that they want to talk to each other.

It has been said that successful people actually fail more than others. Is failure an essential part of the scientific process?
Not necessarily. I think a courageous investigator should not be afraid to fail, and clearly the science that will be of the greatest impact runs the greatest risk of failure. But successful investigators often have a sixth sense that enables them to know what will likely succeed or fail, and to know when to abandon a failing approach.

Is framing the right question in research a matter of imagination?
I think imagination is one part of it. Like any creative person, whether you’re an artist or do research, you need a knowledge of the tools, some imagination, and a sense of what is likely to be the best path to pursue.

That last bit is both judgment and maybe a bit of intuition as well.
Yes it is both. There have been times in my research career when I had an idea and I just knew it was going to be positive, even though there was no basis for me to know that. In those cases, it most often turned out to be positive.

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