Is there a secret to genius? Probably not, but there are some common traits you see in smart, creative people who are willing to break boundaries.

For our series “The Genius Behind”, we met six people who are helping to transform the world in their own way, including a teenager who built a prosthetic arm that can be controlled with the mind, an astrophysicist hunting for a “second Earth” and a scientist looking to preserve civilisation forever using DNA. 

In the videos below, discover their stories – and the mode of thinking that makes them stand out from their peers:

Do… look for the indirect route

If aliens are living on a distant planet, it’s pretty much impossible for our optical telescopes to see them directly – but maybe we don’t need to. Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT looking for “second Earths”, realised that we could spot life this century by searching for its signature in exoplanet atmospheres. She ignored initial scepticism – a facet often found in true innovators – and showed it could work. As a MacArthur fellow – also known as the “genius grant” – she is now scouring the Universe for atmospheres that could carry this indirect sign of alien life:

Don’t… be afraid of telling the difficult truth

We rely on the global shipping network to supply us with the vast majority of our possessions, from the clothes you’re wearing right now to the technology you’re using to read these words. Unfortunately, all this activity is creating a cacophony of noise under the sea that can be fatal to marine life.

One day, Michel Andre of the Technical University of Catalonia, BarcelonaTech (UPC) encountered a dead sperm whale on a beach in the Canary Islands that had collided with a ship. He went on to discover that the noise of shipping was to blame; the shipping that keeps our consumer society going.

It’s an unpalatable truth, but one that he believes needs action and difficult decisions to tackle:

Do… teach yourself

People with truly creative minds often have an urge to discover things for themselves, rather than waiting to be spoon-fed. That’s certainly the case for teenager Easton LaChappelle who has built an affordable prosthetic arm that can be controlled by brainwaves. It all began when he started tinkering with robotics aged 14:

Do… bridge gaps, people and fields

Specialising in one talent can take you to the top of your profession, but genuine innovation often comes from a willingness to transcend fields. Take Anita Goel of the company Nanobiosym, who is developing a “tricorder” to diagnose disease outside hospitals, a technology that could transform healthcare in the developing world. Her research to inspire this technology exists at the intersection of nanotechnology, physics and biomedicine – three completely different fields:

Do… take the long view

People with exceptional minds are capable of transcending their immediate surroundings, and looking to the long-term. They can, in a sense, see beyond the horizon.

For Robert Grass of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, thinking this way is absolutely necessary. After all, he and his colleague Reinhard Heckel are trying to find a way to store humanity’s knowledge for eternity inside DNA:

…but don’t neglect looking close to home for inspiration

Sometimes, our obsession with the new and the innovative can make us miss the inspiration already under our noses. Jill Farrant of the University of Cape Town wanted to design drought-resistant crops to survive for much longer periods without water – a major problem as the effects of climate change take hold.

Farrant realised that she already knew an organism that could do that, which she had first encountered in her childhood – a resurrection plant, which can come back to life after months or years without water. Now she’s exploring whether it’s possible to transfer this remarkable plant’s genes to crops:

Watch all the videos and stories in The Genius Behind series

Follow us on Facebook, TwitterGoogle+LinkedIn and Instagram.