Stir your inspiration and make your research useful

How to choose a research topic

As you arrive at this website, you’re probably thinking “What is the best way to choose my research topic? What I should be guided by when choosing?” Here are some suggestions and ideas:

When choosing a topic there are two sources of information you can draw from - internal (your own impressions and feelings) and external (what other people say and suggest). First, let’s discuss the internal.

Useful considerations for a topic choice

We think it is good to select a research topic based on your interests. This is because being genuinely interested in a topic will motivate you and will help you develop your research taste, which might be a powerful intellectual tool for orienting in complex and not yet defined waters. However, there are two other considerations we think are important.

First: How valuable would an answer to your research question be? What would the consequences be of having that question answered? Would it have any effect at all? Are there any questions that may elicit more valuable answers? Is there a question that could solve more important, larger, and more neglected problems? How much would answering this question improve the world? By “improving the world” here we don’t necessarily mean doing something applied - you can improve the world by testing interventions and finding answers to very applied questions, but you can also improve the world by improving the theoretical understanding of fundamental parts of some problem. Importantly, however, the extent to which this increased understanding is actually valuable may vary significantly depending on the topic. Gaining an internal sense of how valuable the answers to various questions would be is especially important when you want to make progress on open, not yet defined questions and in early-stage fields (which are often very interesting and provide opportunities for greater progress and discoveries).


The second factor is your personal tractability - do you feel that you would be able to make progress on this topic? Even if it is in general possible to make progress on it, are you a good fit to do so? It’s often good to spend about 10 % of your time testing your fit with a project, rather than fully committing to something right away.

These factors are also important to keep in mind when assessing external sources of information. Look at what topics the most prominent researchers are interested in, and listen to what other people and communities think is valuable to work on—paying close attention to their reasoning behind it. Experienced researchers and other well-informed individuals can also be useful resources when determining tractability.

How to compare information from external vs internal sources

Generally, we think it’s good to start with and get inspired by external sources of information, but ultimately let the internal sources have the last word. For example, we think it might be good for you to choose a field/general topic that others have a good reason to say is valuable and that may improve the world more than other fields. Then you can let yourself be guided by your internal impressions on what specifically within this broader domain/general topic feels interesting and tractable.

To give you a head start, we have put together a list of general topics/domains that seem to be very valuable to make progress on from an impartial welfarist perspective (i.e., promoting wellbeing, with every entity’s wellbeing counting equally). Dive in and get inspired!

Explore and get interested

There are several paths we think might be especially high impact in making the world a better place. If you get interested in any of these topics, we can connect you with researchers working in these fields or provide other types of support (scroll down for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching.

Decreasing risks from engineered pathogens

#biotechnology #immunology #biomedical research

Why is this important:
Large pandemic outbreaks (like recent COVID-19) have historically caused enormous losses in lives (e.g. Spanish flu is estimated to had wiped almost 1 % or possibly as much as 5.4 % of the global population). If we were to tackle more severe natural pandemics or even anthropogenic pandemic caused by engineered pathogens, we might risk significant disruption to global civilisation and the future of humanity’s progress. Risks from engineered pathogens seem especially pressing since its risks and severity might increase with steep advances in gene-editing technology (e.g. CRISPR), decreasing costs of DNA and RNA synthesis, biotech capabilities becoming more widely available and technological progress outpacing the regulations and norms creation. Working on preventing risks from these scenarios and mitigating them if they come to happen might, therefore, be very valuable. Learn more about the general case for working on biosecurity and global catastrophic biological risks in this problem profile, in this podcast, this podcast and this conference talk.

How to tackle this:
One of the ways to help reduce risks from engineered pathogens is creating broadspectrum tests, therapeutics and vaccine design.

