The magnificent research vessel Sorcerer II, owned by the J. Craig Venter Institute, arrived in Woods Hole this morning and picked up two scientists before setting out for the Gulf of Maine. They are Erik Zettler of Sea Education Association (SEA) and Keven Dooley, a SEA Semester alumnus and 2014 summer research intern at the MBL from Colorado College. The two scientists, along with the MBL’s Linda Amaral-Zettler, are collaborators on a project to discover and describe the microbial communities that live on microscopic bits of plastic debris in the ocean (known as the Plastisphere). They will be taking samples from the Gulf as well as conducting experiments during the cruise. The chief scientist on board is Amaral-Zettler’s colleague Chris Dupont, Assistant Professor in the Microbial and Environmental Genomics department at the J. Craig Venter Institute.


In “A Tribute to Oliver Sacks” today on NPR’s “Science Friday” program, MBL Senior Scientist Roger Hanlon will be among the guests sharing memories of the famed neurologist, author, and polymath, who passed away last week. Sacks was a friend of Hanlon’s, a colleague in the study of sensory and behavioral biology, and “a lover of cephalopods (squid, octopus, and cuttlefish),” says Hanlon, whose studies these neurologically complex marine animals. Other of Sacks’ colleagues who will appear on the show include 2000 Nobel Prize Laureate Eric Kandel, University Professor at Columbia University and former MBL visiting investigator and faculty member in several neuroscience courses; and Sue Barry, Professor of Biological Sciences at Mt. Holyoke College and former director of the Grass Laboratory at MBL.

In Woods Hole, “Science Friday” will broadcast at 90.1 FM (WCAI) from 2:25 to 2:55 PM.

MBL Senior Scientist Roger Hanlon, left, and the late Oliver Sacks, also a squid fan, in 2005.

MBL Senior Scientist Roger Hanlon, left, and the late Oliver Sacks, also a squid fan, in 2005.


By Niteace Whittington
Whittington, from Philadelphia, PA, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and took the 2015 SPINES course.

“Why are you here?” It is a question a faculty member posed on my first day at the MBL. At the time I had no answer. I never thought too deeply about what I did in life. I did not know what my ultimate goals were and certainly did not know how to bring them to fruition. I simply did the things I liked to do, but I did not know my purpose. During my month at the MBL, I was forced to address this question head-on, and I now have an answer thanks to the Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics, and Survival (SPINES).

SPINES-NW-1SPINES is a four-week, intensive course held yearly at MBL. It focuses on enhancing under-represented minority students’ success in neuroscience through research, career development, mentoring and encouragement. I had previously attended programs with similar goals; so I assumed that I would learn about cool research, receive tips on career development, and part ways from the group as I had done before. I was not expecting to learn more about myself, make lifelong friends, and have concerned mentors to help map out my life goals. I really thought SPINES would be like any other course. I can honestly say that I am thrilled to find I was completely wrong!

It was one of the course’s co-directors, Jean King of University of Massachusetts Medical School, who asked us “Why are you here?” With this question she challenged us to explore and share our true selves, and assured us that we were not alone in our journeys. Hearing some of my classmates speak, I found that many of us were facing similar trials and some of us had lost our love for research. As I thought about my purpose a little longer, I had some ideas about what I wanted in life but realized I had no direction. Self-assessment revealed that I was not sure that I could actually get to where I wanted to go. According to several depressing statistics, I chose the wrong field for my race and gender: I have a lower likelihood of success because I am a black woman. For a while I let this dictate how far I could go in life.

However, my SPINES family made sure I would never think that way again. One of the most striking aspects of the course was that directors (King, Keith Trujillo of California State University San Marcos and Eddie Castañeda of University of Texas at El Paso) showed continuous love and support for our individual endeavors. They not only worked with us to build our knowledge in neuroscience, ethics, and career survival, but also helped build our confidence, discussed our goals and issues, and helped us develop methods to address these things in beneficial ways.


Throughout the SPINES course, in the midst of coursework reading, lab work, lectures and seminars, we did a lot of self-reflection and addressed our strengths and weaknesses in order to better map out who we are, what we want in life, and how to get there. In the course of one month, SPINES showed me that with the right tools I can do anything I aspire to do, as long as I believe in myself and my capabilities. On the last day, we took time to visualize a goal or dream that we wanted to achieve. And for the first time, I actually saw myself running my own lab and performing award-winning research. SPINES gave me confidence to walk down this road that I envisioned as unpassable. So why am I here? I am here because I have a job to do. Thank you, SPINES!

