When Mike King (Dr, not Comedian) is not researching animal ethics or boring people about pencils, he’s the PhD coordinator at the Bioethics Centre. He took some time to muse about creativity, chairs, and the hard slog of research.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
Research is a very creative process, although it often doesn’t seem it. You’re sitting at your desk, or in the lab, poring over the dense and complex writing of others, or over your data, or over a piece of equipment, trying to understand what’s in front of you. Doing this analysis you are usually making use of ideas and work of others: theories, statistical tests, machines, methods. It can often seem like you’re merely treading in someone’s footprints, not plotting a bold new path.
If it feels like you’re treading in someone’s footprints, especially in the first years of your research, I think you’re doing it right. But your feelings are a bit misleading. You’re not treading in someone’s footprints, it’s more like putting on someone’s shoes, and walking in them for a while. Your supervisors are there to help you choose the right shoes, and to help point you in the right direction, but the walking is up to you, and as you start to feel comfortable in the shoes, you will find interesting things to look at and will start to direct yourself over to them on the way.
Charles and Ray Eames were a husband and wife couple who were responsible for some of the best design work of the late-middle 20th century. Above is a very cool lounge chair you might recognise, and here is a video clip that shows the relative size of things in the universe. Both are highly creative and the product of immense skill. Yet one of their mottos was:
“Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.”
What Charles and Ray Eames did was to take a simple thing – the lounge chair – and adjusted it to make it a bit better for sitting in, using cheap, existing materials. Or take a simple idea – that things get smaller the further you are away from them – and use it to present a huge amount of scientific information in a beautiful and simple way. Both are hailed as huge contributions to their craft.
By making use of existing ideas (sometimes they’ve existed for a looong time) and taking them a little step further than the last person did, or putting them together with other ideas, and adjusting them carefully to suit the new terrain that research reveals and traverses, you’re doing something very creative. You’re creating knowledge. To quote the Otago PhD Regulations, this will be a “significant contribution to knowledge in the particular field”.
Dr Mike King, Bioethics Centre