A Marvelous Release of Mental Energy
IdeaConnection Interview with a Problem Solver
Doug Kenfield’s background is primarily a combination of three things; biology, medicine and chemistry and to combine all those three interests he spent much of his career focusing on plants. His PhD is in plant pathology and 30 years ago he was working in biomimicry long before the field was considered cool.
He regards himself as a ‘blue collar academic’. He loves to study but also needs to work with his hands. “I cannot sit in an office and think big thoughts all day or I’ll go stir crazy. I’ve got to get out and make mistakes and feel my body aching to feel like I’m really accomplishing something.”
Now retired he has enjoyed playing an active role in problem solving with IdeaConnection. Here he reflects on his experiences as a problem solver.
What drew you to IdeaConnection?
I was bored. The Internet has been a godsend to me being an information freak and living in the less populace west where I don’t have the big university libraries next door anymore. And so I got to surfing around and I ran into IdeaConnection and the name drew me in, and then I read a bit and put my name on the list as a problem solver.
And then about a year and a half ago I worked on a problem to do with blue green algae in a pond in England. There were toxic blooms which were causing a lot of difficulty. That was solving a problem for free and then, you know, everyone likes to make a little bit of money too, and I thought well why not sign up as a regular solver and see if I get any business.
And in the last six to eight months I’ve worked on two different problems. One was to do with oil seeds, and our idea got awarded. I’m waiting to hear about the second one. This was a bit more academic and we had to develop a mathematical model to help track the genetics.
One of the real attractions to me as a problem solver is that I can sit here in my little place in New Mexico and enjoy my quiet lifestyle and yet through IdeaConnection I am working with some of the best brains in the world to solve these problems.
For the mathematical problem there was a mathematician form UC Berkeley and an inventor from New York and a coordinator from Columbia and myself. It’s just a marvelous release of mental energy and I am thoroughly enjoying it, and if we get paid for it in addition then great.
When you are working with these people do you find that each person acts as a catalyst for the other? You help to boost each other’s brainpower?
Exactly. My particular style of thinking is – and here I hate to use pugilistic terms – that I think of myself as a counter puncher. I am not so good at generating individual or innovative ideas myself, but I can listen to an idea and then I can connect it with a lot of other ideas. That’s really my strength. I’m very much a generalist and I have a very broad range of interests.
I don’t know math as well as this professor from UC Berkeley, but I know enough to appreciate what he was saying and then I could guide his mathematical thinking into the biological parameters that needed addressing. That’s what is really neat to me.
So the solutions come from true interdisciplinary research?
Exactly. Actually this was the spiral of research when I was an active research scientist. It was very much a collaborative effort and the best teams drew people from different disciplines to solve a particular kind of problem. The only thing I miss these days is that I don’t have my lab bench to test these ideas out. But really I enjoy the stimulation I get from working with these people from different disciplines and different parts of the world and it helps the creative process, there really is no question.
How do you find the experience of working with people from different backgrounds and cultures?
It’s daunting at first because even though I am an old man now I still carry my youthful shyness about looking stupid in public, and when you work with experts from other disciplines it’s hard to ask a question that sounds intelligent. But years ago I tried to get over that. You are never going to learn anything without making mistakes or asking silly questions.
I’ve had a very good response at IdeaConnection. I’ll go back to this mathematical modeling again. I’m pretty good at math up through algebra to calculus but I am not very good beyond that, and yet this gentleman from New York and the gentleman from California recognized I knew a hell of a lot more about the biology of the situation than they did. So they were teaching me their math while I was correcting their ignorances about the biological parameters that were going to be involved. And it was very effective and we really had little trouble communicating in terms of different disciplines or different levels of knowledge.
You recognize that there is a complex problem in front of you and that you don’t have all of the tools in your own mind to solve it. So you give what input you can and you listen and then you integrate, synthesize and come back with your resolution. Then you get your list of criticisms and analysis and reevaluation. And this whole process is like working on a research paper and it’s a very effective way to help you solve the problem.
I have been very satisfied to be able to express my own strengths and ignorances to total strangers with the idea that they are going to be looked on as contributing, without appearing to be bragging or apologizing.
How important is the facilitator in the problem solving process?
In my mind it is essential, because then each of us can bring our own individual talents to the table and only worry about that and not about all the details about organizing the online sessions or telephone sessions or the logistics of submitting the proposal. All you have to worry about is 'what is the problem?' and 'what is the best way to solve it?'
I have had the same facilitator for both challenges and he’s pretty effective at listening and guiding the discussion, particularly when it stalls because everyone is out of breath or it’s going along a fruitless path. You need a facilitator because even when I get intense about something I’ll tend to start running down the track like a train without brakes. The facilitators are effective at moving the process along.
When you started the challenges did you have an idea of what the solutions might be or did you come to them with a blank sheet of paper?
A little bit of both. There is quite a range of problems to select from so each problem solver does a triage if you will. You only allow your name to be considered for those kinds of problems you feel you have an ability to help solve. And for me it has to involve chemistry, plants and medicine. Anything else I don’t get involved in. So I go in thinking I have something to offer.
If you look at the mathematical model problem we solved, if it was just me alone I wouldn’t even have touched that because I don’t have enough confidence in math. But I knew I was going to be teamed up with some mathematical experts and so I thought I can help guide them and they’ll teach me some math on the way. This will be good.
What have been the most satisfying parts of working on challenges?
Being retired I miss the connection with the really active research world. So this gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m still helping to contribute to solving some of society’s problems.
So will you get involved in more challenges?
Oh yes. I continue to scan. Now over the years I’ve made a lot of people a lot of money but I don’t really care about money. I love to be a part of projects that are productive and solving problems. Not only for myself but for the public. That was how I was raised. And honestly if we get rewarded because of this participation I love it because I can use the money as well as anybody else, but the main thing is getting to participate in the creative process and feeling connected again. That’s what drives me.