I don’t know about you, but like many people in the United States, a significant amount of my time and attention this week has been dedicated to getting ready for Thanksgiving. I planned the menu for our family’s traditional meal — roasted Meleagris gallopavo (turkey), mashed Solanum tuberosum (potatoes) with gravy, some type of Vaccinium macrocarpon (cranberries), and Cucurbita pepo (pumpkin) and/or Theobroma cacao (chocolate) pie. I also been considered how I will spend the time when I’m not cooking — watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, playing board games, and rereading my favorite Thanksgiving book, Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten by Barbara Parks (no, really). And, of course, I have been reflecting on things I am thankful for (my family, a new church home, relatively good health, and God’s presence in my life). One thing I am especially thankful for this year is the chance to take a few days to rest and mentally prepare for the rest of the semester.
Like many academics, I am guilty of using too many breaks to play catch-up on all the projects I am behind on. But, also like many academics, I am also experiencing some burnout. My energy to do even tasks that bring me joy is fading, and I am struggling to, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “run with endurance the race God has set before us,” Hebrews 12:1 (NLT). So, this year I plan to be more intentional about planning some time and activities that will replenish my creative energy.
I confess that I only recently realized that creative energy is something that needs to be nurtured as much as my physical energy. It seems obvious now, but I sort of took my mental energy for granted until my friend and writing mentor, Ruth, brought this idea to my attention. During a session of the writers’ group that she leads, Ruth shared about the difficulty she has had maintaining the level of creativity she needs to keep writing during the last couple of years. After some reflection, she realized that a lot of her creative energy comes from traveling and spending time in coffee shops — both things that she hasn’t been able to do during the last two years of The Entroublement. She finished the session by emphasizing the importance of intentionally nurturing creativity, and she asked each of us to name something that gives us creative energy. I didn’t really have a good answer at the time.
Unfortunately, I sometimes forget that creativity is such a huge part of being a research scientist, partly because the term is so often associated with the arts rather than science. For example, the Google dictionary defines creativity as “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” But there is more to creativity than that. According to a piece in Psychology Today, creativity is “the ability to discover new and original ideas, connections, and solutions to problems.” This definition of creativity seems more relevant to my work as a scientist. The essay goes on to say that creativity includes the ingenuity and novel workarounds that are parts of everyday life – especially if your everyday life is spent in a research lab (I might have added that last part). Finally, creativity is important because it fosters resilience, sparks joy, and it is part of what makes us human. As Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman nicely put it, “there is little that shapes the human experience as profoundly as creativity,”
In her book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, Dr Elaine Howard Ecklund takes the idea that creativity makes us human one step further. She suggests creativity is an important way that humans are made in the image of God. Moreover, the desire and ability to make things (i.e., be creative) is a key characteristic that God and humans share. Finally, she shared about the acts of creativity in her career as a social scientist have given her the opportunity to serve others with the things she has made in the everyday tasks of researching, writing, teaching, and mentoring. These are all creative acts that are part of my research career as well.
Expanding the definition of creativity to include ingenuity, problem solving, innovation, and the ability to see novel connections certainly convinced me that I need to be more intentional about nurturing my creative brain. The idea that the act of being creative connects me to God and makes me human, just furthered my resolve to be proactive about including things in my life that provides creative energy. However, I am still trying to figure out just what those activities are. I was remined a few weeks ago how important it is to attend national society meetings like the American Physiology Society’s Comparative Physiology Meeting that was recently held in San Diego. This was the first meeting I have attended in-person since January of 2020, and I am still reaping the benefits. Much like being part of a church family, being part of a community of scientists whose research interests are similar to my own, is essential for generating new questions that push my research forward. Both formal presentations and informal chats over coffee or beer provided new ideas that I am still ruminating about. I also have a new appreciation for the ways the time I spend in nature fuels my creativity. I also find creative energy from reading more popular science articles in Scientific American or Knowable Magazine. I also have a huge list of popular science books on my TBR stack including Gulp by Mary Roach, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos by Paul Wallace, An Immense World by Ed Yong, and She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer (to name a few). I also have a few recent review articles that I am looking forward to reading over the break that give a summary of recent research on topics relevant to my research.
But now I want to hear from you, reader. What gives you creative energy and boosts your mental endurance? Are there books or activities that fill your creative bucket? Please share what you’ve discovered work for you in the comments so our community of can be inspired by your insight.
About the author:
Dr. Julie A. Reynolds is a Research Scientist at The Ohio State University in the department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology. She studies insect physiology and biochemistry with the goal of learning how animals adapt to extreme environments and survive changes in climate. In addition to writing for the Emerging Scholars Network, she is actively engages in discussions about science and faith as a Sinai and Synapses Fellow.