By Amanda Rose Martinez

A Wednesday morning in Loeb Laboratory found the 2011 Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics & Survival (SPINES) students getting a lesson on the human brain. There to lead the cerebral tour was SPINES faculty member, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a neurosurgeon, world expert on brain tumors and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Quiñones-Hinojosa described each brain region, all the while weaving in stories of their function and the history of their discovery. His pace was swift and rich with information, alive with his enduring fascination for what he calls “the most beautiful organ.” As he went, Quiñones-Hinojosa fired off questions to SPINES’ neuroscientists-in-training, compelling them to keep up.

“So where is memory formation?” Quiñones-Hinojosa asked. “Memory formation is right here in the hippocampus. So you can take one hippocampus out. What happens if you take them both out? No new memories. You can have the old memories, but no new ones.”

“You can barely see the curve right here,” he continued, tracing his way through the limbic system to a small, almond-shaped region called the amygdala. “That’s how movies play with us. They show you the movie “Silence of the Lambs” and they make you afraid. They make you feel fear for your life. They’re right here. They’re playing to the amygdala.”

At one point, Quiñones-Hinojosa paused to address the moment’s larger significance: “I get to touch human brains and human lives,” he said. “Not only do I give people hope in the operating room, but outside of the operating room, I get to do research. And I give them hope that one day we’ll find a cure for brain cancer. And then I come here and hang out with you guys. I mean this is the coolest thing I could do in the world.”

On Friday, July 8, Quiñones-Hinojosa will give a lecture entitled: “Bridging the Gap in the Fight Against Cancer: From the Operating Room to the Laboratory,” as part of the Friday Evening Lecture Series. The event will take place in Lillie Auditorium at 8:00 p.m. For more information, visit: Quiñones-Hinojosa’s lecture is supported by the Joe L. Martinez, Jr. and James G. Townsel Endowed Lectureship.

Keith Trujillo, co-director of SPINES, with students during a class led by Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

By Amanda Rose Martinez

Students in this year’s Embryology course have just six weeks to wrap their heads around a, if not the, fundamental question of biology: How do you start with a single egg and get to a full embryo? As it turns out, explained Nicole King in Tuesday’s lecture on “Animal Origins,” this is also a fundamental question of evolutionary biology: How did multicellular animals evolve from their single-celled ancestors?

“Our goal,” said King, an associate professor of genetics, genomics, and development from the University of California, Berkeley, “is to try and identify genomic and cell biological innovations that might have contributed to this transition.” She then unveiled the two key players that may prove pivotal in helping scientists to uncover such innovations— choanoflagellates and sponges.

Choanoflagellate: evolution’s last stop on the way to animals. Photo by Mark Davel

Choanoflagellates have a spherical cell body, bordered at its crown by a collar of minute, hair-like projections, and a long, central appendage called a flagellum that resembles a whip and enables it to swim. King’s allowance that “it’s reasonable to think of these organisms as sperm cells with a collar,” sent a ripple of early-morning snickers through the auditorium. But what’s special about the unicellular choanoflagellates is that they’re the closest living relatives of animals. Just next to the choanoflagellates on an evolutionary chart lies the multicellular sponges, the earliest branching lineage of animals.

A sponge named Oscarella carmela. Photo by Scott Nichols

In this way, choanoflagellates and sponges “bracket the evolution of multicellularity,” said King. “If we can study these organisms at the molecular level, see what they share in common, see what’s different, hopefully someday, we’ll be able to reconstruct the molecular processes that contributed to the origin of animals.”

Later in the Lab…

Tuesday afternoon, the students got their first glimpse of choanoflagellate and sponge cells. Using a standard imaging technique, they added a fluorescent antibody to a structural protein (beta-tubulin) that is common to both organisms. When viewed under a microscope, the antibodies could be seen fluorescing bright green, which served to highlight the outline of each cell body and flagellum, but also emphasized the shared architecture between choanoflagellate and sponge cells.

“The hope is that these students have interests that are unique and eclectic, and that they’ll take these techniques and apply them in novel ways for their areas of interest,” said Stephen Fairclough, a graduate student in King’s lab at UC Berkeley and one of the teaching assistants for this year’s course.

