How to solve hard, important research problems

People keep talking about low hanging fruit, but the low hanging tomatoes in my garden are the first to rot. Maybe other people can find easy and amazing things to study. I don’t think there is much hope for that. I find research to be incredibly hard. It can also be boring, unbelievably repetitious, and uncreative. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night wondering if an experiment really has all the correct controls, or if all the possible forms of bias are dealt with. I constantly wonder if what I am doing is the best there is, if we are missing something.

One of the advantages of a nearly three week research and meetings trip like the one we just took, is we can get into other people’s research lives much more thoroughly than we might on shorter trips. Through attending lab meetings, talking to students, having soft warm ales with plates of ham or bangers and mash, or mini hamburgers, we can get a deeper feel for their insights on research. I’m making lists of new insights so I don’t forget them. I’m trying hard to remember that there can be some form of balance, even if we are thinking about research much more than in the lab.

Sometimes an offhand comment can make you realize that you missed something in a paper you read, or failed to appreciate something important. You have to be open to these moments. There were plenty at Oxford as we worked in Stuart West‘s or Ashleigh Griffin‘s office, and were educated by them, by their groups, by Kevin Foster and his group, by Andy Gardner, Lorenzo Santorelli, and others.

Bill Hamilton, the missing genius behind it all, in the white shirt.

We also learned a ton at the Dictymeetings in Madrid. At first I hardly knew it was Madrid, for we never left the hotel. On the first day of the four day meeting I thought I would find a time when the talks were too biochemical and sneak off to the Prado. But after that day and into the second morning I realized there was nowhere else I would rather be than right here, with the biggest concentration of social amoeba researchers in the world, learning, and learning.

Adam and his wife, Julie, on our field trip to Segovia.

We discovered lists of new genes, pathways we were unaware of that could impact the social stage, or the farmers. We rediscovered the delight of working with our long time collaborators, Adam Kuspa, Gadi Shaulsky, and Chris Thompson and Elizabeth Ostrowski.

Ricardo Escalante, one of our meeting organizers.

On the long flight from Madrid to Newark and then on to St. Louis, I wrote and thought, trying to capture the new thoughts and insights as well as the undiscovered complications. I feel well prepared for our next research steps. But they will be hard. For small hard I take a nap. Everything seems easier with a nap.

Gadi and Adam

For bigger difficult problems, I should do what Cin-Ty does, put the problem down for a year or even two, then return to it. His geology problems sound intoxicatingly huge. Check out his latest entry! It is clear he is not doing just what he can do, but is finding the biggest and most fundamental problems of the earth, and trying to make the resulting equations balance.

Our next challenge will be to understand what farming dicty carry in terms of bacteria, how they carry them, what immune compromises there are, and what this system can tell us about the eukaryote-microbiome interface, of importance for us and them. It will be bringing together a lot of information from different approaches. It will be great fun!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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