No Ideas But in Things
IHR Insider Vol 7 Issue 3
The daughter of good friends has a master’s degree in mathematics, but is currently in a graduate program in art. She is a ceramicist, and when I asked her recently what she likes the most about her art, she replied, “I like to sit in the studio and make things.” Her seemingly simple response made me think about what I like most in research. My answer is the same as hers – I like making things.
One of the most common misperceptions about research is that it is all about grand ideas and sweeping hypotheses. Seeing the big picture and asking the right question are certainly part of the research process, but conducting research requires us to move back and forth between big ideas and fine details. The best researchers are both thinkers and doers, an uncommon combination of skills. And they spend most of their time doing.
Researchers in the IHR have many crafts. They construct visual models of complex biological and organizational processes. They develop and test surveys. They create apps and websites. They write code to assemble data files. They build statistical models. They complete IRB applications. They prepare timelines and budgets. They write and they write and they write – grant applications, public presentations, final reports, research papers. Few non-researchers realize the importance of good writing in a research career. They assume that research is all about the numbers, when in fact, writing is the craft we must master to describe our ideas persuasively and interpret those numbers for others.
People who lead research departments create spaces where other researchers can think great thoughts and make things, where they can practice the art and craft of research. To continue the art analogy, research leaders build studios. Similar to other organizational leaders, they must focus more on the process by which things are made than on the products themselves. They act as “meta-leaders” who replicate the planning and execution of individual research projects on a broad scale. They identify common themes in the ideas of their researchers and administrators, and develop the capacity to enact them. They build teams, establish work processes, manage office space, integrate project budgets into departmental budgets, write annual reports, and represent their departments to others.
Almost all of them wish they could do more “hands-on” research.
Having been (to my great surprise) a research leader for most of my career, I decided over two years ago that I would soon be ready to return to the craft of research, to inhabit research spaces rather than build them. As I described it to friends, I realized that I was finally ready to have the career that I anticipated when I began my research training over 30 years ago. Accordingly, I stepped down as the Senior Director of the IHR at the end of October 2016. With executive sponsorship from Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis and Dr. Wendee Gozansky, Dr. Marsha Raebel and Julie James, our director of research administration, have led the search for my successor over the last year. We're all delighted that Dr. Claudia Steiner will be the new Executive Director of the IHR.
Leading the IHR has been the best job I ever had, yet I leave it without regret to return to a role as a Senior Investigator in our department. The IHR is in great hands, with Dr. Liz Bayliss as Interim Director, with amazing investigators and staff, and with an experienced and skilled leadership team. Our scientific and financial foundation is strong, even in a “soft-money” research world. As a department, we are poised for opportunity and growth. We are prepared to contribute to scientific discovery, collaborate in organizational change within KP, and inform health policy in our community.
I am grateful beyond words for the relationships I have built in the last eight years in the IHR, in KP, and with our broad community of research partners. You all are why I’m staying. Thank you.
So I’m ready to make things again. I take inspiration from the words of William Carlos Williams, a great physician-writer whose poems and short stories celebrate both complexity and specificity:
Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!
MacGowan, Christopher, and William Carlos Williams. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Carcanet, 1988.