For a young scientist, Hari Shroff, co-director of the Optical Microscopy and Imaging course at MBL, has seen his share of career peaks. Shroff entered the University of Washington at age 14 and graduated when many people are just starting college. After completing his doctorate in biophysics in 2006 at the University of California, Berkeley, Shroff took the MBL Physiology course. It had “a huge influence on me,” Shroff says in this interview with Prashant Prabhat of Semrock. “I was working hand-in-hand with a lot of the experts in cell biology,” Shroff recalls, and they drove home how fundamental microscopy is to their field.

That same year, Shroff heard microscope developer Eric Betzig give a talk at Berkeley. “I have always been very fascinated by the fundamental mismatch in size between what a biologist wants to see and what they actually can see,” Shroff tells Prabhat. “[Betzig] was talking a little bit about super-resolution, and I wanted to drop what I was doing and immediately work for him.” Shroff felt lucky to become one of Betzig’s first hires at his lab at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s newly opened Janelia Research Campus.

Shroff came back to the MBL Physiology course in 2007 as a teaching assistant, along with Betzig as visiting faculty. And there was important cargo in their van when they drove to Woods Hole: the super-resolution microscope Betzig and colleagues had invented, called PALM (photoactivated localization microscopy), which Shroff had a hand in developing. The scope’s power to visualize individual molecules at nanometer resolution bowled over the Physiology course participants and soon became the talk of the MBL campus.

“Those were very heady, exciting times, but also sleepless times,” Shroff tells Prabhat. “Something very special happens [at the MBL] during the summer when you have these world-class scientists congregating for a couple of months. You end up with these collisions which are just difficult to have otherwise. People have this kind of ‘can do’ attitude about science, and it’s also a great place for microscopy because some of the world’s best microscopists usually hang out there during the summers.”

Hari Shroff of the NIH shows MBL Neurobiology course students the light-sheet microscope he built (diSPIM). Credit: Tom Kleindinst

Hari Shroff of the NIH shows MBL students the light-sheet microscope he built (diSPIM). Credit: Tom Kleindinst

Important applications of Betzig’s microscope came out of that Physiology course session, which was led by course co-director Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of the NIH, an early collaborator with Betzig on PALM. These included live-cell, single particle tracking (sptPALM), which Betzig says “has become one of the most useful and biologically informative applications of the technology. That idea was born while we were waiting for a ferry ride in Woods Hole.” They also figured out how to label two colors of photo-activatable probes (double-color PALM) during the course, which Shroff et al published later that year.

In 2014, Betzig won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to super-resolution fluorescence microscopy. Shroff, meanwhile, had become a section chief at the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Engineering. He was also invited to co-direct the Optical Microscopy and Imaging course, where he shows students how to build a microscope from scratch, among other challenges. The course is a lot of work, Shroff says, but “definitely fun. I actually get some of my best ideas just from daydreaming and talking to students.”


Today is the last day to apply for a travel award to get to this neuroscience celebration! Details here.

It’s reunion time for the MBL SPINES course, with a day-long symposium planned for this fall in Chicago. Held a day before the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, the symposium will be a chance to catch up with friends, network, attend presentations, and celebrate the community the SPINES course has created.

The Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics, & Survival (SPINES) is an intense, month-long program held each summer at the MBL since 1995. It integrates training in lab techniques, grant writing, ethics, and public speaking, among other skills essential for early-career scientists. The course is also a networking opportunity and a way to build community for underrepresented groups in science, the target audience for the course. This symposium will celebrate the achievements of alumni students and faculty and expand the SPINES network across years and career stages to promote networking and collaboration.

The symposium will be held on October 16th, 2015 at the University of Chicago, and there is still time to apply for a travel award to help get there. More information can be found here, and details on the travel grant can be found here. Please contact Chinonye Nnakwe, Ph.D., at spinessymposium(@) with questions.

SPINES students hard at work in the lab. Photo credit: Tim Kleindinst

SPINES students hard at work in the lab. Photo credit: Tim Kleindinst

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