Keeping the Spark

hand with sparks

Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers

—Barbara Stoll, George W. Brumley, Jr. Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics

Vol. 11 No. 6
May 2009

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Keeping the Spark
The challenges of staying creative over an academic career

Podcasts: The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory

The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence

“When people are willing to get ‘off track,’ that is when I see them at their most creative. When they stop worrying about traditional modes of recognition, they tend to be far more spontaneous.”

“I‘m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.”

“Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers.”

Show Up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs

On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate
Creative new possibilities for approaching and teaching science

Crazy Thinking
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected


Academic Exchange: Your career has not followed a proscribed path. How have you responded creatively to opportunities and challenges?

Barbara Stoll: I’ve had a nontraditional academic career. As I look back, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work in several different and unusual settings that have enriched my life personally and opened professional doors that at first blush you wouldn’t think they would have. In a nutshell, I went to medical school at Yale and trained in pediatrics at Columbia. I moved to Atlanta to follow my husband, ended up being a fellow in neonatology, which was not on my original career path list. We wanted to work overseas and went to Bangladesh after I completed my training. We went for a year but ended up staying for four. It was an extraordinary experience that opened my eyes to social and political issues of the developing world and introduced me to global health and challenges of international child survival, which have stayed with me throughout my career. During these years we also worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, where I learned to be a doctor without the comfort of Western tests and technology—and lived the political and human horror of the Pol Pot regime.

After Bangladesh, we moved to Sweden for almost a year, where the focus of my work changed completely and I worked in a basic science infectious diseases laboratory. When we returned to the US, I continued to work in the laboratory for three years but soon realized that the life of a relatively isolated laboratory-based scientist was not a great fit for me. We decided to return to Atlanta. When I joined the Emory faculty I had this odd background of several years of infectious disease work both in a basic science lab and in a global health setting, but I was trained as a neonatologist. I ended up going back to neonatology partly because I had the training and credentials, but given my research credentials, I could have chosen to become a professor of pediatric infectious diseases. For a number of years I had a more traditional career of an academic clinician scientist—taking care of sick newborns; teaching medical students, residents, and fellows; writing grants and papers; and finding a research niche and an area of expertise. About twelve years ago my husband and I spent a year on sabbatical at the World Health Organization in Geneva, once again working on issues of global health, child survival, and neonatal mortality in developing countries. When I returned to Emory, I broadened my academic pursuits and continued to do projects in global health.

An outsider could look on paper at my career and say, This is totally disjointed, or one could say, What wonderful opportunities to enrich your own life, to have an exciting and challenging career, and to learn about the world and develop a broad perspective. I think all of these things prepared me to be the chair of a large department, to have a bigger view of things.

AE: What is that bigger view?

BS: I think it’s flexibility, openness, and somehow a life view that doesn’t get scared away by ambiguity. The career I know the best is academic medicine, and I think one of the things that attracts young faculty to academic medicine is that we are able to do different things. We’re not only clinicians; we’re not only teachers; we’re not only investigators. We get a taste of everything. The challenge is to do these different things but also to find an area that excites you and where you can be creative and engaged.

AE: What do you see as some of the challenges to creativity? And what kinds of things foster it?

BS: One issue is time. Time is a major challenge to creativity. Also important is having a cadre of like-minded people to work with, people who spark your enthusiasm. So having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers. I personally think having interests outside of your own narrow focus, whether it’s medieval studies or medicine, that having a broader interest in literature, art, music, or something that gives you a broader life perspective, makes you more creative in how you approach problems.