Epiphanies: chewing on a good problem

1 May
iStockphoto/James Group Studios

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

I got a phone call from my husband a few weeks ago when he was away doing dissertation research. “Well, I’ve had an epiphany,” he says. “I’ve realized why what I’m doing won’t work.” This explanation was so logical, delightfully simple. I’m sure he’s right, though he now has to rejigger his experiments.

After we got off the phone, I could have been disappointed (Logically, every partner of a Ph.D. student hopes that experiments will move quickly rather than slowly). But I’ve also slogged through PhD-dom myself, so I was actually excited. Why? Because that moment and his clear idea took me back to the joy of research that kept me going through the slog. Strangely the best moments of my Ph.D. were actually when I somehow managed to step back after weeks, months, or years, and had the clarity to look at the problem from a different perspective. Suddenly, after weeks, months or even years of approaching a problem as the same-old, same-old, I’d know exactly where I’d gone wrong.

Of course, each of those moments led to mounds of hard work, but always taught me something new. I learned new purification techniques and found new collaborations with other smart people. And I was suddenly trying to do chemical reactions in water. Mother Nature is a master at water-based chemistry– human beings, well, we have a few million years to catch up on.

Ultimately,that problem-solving was exciting for me in a way that the result wasn’t. Actual results– as in those that I could actually publish– were so hard-won that I was utterly exhausted by the time I actually got them. Accomplishing a goal was gratifying, but not ultimately satisfying. I just couldn’t stomach the grind of so much repetition– doing the same experiments over and over because of that one thing that didn’t go right last time.

But the problem-solving, that’s still fun. And the beauty of writing is that I get to problem-solve almost every assignment. Finding the person with the right perspective, listening for the perfect quote, and tinkering around to find the right words, the nugget of the right idea– that’s the puzzle that keeps me coming back every day.

2 Responses to “Epiphanies: chewing on a good problem”


  1. Molecule of the Week: RNA « webb of science - May 16, 2009

    […] It’s a great example of scientists taking a step back and thinking about an old problem in a new way. […]

  2. Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies « Webb of Science - May 15, 2010

    […] May Webb of Science needs a breather, so I’ve decided to repost my inaugural post from the 2009 blogathon about problem-solving in both science and writing. I still love what I do, the puzzle of pulling […]

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