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8 Dal Thinkers on Boosting Creativity and Innovation

Some of Dalhousie’s most notable alumni and faculty share insights on how to expand your mind and think outside of the box.

Learn to triage

Brain surgeon Gwynedd Pickett specializes in treating aneurysms and tumours and teaching Dal med students how to navigate the tricky emotional and technical challenges that can arise for neurosurgeons both in and out of the clinic. “I was having a conversation recently with a student who was trying to decide if this was the career for him or not, and one of the things he said was, ‘Oh, I like the adrenalin of the trauma cases and the high stress.’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Sometimes, especially with the patients that were just on the edge, you come out of the operating room and you’re just sparking.”

Break out of the box: What happens when everything in life seems stressful or urgent? You triage, says Dr. Pickett. “Be able to identify what is important and what is urgent. These are not always the same thing. People will sometimes bring problems to you that are urgent in their minds and are important to them, but may not be as critical. This is one of the skills you learn in medicine: what needs to be done right now, what can wait and what may be optional.”

Focus your view

Art McDonald (BSc’64, MSc’65, LLD’97) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last fall— along with Japanese physicist Takaaki Kajita—for his work leading a bold, years-in-the-making experiment that showed neutrinos from the sun change form on their way to Earth. “We had a situation where if we could manage to do the experiment, we would be able to answer fundamental questions in solar physics and particle physics,” he says of the project, which required building a detector the size of a ten-storey building two kilometres underground. Dr. McDonald’s passion for physics was ignited as an undergraduate in a Dal class taught by Ernest Guptill, then the chair of Dal’s Physics department: “He was really inspirational in terms of having me realize that mathematics could enable you to really calculate in detail how the world works. It was first-year physics, of course, but nevertheless you could calculate things very accurately and it really turned me on to the whole concept.”

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX: Knowing what you’re looking for is the key to progress in any field, says Dr. McDonald. “You have the ability to make measurements that are stimulated by your knowledge of a field. You have to know what’s going to be important when you make the measurement and how to take that next step where you will make a significant bit of progress. But you also have to figure out based on the experience you’ve obtained—and I started getting my experience at Dal—what it takes to do it. First of all, create the equipment, then obtain the data and analyze it to find out what is significant and what is false.”

Art MacDonald (Danny Abriel photo)
Art MacDonald (Danny Abriel photo)

Visualize your way to success

Failing an entrance exam for the civil service in Hong Kong motivated Andy Fong (BEng’06) to attend a memory-training seminar, which served as an entry point into the larger world of memory sports. He connected with other memory experts overseas and eventually became a Grand Master of Memory at the 2011 world memory championships. His wife, Angel Lai (BEng’06), also took an interest and was crowned the 2012 champion of the Canadian Memory Championships. Together, they recently opened their own memory school in Hong Kong aimed at helping students learn memory techniques. “We have met many incredible people and have become good friends with many world memory champions,” says Fong. “I think that’s something we learned when we were studying at Dal, how to get along with different people.” Adds Lai, “I think it’s because the environment in Halifax is very friendly, and we could become close with each other and help each other out during the program.”

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX:  “We used to think of memory as something boring and not fun,” says Fong. “But you can turn that into something that’s creative and fun so that it’s easier to memorize and be more confident when doing so. That’s something that we teach people every day. Use your imagination because once you can visualize your thought, you already remember it.”

Say no—a lot 

Halifax/Toronto-based Omar Gandhi (BEDS’03, MArchFP’05) is an award-winning architect behind one of Canada’s leading young practices. Gandhi’s firm, Omar Gandhi Architect Inc., launched in 2010 and has garnered praise around the world for creating custom modern designs that integrate naturally into their surroundings. It’s an approach Gandhi honed at Dal. “There was a real focus on making things. It was known to be a place where you would learn to swing a hammer and understand the properties of wood and how things go together. Something about that was incredible. So I think that the work that I do now stems from an appreciation and interest in craft.” His company was recently named one of the Top 20 Architectural Practices worldwide in Wallpaper*Magazine’s annual Architects Directory. He is also the winner of the 2014 Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture and this year’s Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices Award.

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX:  “If I’m not going to be completely enthralled or excited about a project, then I’d rather not do it. I’d rather leave architecture completely if it’s not something that I can give my everything to. By making rules like that for yourself, you’re almost ensuring that you’re always passionate about work. As a result, it means that I say no to a lot of things, but it also means that everything that I do I try for that to be the best thing that I’ve ever done.”

