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Previously on Untapped Creativity…

I sat down to talk with my wife Nicole Dobbs, about creativity in the science field. The second part of the interview shows exactly how nerdy research scientists can get. You can check out part 1 here.

Getting back to you not thinking that you’re smart enough. Smartness is relative depending on what you’re talking about. I look at that as more of an inner critic. If you had to characterize your inner critic as being a character from a movie, novel or famous person who would it be?

I go back to, especially girls, you have body image issues. I think in that case, it’s probably the stupid valley girl that everybody wants to punch in the face. “Like, oh my gawd! Look at yer big butt!” (laughs) It’s stuff like that.

And there’s always going to be days like yesterday. I was doing an experiment, and the spazzy little critic started freaking out. “There’s never going to be enough time! There’s never going to be enough time!” I started freaking out, because I’m not sure if I did this experiment right. I don’t know that I did the best design for this, and I could have screwed up the whole thing. I had to tell myself, “You need to shut up.” (laughs) And this is probably the same one that when I was going on my interviews for post-doc positions made me start freaking out. “You don’t know anything. The simplest question will get you much further.You don’t anything.” You saw me that morning before I went to that interview, and I had to realize that I’m my own worst enemy. I need to just stop, take a deep breath, and remember that I listen. I listen a lot, and I retain a lot of information. I know a lot of basic stuff. A lot of times when you’re solving problems you start with the simplest solution. Because the simplest question you can ask will get you much further.

I think I have a lot of critics. I think they all look different. I think the most descriptive one is the self-image one who’s the valley girl that I just want to punch in the face.

So that’s the one that you’re most familiar with, but I imagine that one has been there a long time.

Yeah, but you know what? I will agree with you, and this is going on record. The older that I’ve gotten, you’re going to get uglier as you get older…

I don’t think that’s what I said, but we’ll go with it.

(laughs hard) but one of the things that I’ve realized is that I don’t care as much. It’s not as important. We’re all at different stages of our life. I’m never going to be perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make me ME. If I looked perfect, or I looked like I was in a magazine, I would be Barbie. And Barbie is pretty plastic. I’m me. I have a lot of imperfections. I’m not afraid of getting a scar. Those will define me. If I do get a really cool scar, I’m going to come up with a really cool story about how I got it. It’s probably going to involve zombies and robots.

Zombies have come up twice now.

I said Resident Evil. I didn’t say zombies!

We all now what you meant. You clearly have this obsession with zombies. Knowing that you feel so strongly about zombies, do you think zombies should be allowed to vote?

Okay, to answer your question, because I don’t know if I’ve answered any of your questions. (laughs hard) I would say no, because their vote is probably easily swayed with some brains. Then I really do think that everybody deserves the right to vote, but then I went totally the other way with it. They do deserve the right to vote, because you never know the zombies may actually elect a good zombie senator that may actually do better than the ones we have now.

So you would back a zombie-based platform.

I might back a zombie-based platform. I might be a part of a zombie platform, oh, unless project Alice is going to come kill me. But then I’d get to meet one of my heroes.

What advice would you give to someone who’s considering a PhD?

My first piece of advice for people getting a PhD would be, don’t have a fulltime job. Don’t work fulltime. It’s easier said than done, especially if you live on your own. You can’t do science and a fulltime job. It’s just too much, because then you’re never home. You might as well just live in the lab.

Your going to have days where you feel like everything you touch turns to shitDon’t give up. If you really love it, you’re going to have bad days. Everybody knows that if you love something that you do there’s always a downside. I think that the careers we end up in have more of an upside than a downside. The upsides are so much better that we can get through the downside of it. You’re going to have days where you feel like everything you touch turns to shit. (laughs) You need to step away from it, and go for a walk. Take the dog for a walk. You’re going to have hard times, but it’s worth it if you really want to do this. You’re going to have to be able to get through those hard things. You going to have to learn things that you don’t want to learn.

The best advice that I ever received was from Dr. Simecka. “What is the question your trying to answer?” Take that and make it into a story that you can follow. You can explain to people what it is that you’re trying to study.

Just remember if you’re going to do this, it’s not easy. It’s going to take a chunk of your life. Most people will not understand why it’s taken you seven years to get through this, and you can’t really describe it to them because they don’t know unless they’ve been there. Just stick with it, because in the end it will be worth it.

So do you find that getting out of your normal routine or going outside rejuvenates your creativity?

I think so. I have several friends that were freaking out about taking their medical boards, and I understand because I am SO not a test taker. They were doing the same thing that everybody does — locking themselves in the house and studying. I told them, “Okay, you need to go outside, and you need to take a thirty minute walk. I know you’re freaking out, because you’re thinking oh my god, oh my god. You’re brain will thank you.” Exercise I think is probably the best thing in the world. I think it’s almost the cure-all for a lot of diseases. You know if people actually got out and exercised more their body would thank them, but your brain I think really resets. There’s something about it. I don’t know if it’s getting away from what you were doing, but you’re outside, you’re walking, you’re exercising and for me, if you can’t already tell, I talk 15 miles an hour. I’m a little bit of a spaz.

