How do you encourage innovation in your lab?

Great scientists are also great innovators. New ideas, techniques, and devices form the bedrock of scientific discovery. Here, four researchers share how they inspire innovation in the lab.

Carolyn R. Bertozzi

University of California, Berkeley

I put forth "grand challenges" during group meetings and one-off hallway encounters. Usually these incite eye rolling, but once in a while a coworker takes a serious interest in a "moon-shot" project. I also aim to give my students and postdocs a great degree of independence in crafting their research projects. For postdocs headed for academic careers, I encourage exploration of new territory that could form the basis of their future research program. Finally, I send trainees to conferences and encourage them to attend sessions outside their immediate research area.

Eric Betzig

Janelia Farm Research Campus

I try to encourage my group to:
a) Not follow the academic herd.
b) Keep an eye out for the unexpected.
c) Focus on what's not working—understanding the problem is half the battle.
d) Work harder than the other guy.
e) Not get trapped by their success.

Craig S. Pikaard

Indiana University Bloomington

There is no simple formula. Innovation requires having a sense of what questions to pursue, possessing a broad enough perspective to piece together clues and synthesize hypotheses, maintaining a healthy skepticism of existing models, grasping the limitations of current technologies, knowing how and when to seek out collaborators, and being willing to go for it when a promising idea comes to mind. Imagination, creativity, and exploration are what make science fun, and in my lab, we revel in these aspects of our work. I look for creative junior colleagues like those described in an ad for IBM fellows decades ago: dreamers, heretics, gadflies, mavericks, and geniuses.

Martin D. Burke

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

I try to recruit highly innovative students ... and then stay out of their way!

Photos: Bertozzi: Courtesy of Carolyn Bertozzi; Betzig: Paul Fetters; Pikaard: A.J. Mast / AP, ©HHMI; Burke: L. Brian Stauffer

Scientist Profile

Stanford University
Chemical Biology, Molecular Biology
University of California, Berkeley
Biophysics, Cell Biology
Indiana University Bloomington
Biochemistry, Molecular Biology