From the 12/29/2020 newsletter
Reimagine: It’s Easy if You Try
Balaraman Kalyanaraman, PhD – Professor & Chair, MCW Department of Biophysics
Dr. Kalyanaraman takes a spirited look at the process of how we can reimagine many aspects of our lives, as well as our research (including the inspiring story of a COVID-19 researcher to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude), our relationships, and our health …
“Anything you do I can do better, but only if you do it first. That’s because I have no imagination, only a re-imagination.”
–Andrew Keith Walker
Right now, I bet you are telling someone, or have been asked, to reimagine some aspect of your work or life. Or perhaps you are reading about or watching an advertisement focused on reimagining. But what does reimagine mean? According to Merriam-Webster, the first use of the word was in 1825, and it is now among the top 1% of words that are looked up. I don’t know about you, but the word “imagine” makes me happy; hearing it frees up space in my brain. Conversely, the word “reimagine” makes me feel tense and anxious; it sounds task oriented and somewhat contrived! Well, the more I’ve pondered the word “reimagine,” the more I’ve realized I do not have to feel this way!
While trying to understand “reimagine,” I came across this anecdote about imagination from the book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, PhD:
An elementary school teacher was giving a drawing class to a group of six-year-old children. At the back of the classroom sat a little girl who normally didn’t pay much attention in school. In the drawing class she did. For more than twenty minutes, the girl sat with her arms curled around her paper, totally absorbed in what she was doing. The teacher found this fascinating. Eventually, she asked the girl what she was drawing. Without looking up, the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” Surprised, the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
The girl said, “They will in a minute.”
The girl was making an image of something she could not feel with her senses but could feel in her heart!
Try to reimagine “Imagine” written by John Lennon and inspired by Yoko Ono:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Hmm, the song is not the same when reimagined, right?
Clearly, reimagination requires a lot more imagination with a lot more passion!
In business, people “think outside the box” and reimagine everything from A to Z! (Do you have a novel idea? Sorry! Amazon already claimed it.) I considered synonyms for reimagine: reconceptualize, re-envision, reinvent, rethink, refine, re-create, reevaluate, or reinterpret imaginatively. It seems that “reimagine” is a word meant to inspire us; it captures the essence of what we need to do together or in collaboration that builds upon our strength.
Below, I’ve given my thoughts on reimagining a few aspects of research and life that are personal to me, but I know there are plenty more that you can reimagine. Some of these also could be applicable to other areas, such as workplaces, social systems, communication, teaching, childcare, sports, and recreation.
Reimagining ideas in research
How does one reimagine research ideas? Here are some ways to get started:
- To find one good idea, you ought to begin with several ideas. It’s important, though, to work on only one idea at a time.
- Become obsessed with your idea. Believe in yourself but be prepared to modify your idea.
- Always be ready to talk about your research ideas passionately at different levels depending upon your audience.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your colleagues about the grant that was not scored or did not score well enough to be funded, even if they are not in your field!
- Rejection happens to everyone, no matter your reputation in your field. Even Nobel laureates experience it. Ideas, new and old, are rejected all the time. What matters is how you respond to criticism and reshape your ideas!
- Even though you may have the most cutting-edge idea, your proposal may lack widespread approval in the study section and require tweaking. Sometimes you have not exactly read between the lines in the summary statement, and you keep resubmitting the same idea while expecting different results. This is when you really need to get out of your comfort zone and reimagine—consider a chemist/biochemist collaborating with an immunologist, a vaccine researcher (perhaps, an extreme example)!
A great example of reimagining - Katalin Karikó, PhD
Katalin Karikó, PhD, a Hungarian-born biochemist, first laid the foundation for the messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics that have been used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. Messenger RNA transfers the information from DNA to ribosomes to make specific proteins in cells. Karikó hypothesized that if a genetically coded synthetic mRNA was injected into mice, the cells in the body would make the specific protein instructed by the synthetic mRNA. In the 1990s, when she was faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó submitted several grant proposals on this idea. The proposals were repeatedly rejected, as the reviewers’ thought this concept would not work because of the potential degradation of the synthetic mRNA in the body and the potentially dangerous inflammatory immune reaction.