You’re a little calm this morning.

That’s a five mile run, baby!

I am a spaz. My brain goes a million miles an hour. I think we’ve joked about this, that I’m probably a little ADD. What I’ve noticed is that when I get out there my brain is all over the place. It’s thinking about everything. It’s playing back scenarios. It’s playing back conversations. It’s thinking about what I watched on TV. It’s thinking about what I’m going to do next week, in a year, in 12 years. And it’s going all over the place, which I think is kind of good, but then at some point it starts to slow down. And then it reorders itself.

If you have a problem that’s on your mind that you’re going around 50 million ways, sometimes when you comeback from that walk you have that solution. Or you have a place to start, or new way of looking at it.

My previous guest Jeni Herberger has a question for you. Was there ever a moment during your PhD that you wanted to throw in the towel? How did you end up overcoming it?

Yes! (laughs) There’s been a number of occasions where I’ve wanted to throw in the towel. Every step of the way was scary. You were there with me going up in the elevator when I was going to my oral exam. It felt like going to the guillotine.

For those of you that don’t know, I have a 45 minute commute to get to the school. Tad had to drive me on that day, because I was so freaked out. I was going up in the elevator, and I’m pretty sure I was having a panic attack. I ran into the chair of my committee, and he looked at me, which I’m sure I looked horrible. I said, “Dr. Easom, I don’t think I can do this.” He said, “Take a deep breath. All we want to know is what you know. That’s it.” So, that helped me get past it.

Then for my grant writing exam, I was able to drive myself. But it once again felt like I was going to the guillotine. It was weird though. I don’t what happened, but I relaxed more. I gave my presentation, and I guess I realized that I was really doing it, that I actually am a scientist.

I think during grant writing there was a point where I thought I was having a panic attack, too.

That’s the one that I most vividly remember. You were just so upset on my office floor, and you couldn’t put together a sentence. You were just hysterical. I’ve never seen you that stressed out.

It’s because when you go for many days without sleep, or with only little bits of sleep you really can’t focus.

Sleep is really important everyone.

I’m really good at not getting sleep, but you really should make sure that you get sleep. That’s probably where a lot of that came from, and the stress of everything. It was crazy. Me and Sheetal, my good friend, talk about grant writing as if it was the Vietnam War. Like we’re veterans. (laughs) It was a really important step in our career, and we got past it. I really feel like once you get past it you should get some kind of girl scout badge or boy scout badge for that.

It was even worse towards the end. Not so much writing my thesis as much as doing the experiments, because I think we were still going in one direction in March, and I couldn’t prove what I thought I was trying to prove. I was so unhappy. “Why is this not working?” I even made Dr. Simecka miss his poker game, because I was like “This is not working!” He said, “We can try this.” And I was like, “THAT’S GOING TO TAKE ME ANOTHER MONTH!” That was the day that I walked to my car and I put on one of my anthems — Broken Social Scene’s “It’s All Gonna Break.” I cried walking all the way to my car. I cried all the way in my car on the drive home. I think I got home at 8 o’clock that night. When I came in, you looked at me, and I had big puffy eyes. You were like, “It’s gonna be okay.” I guess it looks like a funeral when I come in like that.

Sometimes you’re going to get to the point where you just have to let it out. You can’t be tough all the time. When you’re in the car and nobody else is around, you can cry all the way home. And go to sleep, because the next day is going to be another day. Today is the day you’re going to figure it out. The story still came out good.

How did I overcome it? I think it’s a life lesson that my parents taught me a long time ago. You’re going to get knocked down, and you have to get yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. Ultimately, at the end of it, just like with Frodo’s journey, although it did result in Frodo’s death… STOP LAUGHING!

I’m just laughing at how much of a nerd you are, because you brought up The Lord of the Rings and Resident Evil in the same interview.

Oh, my god. That was a long journey. I was like, “Oh my god. Are you going to get to Mordor? Would you just throw the damn ring!” (LAUGHS)

The longest journeys, the stuff that is the hardest to do is the stuff that’s worth doing. That’s really what I believe. That’s probably what’s kept me going. I think I’m going to get to the end, and at the end I’m going to figure it out. I hope that when I die that I get to go to heaven, and they’re going to tell me all the reasons why those experiments didn’t work like they were supposed to. (LAUGHS) They’re going to go, “Okay. Here it is, and here’s the book.” Or as my mom always tells me, it’ll be all the things that you’ve ever done wrong. (LAUGHS) It’s going to be the library of black books. And I told her one day when she told me that, that there are volumes on me. (LAUGHS)

Be sure to check back soon from Creative Exercise 2.

Like what you see feel free to email me at tad@creativesquall.com and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

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