Developing broadspectrum pathogen-agnostic diagnostics could be very useful in all of the above scenarios. The current PCR testing which requires already identified virus genome and is calibrated to recognise only the specific type of pathogen makes testing slower and is very limited in the early stages of a pandemic outbreak. In contrast, when using broadspectrum pathogen-agnostic diagnostic based on metagenomic techniques, you don’t need to know anything about the pathogen beforehand and thus may increase the speed of testing and diagnostics a lot.

In a similar direction, development of broadspectrum vaccine platforms that are effective against a wide range of viral species would also help us to have a head start when outbreaks occur, instead of waiting for the pathogen-specific vaccine to be developed over the course of multiple months as we do now. An example of that could be the development of universal flu vaccine (although to prevent most damaging pandemics we should probably aim at more dangerous diseases)

Yet still, development of broadspectrum antivirals/therapeutics that are effective against a wide range of viral species would also help us to have drugs available to treat people in a novel viral pathogen outbreak. An example could be host-directed antiviral compounds - rather than targeting the virus, targeting the part of the hosts’ cellular machinery.

You can also see the Open Philanthropy's report for more details and other suggestions on how to help reduce risks from engineered pathogens.

Who are the people already working on this:
Dr Dave Relman, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and many more - see here

Alternative meat research and development

#stem cell biology #plant biology #cell agriculture #molecular biology #food science #bioengineering #biotechnology

Why is this important?

Environmental Degradation: United Nations scientists state that raising animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” The animal agricultural sector is responsible for about 15 % of global greenhouse gas emissions and 75 % of recent Amazon deforestation.

Global Poverty and Food Security: Growing crops to feed them to farm animals is vastly inefficient, driving up the price of grains and legumes, and entrenching global poverty. Also, more than three-quarters of agricultural land is used to support cows, pigs, and chickens, but animal products provide only 18% of global food calories and 25% of protein (Mottet et al. 2017). By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world to feed, and global meat demand is expected to grow by 70%. To produce enough food for 9 billion people by 2050, we will need a more efficient system.

Animal Welfare: Each year, the current production of animal products subjects over 70 billion of thinking, feeling animals (9 times more than the population of humans) to lives of extreme confinement, painful mutilations, and inhumane slaughter. Most farm animals experience serious levels of suffering evaluated as "better dead than alive".

Human Health and Antibiotic Resistance: About 80 per cent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to farm animals. Overusing antibiotics leads to a faster spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is according to the World Health Organization one of the biggest threats to global health. Also, red meat consumption is shown to correlate with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, and higher cancer mortality rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, tens of millions of Americans get sick every year from eating contaminated meat, and thousands die.

Cultivated and plant-based meat alternatives might be able to mitigate all these problems without compromising on taste, nutrients and in the future perhaps even price. More research aimed at enabling these products to come into light or get better can be very impactful. Read this student guide to learn more.

How to tackle this?

Cultivated Meat: Research and development of the three stages in the production of cultivated meat to become a scalable process - a selection of cell lines, growth medium formulation, and scaffolding. Some bottlenecks are the growth media costs, optimization and isolation of cell lines from each animal, optimization of cell differentiation and co-culture of the relevant cell types (skeletal muscle, fat tissue, connective tissue). Biotechnologists and chemical engineers can also help with designing bioreactors to allow for large scale cellular growth

Plant-Based Meat: Further research and development of taste and structure factors in plant-based products, as well as research of new alternative plant protein sources.

Aside from meat alternatives, interesting research also happens for other animal products. Generally follow the field of cellular agriculture. 

Who are the people already working on this:
Mark Post at Maastricht University; David Kaplan at Tufts University; Marianne Ellis at Bath University; Iftach Nachman Lab at Tel Aviv University; Shulamit Levenberg Lab at the Technion; George Church Lab at Harvard Medical School; The Good Food Institute
*the thanks for building this profile go to Michelle Hauser and Marie Krátká

Improving the measurement of animal welfare

#zoology #physiology #evolutionary biology #ecology #animal behaviour #molecular biology

Why is this important:
Improving the quality of life for nonhuman animals seems like a particularly effective way to improve the world: animals currently make up the vast majority of sentient beings, helping them is a very neglected cause, and there seem to be cost-effective ways how to go about it. The welfare of wild animals appears particularly neglected. However, attempts to improve animal welfare are impeded by the difficulty of actually measuring and comparing the quality of animals’ lives.

