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Right versus Left Brain - Is There a Difference for Pharma Engineers?

Susan Stipa
Article - ISPE Pharmaceutical Engineering
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I was back at it again last week, sitting in a conference room with a group of biochemists and engineers. Explaining that I am a chemical process engineer in pharma, who runs an advertising/PR agency.

Always surprised at the incredulous looks, I have learned to be prepared to deliver my crusade speech - that engineers and scientists are, quite simply, some of the most creative people around.

Don’t we all have one - a personal crusade? That conviction that seems to ride against every popular notion? Mine is this. That engineers and scientists are always and naturally thinking creatively - considering angles, looking at things with a fresh eye, day after day, pondering alternative solutions to some serious challenges. With thirty years in and around the pharma industry, I’ve seen scientists and engineers pull out some of the most mind-boggling solutions to address humankind’s deepest fears - disease and death.

What causes the perception that excelling in math and science means you cannot have the right side of the brain cranking as well? Some of it is definitely an auto-response from teachers, parents, friends that if you’re good at one thing, i.e. math/science, then it must follow that you can’t be a great writer, see color and design elements, and dream about looking at things creatively. Yet some of our greatest scientists were also amazing writers and artists. Leonardo comes to mind, as well as Sagan, Hawkins - mesmerizing writers and artists, all.

Remember the Scientific Method?

Perhaps the perception of dull and plodding scientists comes from viewing only one side of science - the rigidity of scientific method (that ensures that ideas are tested in a disciplined manner to ensure accuracy) could, I suppose, appear very linear and unimaginative.

Channel sixth grade science, a cloudy and hot Thursday afternoon. Time to learn the Scientific Method.

Ah, yes… the scientific method, characterized by folks who loved to observe, dream, and see alternatives. Encouraged to be skeptical about what they observed, and then formulating hypotheses, based on their observations. Performing experiments, making deductions and eventually refining or eliminating those hypotheses based on the experimental findings. Note that the first step is observation, my “other” name for scientific discovery and nearly a twin sister to the creative process.

Maybe I was just lucky to have Mr. Pec for sixth grade science. Mr. Pec, short for some wonderfully unpronounceable Italian last name, lived the scientific method every day, encouraging us (loudly) to question, challenge, and push our limits. So fond is my memory of his big sneakers, at eye level, up on his desk, getting a different angle on what he was brewing in those beakers below.

My favorite part of creating new marketing campaigns for clients is asking a lot of questions and then challenging our clients’ perception about how their new product or solution creates a difference for their own customer. We then brainstorm about campaigns to present their data, products and solutions in a compelling and memorable way.

Questions? Brainstorming? Challenging? Sound familiar, my science and engineering friends? These are all cornerstones of scientific discovery. Maybe it is just easier for me to see the parallels, because I work in both worlds, creative and technical, but I love the look of surprise when an engineer of my acquaintance actually begins to believe that his cool ideas about how to help his customers understand some obscure technical details are described by me to be truly creative. Often, with some probing, we uncover that the message “you’re not a writer/artist/“ had been delivered as early as elementary or middle school, often after he/she showed promise in math and science.

So, when did the two skill sets become so distinctly separate? Did it begin with the left brain/right brain theory of Roger W. Sperry, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981? While studying the effects of epilepsy, Sperry discovered that cutting the corpus callosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) could reduce or eliminate seizures, also revealed which sides of the brain controlled language and logic, versus spatial information and visual comprehension. Perhaps when we started thinking about dividing the brain into two parts, we began to widen the divide between science and creativity, instead of embracing the delightful stew of fresh thought and insight that we all hold inside, scientists or not.

Frankly I am not certain why it is such a passion for me to change minds on this subject. Certainly, labels of any sort spark a defiant need to rise to the challenge. Perhaps I want to adopt the adjectives associated with “creative” freedom, joy, and fun - and apply those adjectives to chemistry, biology, physics, math, and data analytics!

In the end, there is nothing I like better than to see a little girl’s eyes light up when she believes that being an engineer could be the most fun job she’ll ever have. Because it is.

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References

  1. Left Brain vs. Right Brain Dominance: The Surprising Truth Understanding the Myth of Left and Right Brain Dominance
    Published in VeryWellMind By Kendra Cherry | Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD
    Updated March 13, 2018