Archive for August, 2015

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.”