One particularly promising new approach to measuring overall animal wellbeing is to compare the rate of biological ageing in different populations, with faster-ageing animals taken to be experiencing worse welfare. If developed properly, these ageing-based methods could provide a much better way of evaluating and comparing the quality of life of different animal groups, allowing us to target resources to improve animal welfare much more effectively.

How to tackle this:
For ageing-based methods of measuring welfare, there are currently several promising avenues that an interested student could pursue, including experimental laboratory work evaluating different ageing measures as potential welfare metrics, theoretical work exploring the evolutionary relationship between ageing and welfare (for example, the theoretical validity of ageing-based welfare measures in juvenile animals versus adults), and using existing ageing-based measures to investigate outstanding questions in animal welfare science. The range of potential approaches here mean there is space for students from many different branches of the life sciences to make valuable contributions. There is also a lot of potential value in spreading knowledge and application of ageing-based welfare methods in academia. See here for a thorough discussion of potential routes forward.

Who are the people already working on this:
Melissa Bateson, Colline Poirier, Wild Animal Initiative
*the thanks for building this profile go William Bradshaw

Alternative foods research

#biochemistry #biological engineering #botany #marine biology #microbiology #physiology 

Why is this important:
How would we feed everyone if the sun was blocked or if there was a significant disruption to electricity/industry? Sun-blocking events, caused e.g. by a supervolcanic eruption or nuclear war with the burning of cities and the smoke rising to the upper atmosphere, could kill billions of people and jeopardize the long-term future of humanity. Similar applies for loss of industry events, caused e.g. by a solar storm, multiple high altitude detonations of nuclear weapons causing electromagnetic pulses, or a narrow artificial intelligence computer virus disrupting electricity globally. According to some, there is an ~80% chance of significant food production loss this century and ~10% chance of a total food production loss this century. Food storage doesn’t seem like a viable and cost-effective solution for such large events. More research into alternative food sources that can be scaled up quickly and that don’t require the sun seems important. Read more on this website, in this book or in this podcast.  

How to tackle this:
- Doing initial food production scaling calculations (like were done in Feeding Everyone) for additional alternative foods such as mushrooms growing on coal, oil or peat, algae in ponds/enclosures, deep ocean fish, etc….

- Quantifying behavior change for conserving food (sleeping more, exercising less, working less, quitting smoking, weight loss, taking antibiotics, etc)

- Genetic engineering/crop breeding to make new plants that can grow well in nuclear winter in the tropics. Especially promising would be plants that use spores to reproduce, either naturally like ferns, or genetically engineered into existing crops. This is because spores are much smaller than seeds, so the storage cost would be much less. Furthermore, each plant could produce more like 1 million spores, versus 100 seeds, so scaling would be far faster.

...and more topics here.

Who are the people already working on this:
David Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce are professors who could potentially co-advise or advise some of these theses if a suitable local advisor cannot be found. David also co-founded and runs ALLFED.

Cause-specific mortality in wild animals

#zoology #physiology #evolutionary biology #ecology #animal behaviour #molecular biology

Why is this important:
The welfare of wild animals is poorly understood, having received little research up until recently despite their vast numbers. One of the few things we can say with confidence is that a small minority of all the wild animals who are born survive to adulthood. Death often entails extreme suffering; and for those individuals who die young, the process of dying may actually comprise a significant proportion of their lifetime, making it a key determinant of wild animal welfare. Understanding how and why wild animals die is therefore crucial for understanding the current state of welfare in nature, as well as identifying ways to improve it.

