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What It Takes to Innovate

Credit: UCSD Communications

Innovators possess an inquisitive nature. They exhibit a strong curiosity and unwavering desire to ask why, how, and when questions – even if the answer is unknown or challenging to obtain. Problems are approached with an efficient mindset, searching for experimental solutions when deemed necessary. These thinkers recognize that the information taught in classrooms and presented in textbooks is only a snapshot of obtainable knowledge that is subject to change with human interpretation and evolution. Innovators approach existing knowledge with a critical mindset – they seek a challenge and aim to expand and improve on it.

There are multiple strategies to make the most out of an invention. One of the most important aspects of invention and discovery is getting the right information in the hands of users, testers, and labs as quickly as possible. The scientific community can be conservative in accepting change, so early assessment allows for valuable feedback – which is key for improving your work and demonstrating the usefulness of the technology. Additionally, using real-life examples showcases the practical applications and tangible benefits of your invention by demonstrating what you can achieve today that wasn’t possible before. Concrete evidence and success stories help others understand the value and potential of your invention. 

When introducing your work to others, it’s important to use simple and accessible language. A truly innovative concept may involve new vocabulary and complex terminology – and yet, you want to ensure that people understand what you’re introducing them to. Breaking down technical jargon and using relatable analogies or metaphors to convey your meaning will help your innovation reach a wider audience. 

This may seem obvious, but if your project isn’t completed and you don’t have anything published or to show for your time, you may as well have not worked on it at all. An unusable project is worthless in the field, and you’re best spending your time on more productive projects.

With this in mind, how exactly do you choose which project to prioritize? In our lab, the team takes a pragmatic approach to look at significant questions we aim to address. We share a strong curiosity of the unknown, which drives us to find answers to seemingly large and complex (or even impossible) questions. 

Some of these questions include: “What is the impact of the microbiome on the chemistry of the host?” “How can we comprehensively annotate every small molecule found in humans, the ocean, animals, and plants?” “how do we democratize access to this knowledge, ensuring that scientists with limited resources can still access and leverage it in their experiments?”

These fundamental questions have far-reaching implications for various fields, including biotechnology, agriculture, medicine, and the environment. To seek these complex answers, our lab develops specific yet generalized tools to conduct key studies and learn more about diverse topics – from microbial or microbe-plant interactions, to the mechanistic understanding of how microbiota metabolism affects health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and atherosclerosis.

To maximize success, the entire team must hold similar values and play a crucial role in decision making. When expertise and interests align, it creates an opportune moment to pursue long-standing projects and tackle bigger questions. In such cases, we leverage the expertise within the team to cover a wide range of areas. Other times, we may delay projects until the right team is assembled or more training is supplied to increase our chances of success. We also make an effort to show our belief in others, giving passionate collaborators the opportunity to take the lead on their ideas. It’s also key to prioritize the team’s future career and life goals – ensuring that the project will set you up for success, rather than keep you at a standstill. 

By focusing on these questions, developing targeted tools, and developing a strong team, innovators can contribute to multiple scientific disciplines while addressing crucial challenges that impact human well-being and the environment.

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About the Author
Pieter Dorrestein

Professor, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Director, Collaborative Mass Spectrometry Innovation Center, the University of California at San Diego, USA

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