How to turn a Eureka moment into a research project

From ‘napkin idea’ to published paper.

17 November 2020

Bo Xia

Greg Rakozy/Unsplash

When we are not thinking purposefully, while sitting in a restaurant for example, our brains may flash at a random point, building a bridge or a network that connects seemingly unrelated knowledge. I call this light bulb moment that leads to a new perspective a ‘napkin idea’, because it needs to be written down on whatever is to hand, even if it’s a table napkin.

While brainstorming is purposeful thinking around a specific topic, the napkin idea is more a Eureka moment. It can happen at any time when the brain is wandering, such as when we’re in the shower, on a long drive or in a restaurant.

My undergraduate thesis research project in chemical biology started with a napkin idea that struck me during a sleepless night. It was to do with labelling a DNA modification using simple textbook chemistry.

Based on this chemistry, my teammates and I developed chemical tools for genome-wide mapping of the DNA modification which had seemed beyond us before. Similarly, my current Ph.D. research was rescued by a napkin idea which jumped into my mind during a seminar. This idea finally helped me identified the right approach to study how gene expression influences gene evolution rates.

How do I capture a napkin idea and turn it into something real?

1. Write it down, immediately!

When a napkin idea flashes out, I write it down on whatever is accessible at the moment, even a napkin. It seems our brain is naturally not good at remembering such sparks .

Throughout the years, I have also been documenting my napkin ideas using notebooks, laptop, iPhone, and iPad. I just need to record the ideas right away in order to refresh my memory later on.

2. Always do your reading, and follow it up

I do a literature review for all my napkin ideas. Even if someone else had the idea first, or the idea turns out to be ill-conceived – and to be honest, many of my ideas have turned out to be ridiculous ¬– that one good idea is worth all the cast-offs.

3. Do a sanity check and share your idea

Often an idea is about things I don’t fully understand, so sharing the idea is important. To start with I usually go to my mentors, friends, and colleagues for another perspective. Scientists love to mull over new ideas.

We evaluate the potential of developing it into a research project, and how to prioritize it. In the case of my undergraduate research, I discussed the napkin idea with my mentor and soon he realized that the proposed chemistry could be a neat tool for broader applications in genomics.

That’s how I was introduced to the field which I am still passionate about.

4. Embrace collaboration

Science has become more interdisciplinary, making it very challenging for a researcher to pursue a research project alone. When I decide to turn a napkin idea into a project, I always try to consult people who are experts in the related area.

This had been extremely helpful when I was working on the chemical biology project – I’m a molecular biologist by training, but I worked closely with an organic chemist who resolved all my chemical synthesis problems.

5. Enjoy the endurance and tell the story

My past experiences have taught me that good things always take time. It is important to be patient and believe that the good things will come as you keep pushing the project forward.

If possible, write down your efforts and experience – long or short, exciting or frustrating, fun or painful – because they may encourage your future self and even other people, especially during hard times, such as we are experiencing now with COVID-19.

Bo Xia is a Ph.D. student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

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