How to tackle this:
Research into wild animals’ causes of death depends on the use of demographic statistics and veterinary forensics. Because the field has been relatively neglected, there is plenty of opportunity for applying the current best practices to new species and ecosystems, or develop new methods. For example, students with engineering backgrounds could work on miniaturizing tracking devices to monitor the deaths of very small animals, including insects. Veterinarians could document cause-of-death indicators on the bodies of wild animals who have died in known ways, to enable more accurate identification in the field. Statisticians could improve models for dealing with uncertainty in the fates of unobservable wild animals, which are crucial for avoiding biases that have marred many previous studies. Ecologists and biologists could apply the current state of the art in all of the above to actual field work, generating hard data on cause-specific mortality in wild animal populations. 

To provide the most value for understanding the welfare of individual wild animals, a few shifts in approach are recommended relative to most past research on the topic, including a focus on species with the largest population sizes, as well as on juvenile animals and the causes of death that most commonly affect them. Ultimately, reliable data on cause-specific mortality rates for specific populations can be incorporated into ‘multiple decrement life tables’ to identify opportunities for improving wild animal welfare by averting early deaths by a specific cause or substituting a less painful manner of death for another.

Who are the people already working on this

Most people currently researching this treat it as a dimension of their work specializing on particular taxa, not as their primary focus. If you are interested in this area of research, Wild Animal Initiative can help identify and connect you with compatible supervisors. However, here are a few people who have done influential research on the topic:

Jacob Hill - causes of vertebrate mortality

Robert Peterson - insect biocontrol

Michael Schaub - statistical modelling of cause-specific mortality

*thanks for building this profile go to Luke Hecht

Anti-ageing research – prolonging health in the elderly

#biomedical research #molecular biology

Why is this important:
Ageing is a major risk factor for frailty, disease, and death. Nearly half of deaths worldwide occur at the age of 70 or older. This number will starkly increase during the coming decades. As life expectancy increases, people also spend a longer time in poor health. In addition to posing a major health burden, ageing causes huge societal and economical costs.

Studies with animal models show that it is possible to increase an organism’s healthy lifespan. For example, treatment with the drug rapamycin can increase the lifespan of mice by up to 60%. Moreover, a drug that targets senescent cells can increase fitness, kidney function and hair density in old mice. Thus, it seems feasible to design treatments that significantly increase healthy lifespan in humans.

While research targeting major age-related diseases is flourishing, relatively few scientists study ageing itself. It is crucial to shift the focus from individual diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer to their underlying cause of ageing. This could not only prevent the onset of these fatal age-related diseases but also drastically improve the overall quality of life for the elderly.

How to tackle this:
Ageing is characterised by the functional decline of an organism over time. Ageing is caused by a gradual buildup of molecular and cellular damage in the body. While humans have extensive mechanisms to repair such damage, some damage is not repaired and slowly accumulates. As the level of damage becomes critical, repair mechanisms themselves become affected, speeding up the process of functional decline through a positive feedback loop. Ageing is characterised by several hallmarks, including stem cell exhaustion, a buildup of senescent cells, genomic instability, and several others (López-Otín et al. 2013). People considering to perform their thesis in anti-ageing research are strongly encouraged to read The Hallmarks of Aging.

As ageing is caused by multiple types of damage, multiple parallel treatments are needed to rejuvenate the body. Anti-ageing researchers typically specialise in one of the major ageing hallmarks and try to find a treatment that reverses this phenotype.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
US: Buck Institute for Research on Aging; National Institute on Aging; Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research; Rochester Aging Research Center; Anne Brunet; Irina Conboy; Jan Vijg; Jean Hebert; Jerry Shay; Nir Barzilai; Tony Wyss-Coray; Steve Horvath; Siegfried Hekimi
Europe: European Research Institute for the Biology of Ageing; CECAD; Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing; UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing; Manuel Serrano; Peter de Keizer
*the thanks for building this profile go to Veerle de Goederen and William Bradshaw

Valence and consciousness research

Why is it important:
The questions od sentience and how people and animals experience various states of consciousness, pain and pleasure is important since it is often exactly consciousness and valence what we considered morally relevant. Nevertheless, given how big of a role they play in our thinking about how to improve the world, there are significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding about these phenomena.