Despite professional setbacks, Karikó believed in her idea and continued the work with little money. Karikó began collaborating with immunologist/mRNA vaccine researcher Drew Weissman, MD; together they came up with the idea to modify the structure of uridine, one of the four nucleosides of the building blocks of RNA. As they predicted, the modified mRNA encapsulated in a lipid nanoparticle was taken up by cells; Karikó and Weissman then extended this technology to deliver the synthetic mRNA in mice.
They published a paper in 2005 and obtained NIH funding, and this new technology was patented by the University of Pennsylvania. BioNTech, a German company known for developing vaccines, licensed this technology, as did Moderna, a biotech company in Boston.
Karikó is now the senior vice president of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals. The Pfizer-BioNTech partnership developed an mRNA vaccine designed to induce neutralizing antibodies against a portion of the SARS-CoV-2 “spike” protein that the virus uses to gain access into human cells. The antibodies against the “spike” protein recognize and neutralize SARS-CoV-2, thus preventing the infection.
Although Karikó encountered early setbacks in her research, she never gave up and always “imagined how the synthetic mRNA approach could treat so many diseases.”
Reimagining a work-life balance
During this pandemic, a barrier to optimal work-life balance exists for parents (more often mothers), particularly single parents, as they juggle work with childcare and home schooling.
People in the workforce are on different trajectories. Some just starting, some climbing up and trying to reach cruising altitude, some pushing the “reset” button, and some pushing the “rest” button. All too often, people (myself included) are too carried away in their work and give little attention to their life outside of work. Organizations conduct workshops to teach us ways to restructure our lives, which may not seem like rocket science, but it may be nearly as difficult. In what ways can we strike a good work-life balance?
I leave this to the experts to ponder. If we take the time to pause and contemplate it, we will be off to a great start.
Professional advice on improving relationships is available everywhere, in workshops, talk shows, magazine articles. This is all well and good and may work for some people, but often we just need to reimagine the little things that are forgotten. Yes, I understand, “Physician, heal thyself,” and I think it goes well with “better late than never.” In his article, 10 Ways To Reimagine Your Relationship, Barton Goldsmith, PhD, says “doing new things together, and old things in new ways, makes your love stronger.” He proposes a number of ideas to reimagine relationships:
- Let go of the past. Learn to forgive and forget, and focus on the positives. Be grateful for each other and treat each day as a blessing. Write down at least one thing (daily or weekly) that you appreciate about your partner.
- Create your fantasy vacation. Daydreaming about your ideal vacation can be fun! During the pandemic, this may be hard to fathom, but things will get back to normal. And when you are able to take a vacation, you will be ready.
- Take a class together. Or do other activities with your partner: Take a virtual cooking class, learn CPR, learn a new language, take a walk through the park.
- Have lunch together once a week. This will help break the monotony.
- Ask your partner 20 questions. Show curiosity in your partner’s interests. What are some things you’ve always wanted to know about your partner but never took the time to ask?
To this list, I’ll add: Never be afraid to poke fun of yourself. Self-deprecating humor can ease those tense moments.
I am sure you can find many more fun things to add to this list.
Reimagining stress reduction through mindfulness
Emerging science convincingly shows that routine exercise, yoga, meditation, and mindful meditation can alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. Herbert Benson, MD (Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital) pioneered the beneficial effects of meditation (e.g., lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing brain activity). Functional MRI studies support the beneficial aspects of meditation to combat depression and anxiety.
Suzanne Westbrook, MD, a retired doctor of internal medicine, says, “our mind wanders all the time, either reviewing the past or planning for the future.” Mindfulness teaches the skill of paying attention to the present, and that life is in the moment. Mindfulness is not about trying to empty the mind; rather, it is about remaining present. It is a practice designed to improve brain health. Taking a slow deep breath through the nostrils (i.e., inhaling) and then slowly breathing out through the mouth (i.e., exhaling) will help you relax, reenergize, and reconnect. Repeat this inhalation/exhalation technique about 10 times. Use it as a “balance break” as needed during tense times (e.g., grant preparation). Mindfulness will improve your focus on the task at hand and face challenges with a healthy attitude, reduced stress, and increased energy. Mindfulness could be incorporated into many things—eating, conversation, listening. Some people practice 20–30 minutes of meditation that involves “mindful body scan,” during which one notices the sensations one is feeling without judgement. Indeed, mindfulness is presently at the top of the wellness universe as a stress reduction technique!
Let us imagine and then reimagine 2021! But not without first learning from 2020. Yes, hindsight is 20/20.
Balaraman Kalyanaraman, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biophysics at MCW.