Course


schistosomasmallOne morning this month, students in the MBL’s Biology of Parasitism (BoP) course learned all about the parasitic worm Schistosoma mansoni (left, courtesy of eol.org) and its effects on the body. Lecturer Andrew S. MacDonald of University of Edinburgh led the class through a detailed overview of the freshwater-borne worm, which can directly enter the skin upon contact. Over 200 million people worldwide are currently infected with Schistosoma, making it an important focus of research.

While the invading strategies of parasites understandably attract a lot of attention, the BoP course is also focusing heavily on interactions between parasites and the immune system. “Without looking at the immune system, you’re only looking at half the story of the parasite,” MacDonald emphasized during his talk. Indeed, according to course faculty member Yasmine Belkaid of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one major theme of this year’s BoP course is how microbes naturally found in the intestines affect the body’s immune response to intruders.

Later that day, BoP students explored this theme in their lab work, looking at the immune responses of mice exposed to Schistosoma. By the end of their seven weeks here, students will have drawn on several areas of biology to explore a variety of topics in parasitism, including details of malaria infection and drug design for patients infected with parasites.

“I love parasitology because it’s not an isolated field,” Belkaid says. “There are lots of fields to touch on: immunology, molecular biology, evolution, and ecology, for example.”

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the BoP course.

BoP students Anna Protasio and Sumaira Hasnain prepare cells for sorting by a method known as fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). The cells are from mice infected with the parasitic worm Schistosoma mansoni, and will be sorted based on the immune molecules they have produced in response to the infection.

BoP students Anna Protasio and Sumaira Hasnain prepare cells for sorting by a method known as fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). The cells are from mice infected with the parasitic worm Schistosoma mansoni, and will be sorted based on the immune molecules they have produced in response to the infection.

It was 10 PM on a Friday, and students in the MBL’s Neural Systems and Behavior Course (NS&B) were hard at work in their Loeb lab. Some hovered over contraptions used for monitoring fly flight behavior. Some peered through a microscope at a portion of the crab nervous system. Michael Dickinson of CalTech, a former co-director of NS&B, took a break from teaching as he strolled between lab machinery while strumming “The Girl from Ipanema” on a ukulele.

When cautioned not to stay up too late (they had a 9 AM lecture to attend the next day), course assistant Gaby Maimon replied, “Oh, we’re just getting started!”

NS&B students are in for eight weeks of rigorous labs and lectures, learning about the neural basis of behavior. According to course director Paul Katz of Georgia State University, whose research involves the strange movements of the colorful Spanish shawl sea slug, the students were using Friday night to finish up the second of four course cycles. In this cycle, students learned about fly flight behavior, the sensory systems of electric fish, and the stomatogastric nervous system of crabs, which controls movement of the crustacean’s stomach.

Friday morning, NS&B students had been treated to the second of two lectures by Dickinson, who has contributed greatly to the study of animal physiology and behavior. His fascinating talk covered several aspects of fly flight aerodynamics and behavior, including how fly flight might have evolved. Dickinson used high-speed photography and videos to illuminate the details of fly flight, and discussed recent advances in the study of animal behavior.

This week, NS&B students start cycle three of their course, studying the behaviors of the nematode worm C. elegans, the mouse, and the zebrafish.

Michael Dickinson explains the proper way to prepare and use tools for attaching electrodes to fly neurons.

Michael Dickinson explains the proper way to prepare and use tools for attaching electrodes to fly neurons. Photo by Sarah Stanley.

Gaby Maimon and student Margarita Agrochao attach an electrode to a fly neuron. The monitor on the left allows them to visualize the neuron and the electrode, while the right monitor displays the whole fly.

Course assistant Gaby Maimon and student Margarita Agrochao attach an electrode to a fly neuron. The monitor on the left allows them to visualize the neuron and the electrode, while the right monitor displays the whole fly. Photo by Sarah Stanley.

“I’m just telling you that we know nothing.” That’s how Rolf Thauer jokingly summed up the lecture he gave Wednesday morning to students in the MBL’s Microbial Diversity course. Thauer, however, knows a lot about microbes. A renowned scientist visiting from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Germany, he is the author of a 1977 paper on energy conservation in bacterial growth that has been cited more than 1,600 times.

Thauer outlined the different strategies used by different species of microbes to break down nutrients into waste products. Microbes get the energy they need to live from a series of steps involved in nutrient breakdown. Scientists can theorize what those steps are for a given species, based on the known inputs (nutrients) and outputs (waste products). However, some strategies that are theoretically impossible may actually be used by certain species to obtain energy from nutrients. Thauer cautioned that theoretical nutrient breakdown strategies, while useful to explore, can be based on inaccurate assumptions and tell us “nothing” until they can be verified through experimentation.

Microbial Diversity is a six-and-a-half week course for graduate and post-doctoral students who wish to expand their repertoire of techniques for working with a broad range of microbial communities.

