How to Develop a Great Research Idea

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We were joined by David R. Walt, PhD, the Robinson Professor of Chemistry and HHMI investigator on how to develop your next big scientific idea for success in Academia and Industry. Here are a few highlights from the talk:


David Walts’ thoughts on:  being in academia:
You really need to determine your motivation: What are your goals?
Everyone assigns different weights to different things based on their own personal situation.
This will help you determine where you should be …

Ask the following question for any new idea or project:
If it works and gave you the best possible result, would that make a difference to anyone other then you and your research advisor?
If it doesn’t – then it’s probably not a really good idea.

How do you come up with a new idea?

Start with the literature…

1. Read very broadly. Don’t start with your niche area. Get an idea of what the landscape looks like, the big picture. What is happening in science and what are the problems that people are working on?

2. Can you think of a different perspective, coming from a different area? example, as a chemist, looking at an immunology question.

3. You don’t need to have a particular focus or agenda in your reading. Look at the  bigger landscape of problems for perspective.

Reading very detailed can cause you to think everything is covered, you get lost in the weeds… one solution:

Stare into space.

Give your mind a break. It is easy to get overwhelmed be all the information.

Observe people in action
– Watch the experts
– You may see issues or problems that you can undertake as your idea.

It’s dangerous to get research ideas from your experimental results that deviate from the norm as they can lead you astray. You can get moved so far off track that you never find your way back to the main path.

How to decide if you should change your path?
You need to do risk analysis. Are the paths very different? Do you have the resources and materials to do it easily?

You know when you have a good idea – it’s almost a spiritual experience.

How do you trust your intuition?
Be an optimist! Pessimists don’t get very far in research as things will fail if you expect them to.

If it was rejected you need to probe why it was rejected.

What one piece advise would you give yourself from grad school?
Be opportunistic, take the long term view, you need to get funding and you need to be published. Don’t start with trying to cure cancer.
Pick problems that make a difference.

If you are NOT resource limited, sometimes you do stupid things because you don’t have to be careful. Resource limitations force you to work intellectually.

When do you share your idea with your PI?
When you come up with a really good idea – just zip your lips! Do not spew it out. Think about it.