How to tackle this:
One of the approaches to make progress in this direction is suggested by the Qualia Research Institute:

"Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves in Non-Human Animals

An emerging neuroscience paradigm that we take very seriously is the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) decomposition of brain activity. This has been very illuminating as a tool to characterize various exotic states of consciousness (e.g. see recent work comparing traditional anaesthetics to ketamine). We think that applying this paradigm to non-human animals could also be very illuminating. In particular, we would love to see some work on modelling the connectome harmonics of flatworms and other small creatures. For example, does a CSHW decomposition work better (as in more interpretable and having a larger amount of variance explained) as a dimensionality reduction technique relative to PCA and autoencoders? Do the CSHWs of flatworm become consonant if you give them exogenous opioids? Do they become dissonant when experiencing thirst and hunger? Optimistically, this kind of foundational research could be the basis for a cross-species science of consciousness. "

Antimicrobial resistance

Why this is important:
Development of resistant infections could undermine many aspects of modern healthcare. Widespread resistance would mean that previously routine procedures such as C-sections or appendectomies become associated with severe risks for the patients. Urinary tract infections could become untreatable and pneumonia can once again become a life-threatening disease. The prospects for treating serious conditions such as cancer or brain damage are also seriously impaired if we cannot count on the reliable treatment of infections. While anyone can get and potentially die from a resistant infection, the problem is significantly worse in poor countries where general infection frequencies are higher and access to healthcare is worse.

In terms of scale, about 33 000 people died because of resistant infections in Europe 2018, and in 2019 it was estimated that resistant bacteria and fungi caused more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths in the United States. There is a widely cited projection that 10 million people could die every year, globally, because of resistant infections by 2050. This number has been debated, and one should be careful since the statistics are poor, especially from low- and middle-income countries where the diagnostic facilities to identify resistance are often lacking.

While the field of antimicrobial resistance itself may not be very neglected, it seems like there could be important approaches within the field that are neglected (see below).

How to tackle this:
Implementation research studying the effect of public health policies, information campaigns, prescription practices, training of professionals and nudging interventions etc. is needed to be able to prioritise the best strategies and use resources effectively. The need of such knowledge is most critical in low- and middle-income countries. Another area is designing and testing strategies for how to safely deploy new drugs in areas with poor healthcare access, where restrictive prescription practises from high-income settings may backfire since there is a general lack of prescribers and such practises may instead render the new drugs completely unavailable.

Questions that would be relevant include:

  • Which alternatives to antibiotics may be promising and scalable for low-income settings, maybe for a specific illness?
  • How can treatment regimens be designed to prevent the development of resistance? Read more
  • How does horizontal gene transfer work and how important is it for the spread and effects of resistance?
  • How important is gene transfer mechanisms from agriculture for resistant infections in humans? This is primarily relevant for animal agriculture, but could also be relevant for fruit trees. Read more

If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, you can check The AMR Studio podcast which has a broad range of interviews with experts on AMR from different backgrounds and is a great instruction to the field.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
JPIAMR; Uppsala Antibiotic Center; World Bank; WHO; ReAct; Wellcome trust; The Foundation to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance and various governmental health agencies
*the thanks for building this profile go to Cecilia Tilli

If you get interested in any of these topics, let us know. We can:

  • Connect you with researchers working in these fields who can provide feedback on your ideas
  • Help you develop more specific topic ideas
  • Connect you with other students working on the same questions
  • Help you with publishing your thesis

This service is free and paid for by grants from charitable foundations. There are no terms and conditions connected with this service. We only want to help talented students have more impact with their research and support research on the most important problems.