Where does innovation come from in academic science labs? How do research projects become innovative? I find the answer to these questions not as trivial as it might seem at first glance. As the principal investigator (PI) of a group of about 20 scientists in training (mostly graduate students and postdocs), these are key questions for me. After almost seven years in my job as faculty at UNC, many of my original (crazy back then) ideas have transformed into solid research programs (e.g. use of tACS in clinical applications, mechanism of action of tACS). Thus, it is particularly important for us not get stuck with these ideas and concepts but to aggressively innovate, and find and explore the next frontiers in addition to these established lines of research. Here is how I think about the required innovation process.
My experience and expertise should allow me to generate new ideas (on most days I think I can succeed in this task). Inspiration comes from our ongoing work, comments and feedback by peers through grant review, paper reviews, questions when I give talks etc. Also random thoughts at random moments are not to be underestimated! I look at these ideas as seeds that ultimately will have to be grown into trees. My responsibility as the PI is to provide the resources to grow the tree, but the responsibility - I think - of the actual process should be in the hands of a graduate student or postdoc. Growing the tree from a seed (of innovation) requires a lot of hard work at the bench, intense literature study, and uncountable moments of thought and discussion. This is an ideal opportunity for my trainees to take on an important leadership role early on. As a mentor, I am focused on guiding the process, providing feedback, and creating a constructive and supportive environment. To take this one level further, in an ideal world trainees are inspired, creative, and passionate about science - quite likely some truly innovative ideas originate from them. Now that is paradise! I am privileged to have experienced these moments in my role as the PI of the Frohlich Lab and the director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation.