When it’s Challenging, Think Outside of the Box

by Federico Pinna, in memory of Giannetto Cabizza.

The cancer research community is reacting and adapting to the restrictions placed on us by the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve asked EACR members to contribute articles and advice on the theme of ‘How to be a cancer researcher during coronavirus’.

We are living a crucial time of transition. Each of us has a duty to avoid the spread of Coronavirus. The only way is to stay home. Our work as cancer researchers develops on two essential levels: the experimental one and the analytical/organizational one. Unless you have a home laboratory, which is very unlikely, the only opportunity left is office work.

There are many possible tasks we can do. For example, we can finish writing the proposal which we never had time for. Or, we can work on the scientific article that we want to submit as soon as possible. We could even read through the backlog of scientific communications accumulated on our desk.

Of course, this is good and necessary. However, if we think about it for a moment, we will realize that this is a sad and critical situation. But at the same time special. We should try to achieve something precious from this moment. Something that goes beyond the underdeveloped office work that we would have carried out in our institute.

We should accept this moment as a special gift. A window suddenly open in time. An opportunity to finally think outside of the box, to apply creativity, and courage. A chance for our work to develop in a way that we have never had the chance to do.

It is with great pleasure and humility that I would like to give you some tips to disconnect from the routine, be more inspired, and creatively develop your work.

Have you ever thought about the “Big Picture” behind your science?

If you are focusing on a specific mechanism, involving one or more proteins in a specific function, try to extend this function at systemic level. There are several levels you can use to systematically analyze the function of a protein. You can start with simple questions like: What role does this protein play in physiology? How does its function change during carcinogenesis? How does this function support the modification of the microenvironment that causes cancer? In general, asking yourself systemic questions helps you to observe your findings from a different point of view. If this is difficult for any reason, I suggest looking around. There are many groups that deal with Systems Biology. This is perhaps the perfect opportunity to start a prolific collaboration.

What is the final product of your science?

Have you ever seriously thought about your research in terms of medical procedures, model development or therapy? Thinking in terms of implementation is an essential element in modern research. Nonetheless, it gives us the opportunity to plan and develop a target in mind with an applicable response to the real world, and not a research product that is an end in itself. Again, it is useful to look at what others are doing. If your research structure does not allow it, you can certainly collaborate with clinical research centers or model developers. This will help to give a different meaning to your research.

Small tips for working from home:

There are some techniques that are very powerful, which you can easily find the details on the net. This includes the Pomodoro technique which gives you the opportunity to concentrate intensely on a topic. It also enables you to regularly perform small breaks that are useful for mind and body. To encourage creativity, I also suggest cycles of Brainstorming sessions followed by the use of Mind Maps to structure your thinking.

This is the time to ask yourself different questions, to observe and think about new things. Look around, think of new investigative methods, analyze and compare what others have done. Think different right now, you won’t have many opportunities when you will be back to normality. Therefore, make this difficult moment turn into something that changes your scientific life and your career. There is a need for positivity and rebirth. Be an innovator, because it is innovation that modern cancer research needs.

About the author

Federico PinnaFederico is a senior scientist with great passion for mentoring and scientific project management. He has been for several years dedicated to basic and systemic mechanisms in liver cancer progression, focusing on NFκB, microenvironment and cell polarity. He is actually interested in Science implementation and innovation, currently looking for special and creative ideas to develop. Federico is an EACR Ambassador. Find him on TwitterLinkedIn