Program for 4-hour workshop on Creativity & Innovation in Epidemiologic Research

Workshop, American College of Epidemiology, 8am-12.15pm, 9/9/12

led by
Peter J. Taylor
Graduate track in Science in a Changing World
University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA 02125, USA.
Assisted by:

  • Nancy Kreiger, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
  • Sandra Sulsky, ENVIRON International Corporation, Amherst MA

(This document has live links at

This workshop explores ways to open up new directions in epidemiological thinking and research. Participants will be introduced to tools and processes for individual reflection and group interaction designed to produce the insights and to deepen the people-connections valuable for seeing new paths and generating new opportunities. A special emphasis will be on support for translation of tools, processes, connections, and insights back into our specific work settings.The workshop facilitator, Peter Taylor, directs the graduate programs in Critical and Creative Thinking and Science in a Changing World at the University of Massachusetts Boston and teaches a doctoral course on epidemiological thinking for non-specialists. The assistants, Nancy Kreiger and Sandy Sulsky co-led a discussion on this topic at ACE 2011, hosted workshops by Peter at their workplaces last fall, and prepared a report published in the ACE newsletter this summer.


Process themes vs. epidemiological themes -> Process themes 1 & 2 [see summary at end]
Initial activity (guided freewriting looking ahead on the workshop, then share one question or idea with neighbor)
Overview of workshop goals [see above and Process themes 3-5 near the end below] and schedule

Autobiographical backgrounds: “How I came to the point where I would want to join in a workshop on creativity and innovation in epidemiological research”

  • Gives participants an opportunity to
    • 1. introduce themselves in narrative depth, their current and emerging work,
    • 2. learn more about each other
    • 3. provide diverse material for cross-connections
  • Peter Taylor goes first to model, then 5 minutes each (in small groups, given the workshop size)

Everyone encouraged to take notes on points of intersection, interest, curiosity.
After every third introduction, stop to draw connections (on a large sheet of paper) and discuss with a neighbor what is emerging.
After all the intros, extract from our sheets of connections 5 statements or questions (copies submitted to be circulated after the workshop).

Make notes on how to adapt or adopt freewriting and the autobiographical background activity into our own settings.

Focus on Discussion paper (precirculated and read in advance) related to the workshop topic.

  • Ness, R.B. (2012). “Tools for Innovative Thinking in Epidemiology.” American Journal of Epidemiology 175(8): 733-738
  • Supplementary reading: blog entries
  • Participants relate how the papers intersect with or stimulate our own thinking. (The author, if present, stays quiet, listening. After that author joins in the discussion, which continues for the time remaining. The emphasis is on participants teasing out their own thinking more than on digging into what the author thinks.)

Make notes on how to adapt or adopt into our own settings this form of response to a shared reading.

Break, including sign up for one-on-one consultations.

One-on-one consultations (a.k.a. “Office Hours”)

  • an opportunity to consult with a specific individual to pursue questions, air ideas, or make connections with a view to “explor[ing] ways to open up new directions in epidemiological thinking and research.”

Make notes on how to adapt or adopt into our own settings this form of one-on-one consultations.

Dialogue Hour (introduced in a way that can be taught to a group on the spot) on: what support do we need if we are to translate tools, processes, connections, and insights from the workshop back into our specific work settings and to open up new directions in our epidemiological thinking and research

  • Gather thoughts to be shared (on (top link) [using smart phone or wireless laptop] or on paper)
  • Closing circle: One thing we are taking away to chew on or put into practice (recorded)

End of formal workshop
Make notes on how to adapt or adopt into our own settings the Dialogue hour format.

Further discussion over lunch at TBA (possibly Chicago’s Magnificent Meal; 520 N Michigan Ave)

Post-workshop, using

  • Post the 5 statements or questions extracted from our sheets of connections
  • Post the gathered thoughts and transcript of closing circle
  • Join the wordpress blog to share inquiries & resources, plans for practice, requests for collaboration or support, themes about the workshop topic, process themes.

Supplementary reading: Taylor, P. and J. Szteiter (2012) Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. Arlington: The Pumping Station (online as paperback or pdf from or as paperback from other online booksellers).

Process themes

to be supplemented on the blog
1. Participants always bring a lot of knowledge about the topic, so allow that to be brought to surface and acknowledged.
2. What you really learn from a workshop or participatory experience is what you integrate with your own history and concerns.
3. The challenges of a workshop are: a) for the tools and processes and for the connections made among participants to yield new insights about the topic; and b) for what happens in those 3 areas to carry over from the here-and-now of the workshop into our work and life situations.
4. The workshop should unfold according to the sequence of “4Rs”: a well-facilitated collaborative process keeps us listening actively to each other, fostering mutual Respect that allows Risks to be taken, elicits more insights than any one person came in with (Revelation), and engages us in carrying out and carrying on the plans each of us develops (Re-engagement).
5. There should be reflection on each phase to take into next phase.
6. Emphasize inquiry—seeking clarifications and deeper understanding—more than advocacy, making a statement, or establishing shared conclusions.
7. In any go around, it is OK to pass.
8. Facilitators (“leaders”) shouldn’t try to do so without arranging assistants and support.
9. Be proactive to retain space for your own generativity in an unfair world where other people discount your contributions and waste your time.


Epidemiological themes

to be supplemented on the blog
1. Novel types of information are potentially relevant to epidemiology include data derived from a) basic biology and genetics, including the “-omics”; b) changing methods of practicing, delivering and documenting medical care, including the use of electronic medical records and their linkages to health systems; and c) wholly novel data sources and information technology, including social media. (from task force report; see
2. It is clarifying to consider alternatives to conventions of statistical practice, especially conventions that frustrate us. (from blog:


Guided (topic-based) freewriting

an exercise to clear mental and/or emotional space and to allow ideas about an issue to begin to come to the surface before you simply push ahead.

In a freewriting exercise, you should not take your pen off the paper. Keep writing even if you find yourself stating over and over again, “I don’t know what I’m expected to say.” What you write will not be read by anyone else, so do not go back to tidy up sentences, grammar, spelling. You will probably diverge from the topic, at least for a time while you acknowledge other preoccupations. That’s OK- one of the purposes of the exercise is to express what is distracting you is. However, if you keep writing and do not stop for seven to ten minutes, you should expose some thoughts about the topic that had been below the surface of your attention-that is another of the aims of the exercise. There is no expectation about how much gets clear in this exercise-there will be plenty of time yet and opportunities for being stimulated by others. Reference: Elbow, P. 1981. Writing with Power. New York: Oxford U. P.

Continue where this sentence leaves off: When I think about ways that a 4-hour workshop could help me open up new directions in epidemiological thinking and research, the questions, experiences, and hopes that come to mind include….


About Peter J. Taylor

Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (
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