Triskelion #1

a paper, a quote, and a thought

This is the first post in a series called Triskelion. The triskelion is an ancient symbol consisting of a triple spiral (or legs) exhibiting rotational symmetry. The triskelion has different meanings across cultures, but all meanings revolve around a rule of 3’s. In this series, I’ll share three things — a paper, a quote, and a thought. I'll post these whenever I can fill up the three branches of the triskelion. I hope you enjoy.

1.    A Paper

Kurth, J.M., Nobu, M.K., Tamaki, H. et al. Methanogenic archaea use a bacteria-like methyltransferase system to demethoxylate aromatic compounds. ISME J (2021).

Julia Kurth and collaborators used a holistic approach (cultivation + phylogenetics, transcriptomics & proteomics) to show how methanogenic archaea convert methoxylated aromatic compounds to methane. This type of metabolism is critical to understanding how methanogens convert coal, lignin, and other humic substances to methane, especially in the subsurface. I love papers like this that address interesting questions with multiple lines of evidence.

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2.    A Quote

This in from last week’s 3-2-1 Newsletter by JamesClear.

Computer scientist Leonard Adleman on intellectual courage and choosing the right problem to work on:

INTERVIEWER: They say the most creative and challenging part of research is finding the right question to ask. Do you agree with that?

ADLEMAN: I wouldn't characterize it as the most challenging thing, but it's of critical importance. Sometimes it's not hard to find the "right question'. For example the mathematics literature is full of very important unanswered questions. In this case, the real issue is: Has that question's time come? Have we reached a point where developments in the appropriate area of science give us some chance of breaking the problem? For example, I worked on a famous centuries old math problem called "Fermat's Last Theorem". I was not 'strong' enough to solve it, but I find some solace in the fact that my intuition that its 'time had come' was right. The problem was finally solved two years ago by Andrew Wiles of Princeton. It was one of the major events in the history of mathematics.

The other side is to generate new questions. That's a funny process. The way I seek to generate new questions is to start to look at whole new fields, like biology, immunology or physics. Since I come from a different field, mathematics, I bring an unusual point-of-view that sometimes allows me to generate questions different from the classical questions in those areas. Like the question of DNA computing.

For the young scientist, this question of choosing the right question to spend your valuable limited intellectual resources on is critical. I often sit for months and do no productive work that anybody can see, because I don't feel I have a good enough question to work on. Rather than take on some lesser question, I would prefer to read a mystery novel. The point is, sometimes it's important to lie fallow for a time waiting for the 'right question' to appear, rather than to engage in uninspiring work and miss the important opportunity when it comes.


I always tell my students and junior faculty that they are better off following their inspiration and their hearts in what research they do, that they should always try to take on the most interesting and important problems, that they should not waste their time on little problems just to make another line on a vitae.

My philosophy is that it's important, in a curious way, for scientists to be courageous. Not physically courageous, but courageous in an intellectual way. I believe that by working on extremely hard problems, by being courageous, you may succeed. But even if you fail, you fail gloriously. And you will have learned immense amounts, you will have extended the envelope of what you can do. As a byproduct of failing on a great problem, I have always found that I could solve some lesser but still interesting problems—which then fill your vitae."

Source: Interview at USC (August 2, 1996)

3.    A Thought

I saw this tweet about whether young people should work weekends.

I enjoyed reading through the thread. There are a lot of good points about why young people should or should not work weekends. I tell our undergrads that their time is valuable and that they should evaluate whether an activity is worth their time through that lens. I see no harm in working on the weekends as a young person if it doesn’t come at the expense of maturing in other ways that would provide better value. If your job is social, working on the weekends can build critical friendships that you’ll sustain for years. Developing ways to balance work and life are easier when you are younger too. But, working on the weekends can lay the foundation for workaholism—something educational and academic systems indirectly encourage. I commonly worked to avoid other life responsibilities when I was a graduate student. These days, from time to time, I still struggle with working too much—a pattern that was established in my youth.

What do you think? Should young people work on the weekends?

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