In their journey towards the Nobel Prize, each Nobel Laureate has looked at a problem in a new way. They have used creativity to tackle existing problems, or identify new frontiers. Creativity is something which many laureates speak passionately about – and some of the advice they share on the topic can be surprising.
For her entire career, Medicine Laureate May-Britt Moser has worked long hours. Throughout, however, she has remained relaxed – a state of mind she believes is key to her creativity.
For Moser, play and bringing out the ‘child within you’ are important to her work. From an early age she mixed both work and play. A decade younger than her four older siblings, she spent a lot of time playing by herself in the fields on her parents’ farm. She loved to study animals and set herself tasks such as observing the behaviour of snails while they ate grass. As she watched snails and other animals, she would always wonder about the reasons behind what they were doing.
As a child she was developing important skills, and this has continued throughout her career. Just as an artist needs to be highly skilled before they can be creative, the same is true of a scientist; the first step towards creativity is to become skilled in the techniques of science.
Read more about Moser
Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008, also speaks about the importance of play when he advocates ‘the weekend experiment’. In the lab on a Saturday, he says, you don’t even need to tell others what you are doing – you are free to take risks, which can lead to high rewards. It’s an outlook shared by other Nobel Laureates.
Even though his most risky experiments were saved for the weekend, Chalfie feels that the academic system gives him a lot of the freedom needed for creativity. He is funded by grants rather than contracts, which means he is free to follow new ideas and explore different ways of approaching a problem.
Read more about Chalfie
Medicine Laureate Sir Paul Nurse has always been motivated by curiosity to study what interests him. He believes creativity relies both on precise logic and seeing the bigger picture. His ability to see a broader perspective on his work comes in part from reading very widely, which often reveals unexpected links.
Nurse also values personal interactions with people outside his area. While Nurse is a geneticist, his co-laureate Tim Hunt is a biochemist. “Our very different backgrounds meant that our conversations, for me at least, were always stimulating and productive,” says Nurse.
He believes that one reason a geneticist and a biochemist produced exciting work is that creativity is often at the boundaries between disciplines. It is about putting new things together and ‘exploring the edges’, much in the same way as humour does.
He also advocates having some time off, as you may find that you think about things in new ways when you return. Ultimately, he never stops looking for different ways to approach a problem.
Read more about Nurse
Like May-Britt Moser, Tim Hunt believes that experiencing different cultures increases creativity. He advises young scientists to travel and work overseas, even just for brief periods. He spent time in the United States, where he experimented with different material. In the UK he had been working on rabbit blood cells, and he expanded to use clam and sea urchin eggs. Still using the same techniques, he saw things in a new way.
Hunt, who received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, took advantage of conferences to meet people from different cultures. His first chance to work in the US came when he met an American scientist, Irving London, at a conference in Greece. He persuaded London to allow him to work in his lab, then took the train back to England. Trains back through Yugoslavia were very slow in 1966, and by the time he was back in Cambridge tickets to New York were waiting for him.
Read more about Hunt
Creativity is one of the virtues which Elizabeth Blackburn sees in successful scientists. She highlights that researchers need to be prepared for unpredictable events and to be opportunistic when things don’t go as planned. There may be creative ways to change a hypothesis or research plan, and anyone who is too stuck in their approach risks missing new opportunities.
Blackburn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009, points out that creativity needs to be matched with resilience. Answers won’t come straight away, and there will be obstacles along the way. However, when things aren’t working it may be possible to turn the question around. She is keen to stress the importance of flexibility in how people think about ideas – sometimes that means letting go of the first idea and coming in from a different angle. Young scientists in her lab often find this hard, but with a bit of encouragement they often discover that an alternative approach can bring new insights.
Read more about Blackburn
These videos were recorded at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events held in partnership with AstraZeneca.