Coronavirus diaries: finding a place to have new ideas

Nature
Open notebook with a sketch of headphones

Credit: Adapted from Getty

One of my shorter-lived delusions at the beginning of lockdown was that it would be a fantastic time to write grant proposals. I imagined myself reclining on a chaise longue in my study, wearing a beret, inundated with ideas; the next Nobel Prize just a thought away.

This didn’t happen. It didn’t help that I own neither a beret nor a chaise longue. More problematic has been juggling the kids’ schoolwork, the actual day job, writing columns about how busy I am, and baking. Another barrier is that I no longer have access to the places where my best ideas usually seed.

Yes, I still have access to papers, but although reading papers is an excellent way to build on, understand and share existing ideas, I find it generally unhelpful in generating new ideas for my own work. Part of this is to do with the publication eruption of the past 20 years. When I started my PhD, in plant biochemistry, it was relatively straightforward. If you wanted to find a paper in subject X, you looked in the Journal of X. There were sometimes regional variations — the British Journal of X or the European Journal of X — and there were, of course, the bigger, more general journals. It was just about possible to scan most of the new work in your field. This has changed. My work now has to do with the interface of infection and immunity in the lungs; with more than 400 journals covering the field, there are far too many articles to keep up with.

So, like many others, I need a filter to identify the most important ideas. One approach is to be selective about which journals you read, but this can be flawed if you choose only those with a high impact factor. Another is to meet other scientists and engage with new research in that way. My favourite space in which to get ideas and develop collaborations is a conference. Small residential conferences, where you get to speak to everyone attending (and often drink too much beer with them), are just as good for this as big ones, such as the annual gathering of UK immunologists at the British Society for Immunology’s congress, which is like an extended family reunion with added science.

I also get ideas during music gigs. This might sound odd — singing along to dad rock doesn’t seem the ideal way to do science — but gigs are a space where I don’t have to think about my kids, my laboratory or my chickens, which clears space for other thoughts to germinate.

And yet, seven weeks into lockdown, I’ve been surprised and pleased to see the shoots of new ideas appear. One thing that has helped is still having access to one of the other times when my creative side emerges — when running, which is allowed under lockdown here in the United Kingdom. It’s not that I have brilliant ideas while I am running along; most of the time is spent trying to catch my breath and wondering why I am so much slower than I was this time last year. But running clears my head and provides clarity long after I’ve caught my breath.

Music is still helping me think, as well. I might not be able to go to gigs but, as lockdown began, I invested in a subscription to Spotify. I now have a carefully curated playlist of dad music, Disney songs and dance tunes that I can listen to without hearing — pop music as white noise — to drown out distraction. The addition of sound-reducing headphones allows me to tune out the world and really focus on what I am doing. This has led to a few terrifying moments when I have been so deeply immersed in the work (and the music) that when someone else comes into the room to speak to me, I jump out of my skin.

So, the good news is that I am beginning to have ideas. Whether these will develop into amazing giant sequoias, or suffer the same fate as my attempts to grow cress, is yet to be seen.

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