Revisiting play: enriching scientific environments

"Play" is a provocative word in some work places, despite increasing recognition of its significant contribution to human development, creativity and productivity. As I head off to Seattle (Tapia Conference) and then Chicago (American Association for the Advancement of Science), I envision a range of sentiments in response to my call to scientists to develop through improvisation: to play. 

One of the exciting aspects of traveling is the opportunity to meet other scientists who consciously perform, improvise and play. I think it's worth re-visiting some folks we have already met and earlier thoughts on play. Below is the blog post written at the conclusion of the 2013 Computational Cell Biology meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  It's content is relevant still. 

"Enter play, enriching our scientific practice"

I love going to conferences and discovering scientists who are playing. Yes, playing. As you know, I lead scientists in improvisation workshops. It is provocative. Scientists play? 

Of course, in any business, profession or avocation there can be an environment that separates work and play. "Stop playing around,"  "be serious.' And we are just beginning in our culture, perhaps species, to look seriously at the importance of play in our creativity, health, ability to learn and develop. A recent article on play  at Fast Company is one of a number of reports that highlights this importance in business and design.

I am quite versed in the culture of "be serious." Fortunately, I'm also versed in social therapeutics in which performance is a means to re-ignite our development. And I love to play. This combination has me standing in front of colleagues and professional peers at the Computational Cell Biology meeting, saying "let's play!"

In the process, I meet wonderful people. Indeed, I appreciate every person who comes to an improvscience workshop and plays. I experience it as a commitment to growth, development and fun. Some of these people include, Mark Mc Auley- the scientist, educator who as a science teacher (primary and secondary) school uses ice breakers at the beginning of each course. "One year, i forgot to do icebreakers. We were struggling with [administrative issues] and I just forgot. After a few weeks, I was wondering, 'why aren't these students interacting with one another.' Then I realized, I had forgotten the exercises. I said wait a minute, and got to work doing the icebreakers."

Another scientist, Allyson Sgro who is teaching science writing, "You have to do the icebreakers. How else are people going to be comfortable enough with each other to give and hear the critiques they need to get better." And a close colleague, Cibele Falkenberg who has participated in workshops with me over the years confessed, "While preparing for a research in progress talk I realized that I had a slide that embodied what we learned from the ‘Yes, and’ exercise.  It's the slide that followed my summary of the data and work that others had done." It highlights a direct connection in science of the improvisational principle (accepting what's already done and adding to it) in action.

And finally, another research professor, Angela DePace shared, "I never thought that the improv comedy I did as an undergrad would apply to running a lab. But I actually see its influence everywhere.  Our lab meetings are very much run with a 'yes, and…' philosophy.  Its helped make a culture where everyone can be truly creative. "

I am honored each time I work with scientists who are open to play, to having fun and who are interested in growth for themselves, their colleagues and the field. This is why we have improvscience, to improv(e) the cultural dynamics of our environments and to improv(e) our science.


As I walk around my community and look at people working - fixing the roads, selling insurance, or stacking cans at the local grocery store - I am often thankful that, as a scientist, I don't have to do any of this sort of "hard" work, and in fact I often get to "play" as part of my job. It is a privilege that society has granted me for applying myself to my particular discipline. Victor E. Weisskopf entitled his memoir "The Privilege of Being a Physicist". Weisskopf describes the social contract that the science community has with society. We are allowed to play as much as we want, but in the end we need to give back to society by understanding how the universe works and using that understanding to solve societal problems.