Yi-Ju Chen (R) of Caltech gets advice on sample preparation from Embryology faculty member Nicole King (L). Photo by Amanda R. Martinez

Eclectic interests indeed. A quick canvas of the room revealed Yi-Ju Chen, a graduate student in physics from Caltech interested in evolutionary theory and pattern formation; Valerie Virta, a postdoc at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), who is investigating the mechanism that causes some cells to stop moving and become the bones that form the face; and Joseph Campanale, a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who studies how embryos eliminate or detoxify environmental chemicals during development.

Joseph Campanale of Scripps readies a piece of sponge for viewing under a microscope. Photo by Amanda R. Martinez

Valerie Virta of NICHD prepares humidification chambers for her samples. Photo by Amanda R. Martinez

By Amanda Rose Martinez

The Neural Systems and Behavior course (NS&B) was already humming with activity last week as it prepared to kick off its 33rd year. Setting up equipment in Loeb Laboratory on Wednesday was a group of the course’s seasoned regulars, including faculty Lidia Szczupak and Ron Calabrese and teaching assistant Michael Wright.

His eyes glued to a small, circular level, Wright, who is in his fourth year with the course, meticulously adjusted the legs of what could be called the pièce de résistance of the NS&B’s lab equipment: the floating air table.

Michael Wright (L) of Emory University and Herb Luther of MBL Education precision the alignment of an air table in the NS&B lab. Photo by Amanda Martinez

“Very minute vibrations on a preparation that has two electrodes on neurons can just be the end of the experiment,” says Szczupak, who is from the Universidad de Buenos Aires and is marking her 11th summer with NS&B.

Photo by Amanda Martinez

To create a flawlessly stable surface, each table is covered with a metal plate that rests on top of a pocket of air. Everything—microscopes, cells, electrodes, micromanipulators—is affixed to the plate through a series of metal holes on its surface. This way, any vibrations from the footsteps of people walking around or a slammed door are evenly distributed throughout the sensitive experiment’s components.

Come 9 AM Monday this week, 20 students from around the world began the first of four two-week cycles, each of which explores the neural system of a different animal. First up is the leech, which, with its simple nervous system and neurons that are easily recognized with a microscope, is an ideal starting organism.

Lidia Szczupak. Photo by Amanda Martinez

“The goal is to get the kids to approach live neurons with their own hands,” says Szczupak. Come back in two days, she says, and “you’ll see people who never worked with a single neuron before. They’ll be familiar with putting electrodes in the cells, recording resting potential, action potential, and learning what this means.”

If there’s one event in this cycle that NS&B faculty are eagerly anticipating, it’s an appearance by John Nicholls, “one of the ‘Fathers of the Leech,’ ” as Szczupak calls him. Nicholls, formerly of SISSA in Italy and lately teaching in countries around the world, will give a talk on the significance of the leech in neurophysiology research. No stranger to NS&B, Nicholls can be identified among the instructors in the course’s earliest class photos, which are posted in the hall outside the lab.

John Nicholls is 3rd row, 2nd from right (sleeves rolled up) in the 1979 NS&B class photo.

Veteran NS&B faculty member Ron Calabrese. Photo by Amanda Martinez

But when asked what they’re most looking forward to and consequently, the thing that keeps them coming back year after year, NS&B faculty unanimously cited two things—camaraderie and friendships, old and new. “It’s just a lot of fun,” says Ron Calabrese of Emory University, who joined the course as a TA in 1979 and has been back every year since. “I like meeting people. I like seeing what they’re about.”

“We’ve been on the same team with minor differences for ten years,” Szczupak says. “We became friends and it’s very nice to be together doing this.”

By Beth Liles

Two undergraduates on the MBL campus are excitedly preparing to present talks on their summer research tomorrow: Diara Townes and Victoria Morgan, both students in the Woods Hole Partnership Education Program (PEP).

Now in its second year, PEP immerses undergraduates in the rich scientific and academic culture of the Woods Hole research community, and introduces them to leaders and colleagues in their fields of interest. Sixteen PEP students are being mentored in several Woods Hole institutions this summer, including Townes, who is from Hampton University, and Morgan, from Cornell.

PEP student Diara Townes works with MBL veterinarian Amy Hancock in the Marine Resources Center. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

PEP student Diara Townes works with MBL veterinarian Amy Hancock in the Marine Resources Center. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

“This has been the most exciting summer in my undergraduate career,” says Townes. “Not only am I gaining exquisite research experience, but I am also making lasting friendships and amazing professional connections.”