Omar Gandhi (Danny Abriel photo)
Omar Gandhi (Danny Abriel photo)

Stay curious

Sheryl Gordon (BA’95) is a former technical writer who gave up the predictability of her office job to pursue an ambitious book project, in part, to honour her mom who lost all of her words during a struggle with dementia. A Rewording Life, released last fall, contains sentences from more than 1,000 notable Canadians—including Margaret Atwood, Colin Mochrie, and Joel Plaskett—intended to bring clarity to tricky words Gordon herself had struggled with. Half of the proceeds of sales go to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Gordon says her time at Dal helped prepare her for the project.  “I was very fortunate to be able to study languages. I studied French. And when you’re studying languages and you’re confronted with all of these wonderful authors and the language itself, you can’t help but ask yourself questions.”

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX:  “I want to emphasize the importance of staying curious. I wouldn’t be on this path today had I not questioned what the word rewarding actually meant, even though I’d seen it hundreds of times in books and heard it in conversations. It was only when I was away on a yoga retreat and looked up the definition and saw that it means to provide satisfaction that I had this epiphany in terms of A Rewording Life. I chuckled because every time I read I circle words that I have a hard time understanding.”

Embrace the chaos

Barrie Dunn (LLB’98) is living proof that success isn’t always reliant on having a long-term plan. The Trailer Park Boys co-creator/writer/actor and Dal-trained lawyer was in his early 20s before he decided he might like to try acting “for a while.” He ended up attending theatre school in England, went around an Eastern European theatre festival as part of a mime troupe and then embarked on an acting career that later led to work in TV and film production—an industry where his “struggle against sameness” has brought both successes and failures. After finding himself out of a job after a round of cutbacks at CBC, Dunn took a fellow actor friend’s advice and went to law school at Dal—in his 40s. “It wasn’t because I said, ‘Oh my god, I want to be a lawyer. This is my guiding force. I’m going to change society.’ But on a personal level, it was intellectually challenging.” Of his favourite profs, he says: “They had this sensibility of ‘Don’t just sit and listen—challenge what you’ve heard.’”

“My Dal profs had this sensibility of ‘Don’t just sit there and listen—challenge what you’ve heard.’”

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX:  “I’ve never said in my life, ‘Well, I want to be this or that.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try this for a while.’ I always thought plans were somewhat restrictive: First I’ll do this, then that happens, then that happens. I’ve always found life is far more chaotic than that, so I never bothered to make plans or wanted to make plans. Now, the downside of that is there’s a great risk of failure, especially as you get older as you do have to start planning for those later years.”

Remember your roots

Deb Eisan left her First Nations community in northern Ontario at 17 years old to join the Canadian Forces, an early start to a storied 36-year career that led her from coast to coast to coast across Canada and to nearly a dozen places around the world. Eisan eventually longed for a deeper connection to her past and rediscovered her indigenous roots after speaking with an Ojibway elder. Now retired from the military, Eisan serves as a community planner for the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax and one of Dal’s five Elders in Residence. “At Dal they have embraced the culture so much that we are getting calls left and right to come and provide opening prayers or to provide circles or workshops of different sorts,” she says of the elders program, which is available to all Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. “I’m so proud to be a part of this group we have here and to share our stories and our wisdom, to be able to use our ears to make students feel comfortable.”

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX:  “Never forget what your roots are. You can be a professor, a doctor, a lawyer, a long-haul truck driver, whatever it is you want to be and be very successful at it, but if you don’t remember your roots—who your family is, where your ancestors came from—then that’s what will cause you to maybe go astray.”

Deb Eisan (Danny Abriel photo)
Deb Eisan (Danny Abriel photo)

Skip easy street

RICK NASON traded physics for finance as a graduate student and subsequently made his mark at some of Wall Street’s biggest banks. He joined Dal as a professor in 2002, where he works in the field of complexity studies and risk management and tries to teach his students that there’s more to success than getting the right answer.

“I teach finance, which some people might think is the most objective subjects in business. But it’s actually incredibly creative,” he says, something he tries to instil in his students. “I helped set up something called the Unstructured Simulation for Dal MBA students. We present a scenario about something and each team role plays as a stakeholder. We give them no direction. Zero, zip. That’s what happens in real life. Things grow organically. Everything that they learned in class gets thrown out the window.”

BREAK OUT OF THE BOX:  “What I consider to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life was when I had a choice between two jobs: one was a job I’d done previously and was kind of good at, the other was a job that might have been a bit of a struggle. I took the one that was going to be a slam-dunk for me. It was basically the dumbest thing I ever did. From that I learned that what you’ve got to do is not embrace the easy street; you’ve got to actually embrace the complicated street because that’s what will prepare you to deal with issues in your life that come up.”