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Thoughts of a Postbac logo

In science, to “think outside the box” requires decoding what’s inside the box. I like to think of scientists as explorers who study things that are unknown. Under the guidance and support of mentors, young scientists, such as myself, develop skills and independence to solve problems. Research can be challenging at any stage of a person’s career, but it can be especially challenging for someone who has just started in a lab. So how do we peer into a box of unknowns so that we can begin to think outside of it?

After reflecting on advice from my mentors, postdocs, graduate students, fellow postbacs, and my own NIH experiences during these past few months, I think that I can offer a few insights and share my colleagues’ guidance.

Learn the literature, inside and out

A key step in figuring out “what’s inside the box” is to read and deeply understand scientific papers. The process is easier said than done, but I’ve realized that you get better at reading papers by reading papers.

Although everyone learns differently, three steps are helping me improve my skill of reading and understanding the literature. First, I read a publication for fun. I form vivid images in my mind, like a movie, and I imagine molecules of different shapes and sizes interacting with each other as if they are in a dance. Second, I draw on separate sheets of paper what I visualize in my mind. I think that using another sense, like the sense of touch, helps organize and integrate ideas presented in the paper. Third, I write my thoughts and a summary of the paper, which helps me cohere the material.

An important part of reading a paper is to critically evaluate the data. Bridget Donnelly, a graduate student in the NIH Graduate Partnership Program, offers strategies on how to interpret data when reading a paper. She encourages one to examine the figures first, to interpret what the data means without the author’s bias in mind. She emphasizes that practice at data interpretation helps in the long run. If she’s unfamiliar with a particular method or technique, she turns to the Internet to learn more.

Journal clubs offer an opportunity to learn about studies outside your own field and critically evaluate papers with experienced scientists. Dr. Medha Raina, a postdoctoral fellow at the NICHD, emphasizes the importance of attending journal clubs and diverse seminars, such as the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series (WALS). She says, “Many times experiments fail, so you have to constantly think in different directions…Participation in journal clubs forces you to analyze experiments from other fields and may help you incorporate ideas into your own research.”

Talk to other scientists

Even when you are working hard in the lab and immersing yourself in scientific literature, you can still get stuck on a research problem, back inside the box. “It can be really difficult to look at the problem from a new angle,” says Donnelly, “so when I’m stuck, I like to talk to someone who is unfamiliar with my project…they may ask a question that I hadn’t thought about, or ask for clarification that sparks an idea for me.”

When Donnelly chats with non-scientists, she enjoys thinking about her project in general terms and why people should care about it. Thinking about her research from a less technical point of view helps Donnelly form a big picture as she works through research challenges. She admits, “It’s easy to get caught in the details!”

Take care of yourself and have fun!

It is important to relax and have fun while interacting with others. The importance of self-care, which is defined as any “activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health,”1 to fostering one’s inventiveness cannot be overstated.

Research shows that physical activity, such as walking, “opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity.”2 Sleep, although sometimes neglected, is another activity that everyone needs to promote optimal health and well-being. According to a sleep-related anecdote about the German chemist August Kekulé, he had a dream of a snake biting its own tail, which inspired him to propose a ring structure for benzene.3

Although research is challenging—experiments may fail or we may feel pressure in the lab to succeed—we shouldn’t forget about the idea that we are venturing into the unknown. We may never know entirely what’s “in the box,” but eventually we can use creativity, imagination, and “thinking outside the box” to answer scientific questions and solve real world problems.


  1. PsychCentral. What Self-Care Is—and What It Isn’t. (accessed 20 October 2017).
  2. Oppezzo M and Schwartz DL. (2014) Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 40(4): 1142–1152.
  3. History of Chemistry: Kekule (2002). (accessed 20 October 2017).