After Rolf Thauer’s lecture, Microbial Diversity students Harris Wang, Ali Ling, David Williams, and Esther Singer discuss their first step in an afternoon lab exploring the use of fluorescence microscopy in identifying different species of microbes.

After Rolf Thauer’s lecture, Microbial Diversity students Harris Wang, Ali Ling, David Williams, and Esther Singer discuss their first step in an afternoon lab exploring the use of fluorescence microscopy in identifying different species of microbes.

WEB-SMALL-Uri-Manor-croppedThe Physiology Files is a series of occasional posts by MBL Physiology course student Uri Manor. Uri is a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University and is conducting his thesis research in Bechara Kachar’s lab at the National Institutes of Health. He will be blogging about his Woods Hole experience as time and inspiration allow!

It isn’t often that so much has happened in seven days that I fear I won’t be able to recap even 10 percent of it. I arrived in Woods Hole on June 12th to take the Physiology course, and it’s been action-packed ever since. The best part is that I’m pretty sure the pace only picks up from here on out.

On my first day, I had the honor of talking to MBL director and CEO Gary Borisy at a barbecue at Physiology course co-director Dyche Mullins’s house. It was difficult for me to suppress my excitement and not get distracted from our conversation, as I kept reminding myself that I was talking to one of my personal heroes. That is the magic of Woods Hole—mere students get to surround themselves with the brilliance of the world’s top scientists in a totally casual environment. Gary had a blast giving me a brief overview of the MBL’s history, making sure to impress upon me how lasting and influential so many aspects of the MBL and Woods Hole are today, even though they were set in motion many years ago. For example, the Children’s School of Science is still thriving today, 97 years after it was founded.

The first lecturer for the Physiology course was Carlos Bustamante of UC Berkeley, whose work I won’t even try to summarize at such a late hour (it is 2:15 AM. Don’t hold it against me that this is the only time I’ve managed to scrounge for blogging so far!) Instead, I will quote two things Carlos said that really resonated with me:

  1. “That which is not forbidden is obligatory.” In other words, if it is possible, it is inevitable—a very nice meditation on the inventiveness and boundlessness of nature that keeps us scientists so engaged.
  2. “I never read science fiction, because I can always read about the real world and find something way more creative and interesting than anything someone could possibly come up with on their own.” I think this quote fits quite nicely with quote #1.

The next day’s speaker was Klaus Hahn of UNC School of Medicine, who was amazingly friendly and modest when interacting with the students, and even asked them for advice. After him was Vlad Denic of Harvard Medical School, who was awesome for many reasons, but the best part was that he gave his lecture in street-skater style clothing. The fact that he’s a professor straight out of grad school only makes him awesome-er. The next day I hung out with him, Dyche, Jack Taunton (HHMI/UC San Francisco and Physiology course lecturer), and Jack’s brother, and we all jammed on my git-tar for a bit. As you can see, the boundaries between students and teachers in this course are practically nonexistent.

On Saturday, I had the amazing opportunity to talk to Mike Davidson of Florida State University, who literally taught me nearly everything I know about microscopy via his website, which I’m pretty sure every biology student on the planet who’s learning about microscopy has visited at one point (it gets >100,000 hits per DAY!) Mike offered to send me (and others in the course) probes we might be able to use for our experiments. It was such a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to thank a master educator in person for everything he’s done for me and thousands of other students.

One other great highlight was getting a demonstration of how to dissect muscle from clams and scallops from Andrew Szent-Gyorgyi, a cousin of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Nobel Prize winner who established the Center For Muscle Research at the MBL in the1940s .

The close interaction students get with such brilliant scientists here at the MBL has had an interesting effect on me which I cannot claim to have felt anywhere else. It has given me a perfect balance between confidence and motivation. Usually when one gets more confident, they get proportionally lazy and complacent, but that is impossible here. Learning about the awe-inspiring work of the top scientists in our field (from the horses’ mouths!) generates an excitement that can only be relieved by resolving to become the best scientist one can be. Interacting with these people face-to-face and feeling their support and respect provides the confidence necessary to pursue those ambitions. It is truly a magical balance that I believe we are all very lucky to be part of.

Andrew Szent-Gyorgyi (center) talking to Physiology course student Namita Bisaria and course instructor Bob Fischer. Bob is imitating clams swimming with his hands (imagine a backwards Pac-Man motion) as they discuss the physiology of clam muscles. The course participants are purifying myosins from clams for imaging myosin/actin motility using TIRF microscopy. Credit: Bill Shin

Andrew Szent-Gyorgyi (center) talking to Physiology course student Namita Bisaria and course instructor Bob Fischer. Bob is imitating clams swimming with his hands (imagine a backwards Pac-Man motion) as they discuss the physiology of clam muscles. The course participants are purifying myosins from clams for imaging myosin/actin motility using TIRF microscopy. Credit: Bill Shin

Not only did Microbial Diversity students isolate glowing bacteria from Buzzards Bay, they streaked it inside a petri dish to make this bioluminescent logo. Watch for a new crop of creative students — and the return of our blog, @MBL — in June 2010!

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