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When you send a photo from your smartphone, it asks you to choose a size of photo to send.  Which size should you choose and why?

Each smaller size means the image is more compressed, so each size is a trade-off between bandwidth and detail.  The smaller you go, the less bandwidth you use, yet you also get less and less precise detail (e.g., the fine lines are less defined, while still being recognizable).

That compression is made possible by what is called “wavelet theory,” which is also used in the Hubble telescope, and was discovered by the remarkably innovative Ingrid Daubechies, Ph.D., the first female tenured math professor at Duke University, who was recently awarded the prestigious 2019 L’Oreal UNESCO International Award for Women in Science (and $100,000).  She has also received the MacArthur “Genius” Award and was the first woman to receive the coveted National Academy of Sciences award, among many other accolades.

When I interviewed this brilliant woman about the L’Oreal award, she verbally took me into the room where she and her team generate creative ideas and it was a fascinating peek into the workings of genius.

“To me, creativity is the ability to connect, in often unexpected ways, observations or experiences or skills from completely different realms,” Daubechies eloquently explained.

Ingrid Daubechies in her office at Duke University

Ingrid Daubechies in her office at Duke University, Photo: Duke University

 

Here are tips on how to generate creative ideas, and a couple of career tips, from our conversation:

  • Could you do this?”: Daubechies enthusiastically described research and innovation as, “You continuously build on what other people have done and (think about) ‘how can I use that?’ “
  • Collaborate with people from far outside your field. Daubechies is collaborating with art curators and conservators, and with anthropologists, who are all way outside of mathematics and physics.  They are using her wavelet theory and other research to help conserve historical art.

“It’s invigorating to talk with people who have expertise that I do not have in completely different fields,” Daubechies said, with her enthusiasm for it leaping through the phone lines.

  • Have diverse backgrounds at the table for creativity: Daubechies emphasized that, “different backgrounds lead to different ways of generating ideas and it becomes more creative.”
  • “Don’t be “married” to your ideas: The magic comes in the tweaking of ideas, what I describe as flipping it inside out and turning it polka dot, for example, so it’s critical to stay open to those tweaks and other people’s ideas and input.
  • Plan how you will preserve the output of your meeting: There are always interesting ideas and tweaks to them that fly around the room or conference call with a group of people tackling an issue, but so often capturing it all is not a focus and everyone leaves the room with their own “takeaways.” Daubechies suggests having someone designated as the note-taker from the start, including addressing if this might lead to publication of an academic research paper or such and whose bylines will be on it.  Share those notes among the group for suggested edits or additions, so everyone is on the same “wavelength” (pardon the pun) and agree on a final draft.  If a whiteboard or large pad is used, make sure someone is responsible for capturing those images too, literally by taking a photo of them that is shared among the group.
  • Share credit generously: From the start of a brainstorming or research meeting, Daubechies states clearly that if an academic paper is generated from the ideas discussed, that everyone in the room will have their name on it.  Establishing this clearly from the start reinforces the collaborative dynamic and reduces confusion, as well as eliminates competition. This is important especially in academia and other research-related disciplines where having your name on “breakthroughs” and publications is critical for career success.

  • Recognize a “new” idea or approach: I asked her how she knows when she has hit on a new theory or approach, and she said, “you have an internal mapping of the terrain you’ve covered,” so you know that space, and, therefore, when you have struck upon something new.  She tests it a few more times to be sure, too.  She added that sometimes it’s quite subtle, because new ideas are “germinating in my head” for a while, and come from “the accumulation of new things, (which) take things in a completely different direction.”
  • Celebrate and capture your own “new” ideas or perspectives in real time: She suggested taking the time to feel the moment and celebrate your new idea, and then to “write it down beautifully” to capture it properly and share it with other people on your team.

Career advice from this master STEM innovator?

Daubechies said what has helped her succeed is being “interested in what matters to the organization I was a part of,” such as embracing research and teaching, including undergraduates.   While many high-profile people talk about doing work that is aligned with your interests, this idea of aligning yourself with the organization’s goals and strategies is crucial.

You can listen to the full interview on my podcast, Green Connections Radio, coming up too.