Designed primarily for juniors and seniors interested in marine and environmental science, the PEP curriculum consists of a four-week course followed by six-to-eight week individual research projects. The students are presenting their research findings tomorrow, August 13, from 8:30 AM to 1 PM in the Tilley Conference Room, U.S. Geological Survey Woods Hole Science Center, 384 Woods Hole Road (Quissett Campus), Woods Hole.

MBL veterinarian Amy Hancock in the Marine Resources Center has been mentoring Townes. They are evaluating a new fish anesthetic on various ornamental species to observe its effects on the animals. Townes is also working with Kristy Owen at NOAA’s Woods Hole Science Aquarium. They are measuring dissolved oxygen (DO) levels in the facility’s three main reservoirs and six exhibit tanks to determine if there is a correlation between DO levels and the fish disease exophthalmia (“pop-eye”).

Morgan is working with Ecosystems Center scientist Jim Tang, testing the method to measure carbon dioxide emissions from soils and measuring stem respiration from the Center’s Harvard Forest field site. The project goal is to examine the climate change impact on ecosystems and the feedback of ecosystems to the climate.

Victoria Morgan places soil samples into an oven in order to get a dry measurement of the bulk density of the soil. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

Victoria Morgan places soil samples into an oven in order to get a dry measurement of the bulk density of the soil. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

“I’ve learned more about the oceans and climate change than I expected,” Morgan says. “I’ve met lots of wonderful people, and I’ve had experiences that will remain with me for years to come. I plan on spreading the good news to my fellow Cornellians: PEP is a wonderful program and I really want others to participate in it!”

PEP is a partnership between the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) and the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative, a multi-institutional effort to promote diversity in the Woods Hole science community. Members of the Diversity Initiative include NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USGS Woods Hole Science Center, SEA, the MBL, and Woods Hole Research Center.

The science institutions in Woods Hole are committed to building a diverse and inclusive community. People from all cultures and all backgrounds can feel welcome in Woods Hole, whether they are visiting, spending a season as students, or spending part or all of their careers working here. PEP is just one of many Woods Hole Diversity Committee efforts. To learn more, go to

2010 PEP students and directors: Top Row:  Zachary Williams, George Liles (PEP Program coordinator, NEFSC), Delawrence Sykes, Alexander DeLeon, Nam Siu.  Row 2: Lucy Flores, Emily Motz, Christopher Cepero, Brian Redding, Ambrose Jearld (PEP Program director, NEFSC).  Row 3: Joniqua Howard, Lane Boyer, Melika Uter, Rachel Rochon, Victoria Morgan  Bottom Row: Angela Anorve, Delores Toledo, Anna-Mai Christmas, and Diara Townes. Photo by Sateesh Rogers

2010 PEP students and directors: Top Row: Zachary Williams, George Liles (PEP Program coordinator, NEFSC), Delawrence Sykes, Alexander DeLeon, Nam Siu. Row 2: Lucy Flores, Emily Motz, Christopher Cepero, Brian Redding, Ambrose Jearld (PEP Program director, NEFSC). Row 3: Joniqua Howard, Lane Boyer, Melika Uter, Rachel Rochon, Victoria Morgan Bottom Row: Angela Anorve, Delores Toledo, Anna-Mai Christmas, and Diara Townes. Photo by Sateesh Rogers


Ellen M. Walker, a student in SPINES (Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics and Survival) from University of Texas at El Paso, snapped this shot of her workspace at the MBL. Her story behind the photo:

“Throughout my summer here at MBL–whether it was preparing for a presentation after one of my course modules, reading about myosin Va and its action in the neuron for my independent study, or looking for journals the old-fashioned way, in the stacks, and marveling at finding the first volume of Nature and getting caught up in words like ‘whoso’ or ‘hitherto’–this desk on the fifth floor of Lillie has given me a sense of academic solace I cannot adequately or eloquently put into words.”

As a graduate student at University of Texas, Walker is studying how the brain affects behavior in nicotine and alcohol addiction. At the MBL, she has been working with Roy Larson of University of Sao Paolo, a visiting researcher in the Cellular Dynamics Program. Her independent project investigates the visual processing center in the brain of the migratory squid, Loligo pealei.

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