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Permission to Fail

Most people perceive scientists as logical and determined people, their mission to find the answer through painstaking research. So what are two of the most important things you can teach an aspiring scientist to help them on the road to success? Critical thinking? Statistics? Not necessarily. It’s the ability to think creatively, and a capacity to deal with failure says Professor Kevin Moffat.

Creative thoughts

“In the quest for discovery, failing is just as important as getting it right. Finding out what doesn’t work is part of the process of finding out what does. In order to do this you need the space and freedom to just try things out,” explains Professor Moffat, who was appointed as the first Professorial Teaching Fellow in the University of Warwick’s Department Life Sciences in 2016.

“Students come to university wanting get everything absolutely correct. Why wouldn’t they? They have worked hard to get here and they want to achieve. Plus these days, they want value for money and on a science course that means they likely expect to be digesting hours and hours of cold hard facts. There is no doubt we need to deliver the building blocks of their chosen subject and they need to be furnished with the information so that they are able to tackle an exam at the end.

“But in order to become a thinker, a problem solver, a scientist, you need two things which are difficult to justify on a curriculum. You need space for creativity and, perhaps the hardest thing for the students to appreciate, and actually for society too, the space and freedom to fail.

"There's lots of famous quotes along the lines of actress Cate Blanchett’s, ‘If you need to fail, fail gloriously’, but they are true – we are not learning anything unless we're failing.”

Jumping flies

Professor Moffat’s agile approach has seen him working on several high profile projects looking at the molecular nature of human diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“When I first started out I was interested in the genetics of behaviour,” explains Professor Moffat, “which is why I worked on an organism called Drosophila - the fruit fly. It’s a well-established model system to work on. We realised quite early on that the tools we’d developed and the interests that we had, weren't being funded; it was one of those quiet times in my research career when I realised that, although I was very passionate about why and how flies jump to flashing lights - many people didn’t really care.

“But fortunately, the tools we were involved in generating, allowed us to cross-over and look at some aspects of human diseases. So, we started off on a disease called dystonia. Dystonia is a muscle-tightening disease, which makes your body contort. People are crippled up by these ever-lasting muscle cramps and we found we could model that in our laboratory. Using this approach subsequently led us to look at Alzheimer's disease. We saw that there was a good pool of material and an established research community to work with both in the university, locally within the midlands and actually within the UK. And our research slotted nicely within the existing work, so we gained some funding, and that work took us on a completely new pathway. My last PhD student on the project completed his study and went off to Harvard to a postdoctoral position, so it's been successful on several levels.”

Prog Prof

But having navigated the research landscape he has found through the years that the teaching side of academia is what he really loved.

"Actually the part of the job I have always enjoyed the most is teaching. I like instructing people; I like seeing students move on. So I was delighted and amazed to become a Professor of Teaching in the Science Faculty. I have always set out to make sure my teaching is innovative, creative, and enjoyable – which are all the conditions where I learned best, and you learn a lot from being sat on the other side of the fence too.”

Professor Moffat has applied various techniques over the years to engage students on a different level. From adding music to his lectures, to organising mock press conferences and encouraging students to blog. He’s now aiming to arm the next generation of science graduates with some more artistic skills.

“I want to give my students the confidence to be creative, and also permission to try things out and fail. We will do this by stepping outside the learning of fact, even if it is just for a short while.”

Put on a show

“My latest project is in encouraging my colleagues from across the University who have theatre skills, improvisation skills and sociology skills to come and do some work with my students.

“I want them to have experiences which make them think with empathy and with creativity. But, how is a science student going to take to doing theatre skills when there's no direct assessment? I’m not going to rate them on their ability to stage a theatre production – I can’t. But hopefully these skills will help them in the future with the video blogs that they will inevitably have to do for me, and also with things like the analysis of other people's work.

“No matter how good we are at our niche area of work, we need to be talking to the outside world, because communication, I've decided, is everything. Scientists need to tell the story of their work so I’m doing all I can to engage our student’s creative side and give them the confidence to have a go – right at the beginning of their scientific careers.”

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Kevin Moffat is Professorial Teaching Fellow in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick. He is also Director of Outreach for the department.