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Science students hold design-thinking workshop

Program aims to help students gain perspective on new methodologies, improve overall research skills.
A group of MIT undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs met last weekend for an interdisciplinary workshop sponsored by the Department of Biology that centered on injecting design thinking into scientific research.

Design thinking, commonly used in the design and planning fields, is a methodology that matches the needs of people with technologically feasible ideas and viable business strategies.

Inspired by success stories of applying design thinking to businesses, non-profits and education, MIT researchers and students with interests spanning from microbiology to quantum dots came together to reimagine science as service design — which means planning a service (in this case, a lab) to best fit people’s needs.

Alorah Harman ’11 led the two-day workshop based on her experience at a local design consultancy. "Each discipline has a different way of thinking. The idea is to take concepts from business and design and bring them back to how people do science,” Harman said.

With the hope of learning new ideas and selection strategies for their research, multi-disciplinary teams practiced applying design methodologies to the conceptual design of an idealized wet lab.

"When you pinpoint an aspiration, you can go into the process of asking ‘why’ — or where it comes from, and eventually ‘how’ — how to actualize it in some form," Harman said. "The goal of the class was to have researchers suspend disbelief and think big."

Junior Netia McCray attended the workshop due to an interest in design. "In our laboratories, we are encouraged to only engage with the left side of the brain in order to conduct research and obtain concrete results. However, this class highlights the importance of engaging the right side of our brain in order to create cutting edge, revolutionary research,” McCray said.

Final laboratory concepts included: glass walls for transparency, impromptu writing and sharing; common lab lounges; and strategic placement of a principal investigator’s office in a communal space. One creative design — which even included the lab’s soundtrack — featured a system where lab stations would frequently rotate to face different stations, encouraging exchange.

While the lab exercise was the chosen practice exercise, Harman said the practical goal is to apply methods from the workshop to the process of designing experiments, optimizing workflow, or weighing the pros and cons of new projects or collaborations.

"It's important for researchers to make time to think about how science is done, how we design labs and scientific culture within research institutions,” said participant Dina Faddah, a graduate student in biology. "How we do science affects the pace of scientific discovery."

Graduate student Greg Steinbrecher ’12 saw the workshop as a place to accumulate knowledge, skills and methods vetted by the design community and to be used for compelling scientific research. "More and more, the truly inspiring and innovative research occurs at the intersection of multiple fields, and by applying the successes of one discipline to the work of another. Accordingly, science is becoming more complicated and collaborative,” Steinbrecher said.

In the wake of the workshop, the group MIT Design Thinking Scientists plans to organize further events, including dialogue with local designers, idea-generating salon-style discussion groups, and voluntary lab consultations or evaluations.

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