Believe it or not, it’s actually pretty hard to schedule time to sit down and interview your spouse. My wife, Nicole Dobbs, has been one of the biggest influences behind the topic of this blog series. When people first meet us and discover what we do for a living, they often assume since Nicole is a scientist, more specifically an immunologist, that she isn’t the creative one. We almost always respond by explaining how similar the thought process is for designing experiments and designing brands. I know that she’s just as passionate about the creativity in everyone as I am, so I’m thrilled that she gets to talk about her own approach to science in my next couple of posts. If you know her, it’ll come as no surprise that Nicole had a lot to say. It’s all great stuff, so I’ve split the interview into 2 posts.
Tell us a little bit about your background and your journey to get to where you are today.
I think I was always a weird kid. It goes back to what you talked about, you exhibit certain signs at an early age. And I think that I was always a great observer of small things like realizing that plants are actually living, and they move. But I think what really tipped my parents off more than anything else was in 6thgrade when we learned about the cell. You’re a mosaic of different kinds of cells. So your heart cells, your liver cells, your skin cells, they all work together. Within each one of those cells there are components that keep them running. We had to do a model of a cell, and it had to have all of the components that make a cell work. I was really into music, so I made mine like a little punk rocker cell. I ended up making a 98 or a 100 on that test just because I just found it so interesting.
I think my parents always knew I liked science, and before I went off to the University of North Texas they made me pick a major. (laughs) So, they sat down — actually it was just my mom that sat down — and started reading majors to me. It was so funny, because she got to Biology and said, “You’ve always been good at science.” So, she read the description for biology. “It’s the study of life, but it’s also classifying things in their kingdom, phylum, class, order, blah, blah, blah.” And I found that really boring, but when she got to biochemistry, which talked about the components of the cell, RNA and DNA, I was like “Okay, that sounds cool!” And then I just started down that path. The further I went down the path the more interesting it got. At UNT there were a lot of people working with micro-organisms — manipulating their DNA, which I thought was just the coolest thing on the planet.
So, I got into that, but ultimately I arrived at where I am now which is studying cellular immunology. Micro-organisms are awesome, but pathogens are even cooler! If you get infected by a few pathogens, they can make you sick and kill you. That’s pretty crazy! On the other side, your body has these awesome mechanisms to fight them off.
That’s how I got to where I am. I love immunology, and I love pathogens. And I love them both equally.
Recently you finished graduate school. What was your degree in specifically?
Well, on my actual GIGANTIC diploma, I believe, it’s a PhD in Bio-Medical Sciences which sounds SO generic. But it’s actually the study of immunology, particularly micro-biology and immunology. That’s what I study.
What are you planning to do now that you’ve got your PhD?
Well, I find that I’m most interested in staying in academia. You pretty much get to a point, at least as a scientist, in your career where you have to decide, “Do I want to go into industry, where I work for a company? Or do I want to stay in academia?”
I decided I wanted to stay in academia, and I came to that conclusion, most importantly, because to me, it is actually more creative. You may be doing your studies, but then you come across a weird idea, and maybe you can follow that for a little while. You never know where that’s going to lead. So, that’s the route I’m going.
You’ve touched on an interesting idea that academia is a little more creative. People generally are not going to think of science as creative. What is it specifically that you find creative in science?
It’s so funny, because I just had a conversation with one of my colleagues who was insistent that she wasn’t creative even though she’s a bio-physicist. She insisted that creativity is like a Van Gogh or a Francis Bacon where you physically look at the products they come up with, and you have a strong emotional reaction. I was telling her “No, you don’t understand. We’re just as creative.” It’s just we’re creative in more of a “Hey! Here’s a bunch of Legos, why don’t you start putting them together and see what you can make out of it or see what comes out of it.” We’re creative, just differently. (laughs)
How would you define creativity in its most basic terms? What to you is creativity?
I’ve thought about it, and that’s a really interesting question. It’s difficult to answer, because everybody thinks creativity is like a Jackson Pollock painting. You look at it and you’re like “Wow! That guy really knew what he was doing, but I could never come up with that. Or I could never paint that.” I think in the science field, it’s more about… So this is how I described it to the lady I was talking to. I said, “Haven’t you ever been in the middle of an experiment and something goes terribly wrong?” because you weren’t paying attention or because you just didn’t expect it. So, literally, you’re jogging down the path, and BOOM something goes wrong. What are you going to do? You can’t scrap this entire experiment that you spent 2 months working on. All you can do is come up with some solution on the fly to figure out how to salvage whatever kind of data you can salvage. That’s on immediate terms, but in the long-term it’s, “We’re thinking about our problem, and we’re thinking about what kind of question we want to ask about this problem that could lead us down a path to the answer for something.” The problem is we don’t know how to answer it, so we have to design experiments to answer a question. I mean there are some basic experiments that have already been designed, or have been put through the mill. Everybody does those. Flo-cytometry. Oh yeah, that’s great! Everybody believes it. But sometimes you have to be more creative than that. You have to figure out what you can do to answer your question. That involves a lot of design of the experiment and creativity in and of itself.
Do you think creativity defines you, or do you define your creativity?
I think that you define your own version of creativity. I think it fits whatever solution. You use it how you use it. You just don’t realize you’re doing it. And when you realize you’re doing it you’re like “Oh!”
Would you say it’s a trait that has to be taught or is it a talent you’re born with?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Some people are more gifted. Thelonius Monk was clearly musically gifted. Now, we can also say that maybe some of that was enhanced by drugs just like Coltrain, but some people are just naturally talented. Some people can draw better than others. You can learn to draw, but some people don’t have to sit down and think about it. They can just do it. I think that everybody to a certain degree is born with it, but I think you learn to use it. In other cases, like the person I was talking to, when you point out to them “You know you’re being creative.” They kind of freak out “No, I’m not!” and then the magic’s gone. The magic that they used to answer whatever the question is gone.
Were you born with creativity or did it develop? Do you think hard about what you do or does it come naturally?
It’s both. I think where I’m probably most creative, and I think a lot of people would agree with this, is probably where I’m not trying. I LOVE to make people laugh, especially in awkward situations or when weird stuff happens. I love to tell stories. I might embellish my stories a little bit and do people’s voices. The wit comes to me. It just kind of happens, but it’s because I LOVE to make people laugh. I get on a roll, and I start telling stories.
When I use what I consider my creativity for my experiments, I spend a lot of time thinking about them. I think about them on paper, and I write them out. A lot of times I find when I sleep at night that I probably spent most of the night thinking about whatever problem that I’ve been focusing on. It almost overwhelms me to where I stop paying attention to conversations, because I’m thinking so hard about this one problem.
So it’s kind of both. I think when I’m relaxed and making people laugh, it just kind of rolls out of me. But when I’m applying it to science, it’s actually something that I’m using, and I have to think really hard about.
Do you consider yourself to be living an outwardly creative life?
No, I don’t think I necessarily live an outwardly creative life, because I think in general if you put you and I side by side everyone will go “Oh yeah! He’s the creative one.” Especially with my mom. My whole family thinks that you’re Jackson Pollock and you throw paint at a canvas. (laughs)
And we both know that’s not true at all.
NO! I do find it really nice, because a lot of times when we’re decorating I get so overwhelmed. Even when I shop for clothes, because there are too many choices and too many colors. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to do and where to go. A lot of times I have to rely on you to go “Okay, well what do you think about this.” You can find something that I think sticks out, or that you know I’ll like. Then we can start there. When we start there, it’s like “Okay! Now I understand.” So, that kind of stuff I like doing, and I don’t like doing.
I guess most people wouldn’t say that I live an outwardly creative life. But I think living with a graphic designer has made my life much easier and much more interesting.
How does it feel to have recently completed your PhD?
It feels like I climbed Mt. Everest. (chuckles) It’s so weird, because this is really only the beginning of my career. I’ve been in school for seven years, but about ten years ago was when I was seriously thinking about going back to get a PhD. When you get an undergraduate degree in something like BioChemistry, and you’re like “All right! Now I’m going to go and get a job!” You get paid very little to be a technician. Though that was probably the smartest thing that I ever did, because the two years being a technician allowed me to understand how to work in a lab which is really important. But I have to be honest with you, and maybe you know this, I really didn’t think that I was ever going to be able to do it.
I didn’t think that I was smart enough. I thought to be a scientist that you had to be a super-genius, maybe a mad scientist. That you had to understand what a flux capacitor was. (chuckles)
Why would you pursue something that you didn’t think you could accomplish? Are you that glutton for punishment or is that just what you told yourself?
There was that little glint that was like “You don’t know if you don’t try.” I still love it. It’s kind of hard to describe.
90% of the time our experiments are going to fail. It’s not the failure of the experiment. You shouldn’t be upset by that. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the experiment and the data telling you that is NOT the answer. You need to try something else. I did a bunch of experiments. I got a bunch of data. But the day that you do the simplest experiment, and then everything you’ve ever done comes together that feeling will top no other feeling in the world. When you do little accomplishments, little experiments that work, it’s like solving a mystery. It’s very much like when we were in college, and we had the Salvador Dali poster on the wall. I don’t even remember what it was, but it was the craziest picture in the world. It had the elephants with the stretched out legs. It had the melted clocks. It had the baseball player with the baseball for a face. It used to aggrevate me. Every morning I’d wake up, and I’d sit up and look at that poster. And I would think, “Today is the day I’m going to figure out what this poster means.” By the way, I have never figured out what that poster means. One day I came up with a good theory (chuckles) as to what it was.
I remember you had several “theories” which you explained quite often, but I don’t know that there is an explanation.
There probably isn’t, but I was going to make sense of it. (laughs) Because it AGGREVATED me, and I think that’s what drives me. Somewhere there’s a little voice in my head that everyday says, “Today is the day I’m going to figure it out.” For me, life is one giant detective mystery, and today is the day that I’m going to figure it out. I hope that I never lose that, because I think that’s what keeps me going.
Be sure to check out the exciting conclusion of my interview with Nicole Dobbs.