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The University at Buffalo wants more of its researchers to experience the type of “aha” moments of inspiration that can lead to a ground-breaking new scientific discovery.

Finding the best ways to foster innovation is the focus of a two-day Creative Scientist conference taking place Monday and today in Amherst.

The workshop speakers, moderated discussions and creativity-sparking exercises are aimed at producing the type of big ideas that can win large federal grants and translate to the marketplace.

“I know how important creativity is for success in research,” said R. Lorraine Collins, associate dean for research in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Related Professions, who conducts research into alcohol and marijuana addiction.

Ninety-nine people – twice as many as organizers hoped for – registered for the conference at the Ramada Hotel & Conference Center near the UB North Campus.

Eight UB departments and other divisions sponsored the conference, with seed money from the State University of New York’s Conversations in the Disciplines Program.

“They’re looking for a lot of transformational ideas,” said Leonard H. Epstein, a SUNY Distinguished Professor in UB’s pediatrics department and one of the event organizers.

A key motivation for the conference is to spur the kind of innovations that earn awards from the National Institutes for Health and other agencies.

Federal research support is getting tighter, and universities are getting the message that the NIH and other major providers of research grants are looking for game-changing ideas, organizers and attendees said.

So how do you stimulate the creative process? Speakers approached this question from a variety of standpoints.

John Kounios, a Drexel psychology professor, gave a talk titled, “Neural precursors to creative insight,” while Nancy J. Nersessian, a professor of cognitive science at Georgia Tech, talked about the lessons drawn from trailblazing research by bioengineering students.

Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, talked about the value of allowing your mind to wander while working on an unrelated task or doing something as simple as washing the dishes or driving a car.

There’s an accepted wisdom that failing to focus on the activity at hand is bad, but Schooler pointed to numerous historical examples of mind wandering producing “aha” moments – such as Archimedes’ “Eureka!” discovery of the principle of buoyancy that bears his name when he eased into a bathtub.

Schooler said his research, and the research of others, has shown the value of mind wandering in creative innovation.

For example, one study showed that people performing an uncomplicated task that which allowed for mind wandering demonstrated higher levels of creative thinking than people doing a more complicated task, which required more focus, or those not performing any task, Schooler recounted.

Orom studies how men make decisions about prostate cancer treatment, and how those decisions affect survival rates and quality of life.

“I want to do better science and – let’s be pragmatic – get more grants,” Orom said. “It’s hard to think of something that isn’t the same old thing you just read about.”

email: swatson@buffnews.com