Who says scientists aren’t creative?

One of the things that people tends to think about scientists is that we are all machine-like robots who are technically advanced, but without an ounce (or gram) of creativeness.

I’m planning in this brief blog to dispel this criticism with a few choice counterpoints, followed by “the mother-of-all-examples” from my own work. Yes, I am bragging, and you’ll see my creativeness if you bear with me.

But first, OT and it’s bloggers and followers are a prime example of creativeness. Each blog is uniquely creative, thoughtful, didactic, scholarly, humbling and humorous. Or any combination of the above. And we are all scientists! There are authors, chess-players, film makers, photographers and artists among us. But if these examples still don’t convince you, how about this:

I’ve been suffering for a long time from a really awful e-mail system that our university is finally about to discard–known as “Lotus Notes.” It’s particularly poorly adapted for those of us who use Macintosh computers, although it’s not exactly a treat for PC users either. In any case, we are finally migrating in a few weeks to a new system called Microsoft Entourage, which is supposed to interface well for Macs. Whatever the case, it certainly can’t be worse than the current situation.

Allow me to explain how lousy this “Notes” system really is: At home, outside of my “Client” or office computer, access is of course through the internet. In logging in to “Lotus Notes” I find that my inbox shows roughly the last 20 e-mails that have come in. Not unusual. But what if I want to retrieve and reply to an e-mail I received this morning, about 27 e-mails ago? Simple, silly. Just scroll down.

What?! Or eh?! (for you Brtis and Canucks) How does one scroll down? Simple, just use the arrows or the mouse. Uhhh, but that doesn’t work. It doesn’t? Oh, well, go into the “Lite Mode” instead of the “Full Mode.”

Problem solved! No! “Full Mode” doesn’t help one iota. Now let’s get creative! So my first creative solution was to click “command -” (apple minus) to decrease the font size. Hurray! Now I can get more e-mails on the page. But what if I need to go back 45 e-mails to reply to one? Make it smaller again. And again. See this period? (.) Well, it could be an entire letter–I can’t read it either. This method means you need a microscope to read your e-mails. perhaps a confocal, or electron microscope… Won’t do.

Be creative! How can a scientist solve the problem?

Here’s what I do: I find the e-mail (45 e-mails ago) on my BlackBerry, and forward it to myself. Now it appears at the very top of my “Lotus Notes” e-mail inbox. Brilliant, eh? Great use of my time. Lovely.

So while I am excited about perhaps no longer having to depend on my own creative solutions to function from home and outside my work office, there is a catch: the new system will not work well with BlackBerry. That scares me for obvious reasons. However, it is supposed to be well coordinated with Iphones. So I may have to switch loyalties–never tried one of those new-fangled gizmos.

Any comments or suggestions for a potential new Iphone buyer/user?

Be creative!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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32 Responses to Who says scientists aren’t creative?

  1. Hah. My institution abandoned Notes as well… well mostly. The email system is all MS Exchange, with an MS Forefront Gateway (huh) for secure web access.

    Unfortunately, the Notes servers, which were supposed to be abandoned in favour of the Exchange calendaring system (which works beautifully), still exist, and are still used by many for appointments, and by various entities for storing policy documents and the like. I’ve never liked it, and it refuses to die.

    As for Blackberry… I have one and it is a menace to browse the web on, but it does synchronize rather nicely with the email system. Since the company that makes the thing is located about an hour from here, I feel some kind of nationalistic loyalty to the company. But when it comes time to replace it… iPhone will get a long look, believe me.

    As for emailing stuff to myself, this is my method of choice for getting images from my phone’s camera onto my laptop. Much easier than plugging the darn thing in or dumping them to some web site.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      An IT guru at our institution told me that Notes is being abandoned en masse by many companies who thought it looked great on paper, but it turned out to be a really poor system. MS Exchange is our new choice too. Entourage is for Mac users!

      I agree. BBerry is seamless with the email system. In fact it’s the only way Notes actually works properly–it’s brilliant on BBerry. But not convenient for long e-mails.

      I’m not a “tinkerer” with technology things–I’d much prefer to have something set-up and running properly than to have to meddle to learn a new system. But given that the new e-mail system won’t initially be supported by BBerry, I think I may have no choice but to go Iphone–though I’m not looking forward to all the frustration of getting it working the way I want…

  2. Frank says:

    I thought Lotus Notes was pretty cutting-edge stuff….in about 1990. I hadn’t realised it was still around. I remember being very excited about upgrading from Wordstar to Wordperfect back in the early 1990s.

    Your example reminds me of what they say about the Internet routing around damage. Outdated IT systems and daft rules will just stimulate users to find creative ways to do what they need to.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      The only “cutting edge” part of Lotus Notes is my feeling that I am going to cut my own wrists if I have to deal with this program for another month….

  3. rpg says:

    Who does say scientists aren’t creative?

    PS. Argh: (OT and it’s bloggers )

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Well, aren’t we traditionally depicted as “non-creative garbage?” Seems to me that people are shocked to find that some of us have creative aspirations. And pardon me for saying so, some of the worst offenders and most surprised of those people–are scientists themselves. Who practically are insulted that other scientists would “waste their time and brainpower” doing something unrelated to grant writing or science.

