Graduate students and postdocs exercise creative thinking in Night Science workshops during Wintersession

Feb. 20, 2023

Grad students & postdocs exercise creative thinking in Wintersession Night Science workshops

The GradFUTURES® professional development initiative within the graduate school hosted Dr. Itai Yanai (Professor, NYU School of Medicine) and Dr. Martin Lercher (Professor, Heinrich Heine University), co-creators of the Night Science initiative, on January 23rd and 24th. This Wintersession 2023 event was co-sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council

The theory at the core of the Night Science initiative draws a distinction between two complementary aspects of scientific research, which French biologist François Jacob called “day science” and “night science.” While day science is the executive domain of experimentation and hypothesis-testing, night science is the creative domain of exploration, idea-generation, and forming connections. Through Night Science workshops, editorials, and a popular podcast, Yanai and Lercher explore the “behind the scenes” creative process of scientific research and encourage graduate students and postdocs to embrace innovative thinking and an entrepreneurial mindset toward bold, disruptive research ideas. 

“Night science requires spontaneity - we need a sandbox for ideas - and the secret for enabling this is to find someone you can talk to. One-on-one’s are the best, because you can develop trust and be vulnerable with the other person. Together you can avoid being too critical by thinking of the conversation as an improvisation, like jazz or improvisational theater.”- Itai Yanai

Over 12 hours on January 23-24, an engaged group of graduate students and postdocs learned and applied seven distinct creative thinking tools in the Night Science workshops. For each topic, Lercher and Yanai introduced the core concepts, demonstrated its application in their respective research projects, and facilitated interactive, hands-on activities for participants to apply these tools. Their two conditions were: first, participants had to form new pairs for each activity and second, participants should walk away from each activity with ideas on post-it notes.

Anne-Marie Maman, '84, Executive Director of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, said of the workshop: "It was fun to watch as the graduate students started to understand how the innovation mindset can open up the way they think about their research. It is a great tool to expand their research, but it is also a great skill to open up possibilities in life."

On the first day, participants covered four approaches for creative thinking: Improvisational Science, What is the Question?, Two languages of science, and Import and Export of Ideas across Fields

Improvisation Science involved using improv techniques (such as “yes and”) to build on ideas without judgements. What is the Question centered on finding or reframing new questions while navigating a maze of "unknown unknowns." Yanai and Lercher would quote Biologist Dr. Uri Alon in response to perplexing thoughts of participants - “Yes! You are in the cloud."

In Two languages of science, they invited participants to use anthropomorphisms and metaphors to communicate their scientific ideas, and dilemmas instead of focusing on precision. Communicating in Night Science mode can foster ideation by focusing on concepts instead of language. 

They quoted Princeton faculty and Nobel Laureate Dr. Daniel Kahneman to exemplify this approach: “I’ve made agents out of system 1 and system 2 because everybody finds it easier to think about agents – with propensities and traits – than about abstract categories. Agents make powerful subjects because they’re active and they do things”

In Export and import of ideas across fields, they highlighted the creative benefits of "Renaissance minds" such as Leonardo da Vinci, and how interdisciplinary connections breed innovation as the next creative idea could come from right outside one’s field. 

Dr. Martin Lercher said about the experience: “Itai and I have been developing resources for Night Science for several years now. It was so much fun for both of us to explore what we learned together with Princeton’s graduate students and postdocs. We were thrilled by how quickly and how deeply they got into it, and by the enthusiasm with which they applied the creativity tools to their own projects in the hands-on sessions!”

On the second day, Lercher and Yanai covered three approaches: Science as a meta-puzzle, the Data-hypothesis conversation, and Stone soup: evolution and design of a scientific project.

In Science as a meta-puzzle, they introduced four classes of puzzles and the practice of puzzle-switching in research projects, particularly using a different lens of problem-solving, thinking outside the box, or reorienting focus.

In the data-hypothesis conversation, they highlighted the liability of hypothesis-driven data analysis - a narrow focus may prevent a remarkable discovery. They pushed participants to identify under-appreciated parts of their research or data by chanting “What’s your spacer?” Using the discovery of the function of CRISPR "spacers" as an example.

For the seventh and final topic, Lercher and Yanai introduced a new resource they are developing called Stone soup: evolution and design of a scientific project. Analogizing stone soup, a European folk story where neighbors create a meal by sharing ingredients they have, they emphasized how projects can evolve through intellectual collaboration among scientists. 

To bring it together, participants reflected individually on creative directions for their own research project using these Night Science tools. They deliberated on the ideas and feedback from these two days and drafted potential directions. During the final debrief, participants discussed key highlights of the workshop and future directions with the organizers and facilitators, which included the desire to continue exercising Night Science with this cohort and the need for such training in the graduate curriculum. 

Sonali Majumdar, Assistant Dean for Professional Development in the Graduate School, remarked: “It was liberating as a former bench-scientist to share in the joy of exchanging ideas and puzzling over problems with graduate students and postdocs, discussing the mental toll resulting from the uncertainty, and how it all takes a village. The notion of a lone genius is a myth. I couldn’t help but imagine the impact of Night Science on the mental wellbeing of scientists and the inclusion of diverse perspectives and people in science. I am committed to making Night Science’s creative thinking workshops accessible to all graduate students in Princeton.”

Following the conclusion of the second day's workshop was a reception during which graduate students and postdocs networked over hors d'oeuvres and chatted spiritedly with Drs. Lercher and Yanai. In attendance were Eva Kubu, Associate Dean and Director of Professional Development in the Graduate School, and Anne-Marie Maman, Executive Director of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. 

Planning and logistics were handled by temporary GradFUTURES Coordinator Peter Krause.

For more information about hosting Night Science workshops for the Princeton community, please contact Sonali Majumdar: [email protected]