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Curiosity is a pathway to science

Researchers are shaping the future. If you want to become a researcher, it is important to be curious and question everything, says Professor Silvan Scheller.

What do you research and why?

I am interested in chemistry in nature. In many cases, nature is a better chemist than we humans are. My aim is to bring chemical processes happening in nature into the laboratory in order to develop useful applications.

My specific research topic is the anaerobic oxidation of methane, a microbial process that happens in the deep-sea, where methane is “burned” at 4 °C without the need of oxygen. How methane-activation is performed is not yet known. I am curious to find this out and once we understand it, we may be able to conduct this process in a laboratory. My vision is to design a biochemical method to convert fuel methane into electricity by “burning” it at cold temperature. It would serve a new tool for utilizing energy resources more sustainably.

What brought you into the field of research?

Already as a child I was very curious and was asking questions like how does a fire extinguisher or a refrigerator work. If I didn’t understand the answers, I became even more curious. My father is also a chemist and his demonstrations were quite intriguing to a young boy. I grew big crystals of copper sulfate as Christmas presents, made my own gun-powder etc. and I wanted to study chemistry. It is a good mixture of learning concepts and facts and of practical work in the laboratory. A chemist knows the key concepts in physics and has the skills to investigate biology, pharmaceutical sciences or environmental sciences.  

What have been the highlights of your career?

One of them was the decoupling of the syntrophy in deep-sea microbes that are responsible for methane oxidation. There are communities of two different microbes, bacteria and archaea, that are dependent on each other and can therefore only be grown together, a process called syntrophy. My goal was to decouple this process, meaning to find conditions where one type of microbe survives and the other not, as this is needed to get a pure culture of microbes, and to study the process under controlled conditions. My colleagues had very interesting results indicating that the methane-oxidizing archaea are producing electricity that the bacterial partners are taking up. By providing artificial electron acceptors (chemicals that take up electricity), I found conditions where the archaea have the potential to grow independently of the bacteria. In my future research I want to utilize this process to convert methane to electricity at thermodynamic efficiencies potentially higher than gas turbines.

What are the most important qualities for a researcher?

I would say the key characteristic is curiosity. Science is fueled by the unknown. A good scientist is driven by the urge to find out how a system - nature, earth, universe - functions. However, there is an increasing emphasis on publishing as much as possible, because scientists are ranked by indices and impact points. This might be considered as an objective measure, but I believe that this impairs curiosity-driven research and science. A researcher under pressure to publish thinks which experiment allows to write another publication and not necessarily which experiment may unravel the next little secret that nature holds. In my opinion the most important quality of a researcher is being dedicated to find out the truth.

To students wanting to become researchers I would like to advice to question everything and ask why. Don’t believe something just because it is written somewhere, you found it on the internet, or because somebody said so. Use your own brain and make up your own mind.

What do you expect from the future?

I have no expectations from the future, we are shaping it. Concerning my reseach, I am very thankful that Aalto University provided me the opportunity to follow my research interests independently. It is an interesting adventure, I will give my best and will see what it brings.

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