      • rpg says:

        This is the thing. Who, apart from other scientists, thinks that scientists aren’t creative? I think scientists think that non-scientists think that scientists are uncreative, but I haven’t seen any good data. It’s like saying ‘there’s a Chinese proverb…’.

        In other words, ‘citation needed’.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          My Mum still thinks that I’m very unusual for being a scientist who’s also well-read. This is because I’m the only scientist she knows, so she’s comparing me to her stereotype rather than the reality. I keep telling her that I have a multitude of scientific friends and colleagues who are at least as well read as me, and that some of them also write books of their own, but it’s been at least 17 years and she still doesn’t believe me 🙂

          • rpg says:


            It depends how you phrase the question. If you say, “are scientists creative?” you might very well get an answer that’s non-commital or negative. But if you say, “Are scientists good at problem-solving?” you’re likely to get, “well, duh.”

            I’m not entirely convinced that what Steve described is ‘creative’, but it’s certainly ‘problem-solving’. And sure, creativity helps in solving problems. What we need to do is experiment more on Steve to see if he’s really creative or not. I’ll have a word with his IT department.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            As Dr. Moss said, “Thinking outside the inbox…”

            But yest, good question, how do we define creative? Engineering like solutions are not creative, while composing music, making sculptures or painting is? Is writing poetry creative? Yes? Novels? Perhaps not? Depends on how autobiographical one is…So I would give creativity a wide definition…

            As for contacting my IT to see if I’m creative or not, let’s see if you can actually do that given the Lotus Notes email system we have. Now THAT would be creative…

          • rpg says:

            I should perhaps qualify my comment.

            That problem-solving skill I think *is* creative, but isn’t usually classified as such. Personally, I do it all the time but am not in the habit of calling it a creative endeavour.

            When, at the day job, I write 1000 words on new and upcoming treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, is that creative? A while ago I would probably have said, no, don’t be daft. But I think it is creative. I also think autobiographies, done well, are creative (novels definitely). But in the same way that having a DSLR doesn’t make one a photographer, having a blog doesn’t make one a writer—’creative’ is more than simply being able to do something to a bare mechanical standard.

            Anyway, as I say, it comes down to how you pose the question. People, if you ask them cold, might not think scientists are creative (but I’m still waiting for my citation on that…), but I’d be willing to bet that our hypothetical lay person would change their hypothetical mind about scientists if we were to phrase the question differently.


          • Steve Caplan says:


            Agreed. At least hypothetically.

            But like classification of “intelligence,” I think that “creativity” suffers from the same amorphic definition. There are so many different types of creativity, and not necessarily related to one another. Good problem solvers are not necessarily better at playing music, drawing, painting etc. I am an example of that. Fellow students used to come and laugh at my drawings in zoology–I knew that the proportions were wrong and that I was drawing monsters–but for the life of me can’t draw.

            But I do believe that I have a few sparks of “genuine” creativity, in addition to a sense of problem solving.

  4. stephenemoss says:

    Is that creativity, or is it ‘thinking outside the inbox’?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      HAHAHA! You get a triple HA-tag for that!

      There’s a FINE LINE between creativity and thinking outside the box!

      Sorry for the return awful pun. But that’s a point worthy of discussion–how does one define creativity? Obviously there are so many levels of creativity, just as there are so many levels of intelligence, that it almost defies a definition. But I’d venture that thinking outside the box qualifies as bona fide creativity.

      • stephenemoss says:

        PS: As an iPhone user, and Mac user for some 25 years, I’m afraid I tend to get quite evangelical about this amazing gadget. I might sound like a freelance Apple sales rep, but I’d say go for it!

  5. John the Plumber says:

    First rule In plumbing – don’t get the mop out till you’ve turned off the tap.

  6. Steve Caplan says:


    “I still have my first Mac in a box in the attic, an SE30 that cost an insane amount back in 1989.”

    And I bet that if you take it out of the box and plug it in, it will still run!

    As a PhD student, I bought an LC450 Mac whose entire hard drive was 4 Mb. from 1993-1998 it did everything, 2 Ph.D. theses were written on it, about 10 papers, and it connected to the university server and internet by phone. Never had a single problem with it.

    Unlike the 2 Dell PC laptops that I’ve had whose half-lives have been less than a year…

  7. rpg says:

    Sure that’s not an LC475 with 4MB RAM? I got a 475 in ’94 with 8MB RAM and a 160 HD, so I think a 4 MB HD would have been really short changing you in ’93…

    And that machine ran until 2008 but I didn’t see any point in carting it back again from

  8. rpg says:

    Yup! Wrote my thesis on it. And played flight sims… over the internets, even

    • stephenemoss says:

      We’re getting seriously off topic here, but I must have been among the last of the generations who wrote their thesis on a typewriter. We didn’t even have a photocopier in those days, so producing copies depended on multiple sheets of carbon paper. My old Corona typewriter now sits with the SE30 in the attic.

  9. OT Reader says:

    Hi Steve,

    Engaging and enjoyable post, as always.

    Feel my pain: my university only just UPGRADED to Lotus Notes about 2 years ago!

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