Gary Borisy


Last spring, independent radio producer Sara Robberson became interested in the life of Shinya Inoué, a pioneering microscopist, cell biologist, and MBL Distinguished Scientist. Little did she realize, when she started her research, that Inoué’s story would take her from considerations of science during wartime, to the very nature of the cell. Robberson created a radio story about Inoué’s life and insights, “The Cell’s Mystery,”  during a Transom workshop at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole. To listen, go to  http://transom.org/?page_id=28214

Shinya Inoue in his lab at the MBL. Photo by Tom Kleindinst.

Ron Vale may not be the next Woody Allen, but he seems at ease with the role of film director and, you might say, born to the part.

Vale, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator from the University of California-San Francisco, regularly spends his summers at the MBL as a Whitman Center researcher.

This year, Vale also transformed a conference room in Lillie Laboratory into a mini-Hollywood set. There, he has been videotaping scientists for a site called iBio Seminars, a free, open-access, educational resource Vale founded in 2007 that has blossomed into a treasure trove for anyone interested in the life sciences.

iBio Seminars founder/director Ron Vale frames a shot. Photo by Diana Kenney

iBio Seminars are videos of the world’s best biologists lecturing on topics of their expertise. Some are seminar length, while others are insightful nuggets just a few minutes long. They can be downloaded and used by professors, scientists, journalists, historians of science, or just perused by anyone seeking enlightenment on contemporary biology. A companion to the lectures is iBio Magazine, which has short videos that highlight “the human side of research.”

Vale’s father was a screenwriter, and his mother was an actress before her marriage. When I saw him bounding out of Lillie Laboratory wearing a Motörhead T-shirt the other day, I asked, “Have you always harbored a latent interest in filmmaking?”

“Absolutely not,” he replied firmly, and went on to joke that a modeling contract might be interesting.

Vale’s real rationale for founding iBio Seminars, he said, is that places like MBL, Harvard and UCSF “offer great opportunities to hear scientists talk about their work. It’s a privilege to have that available to us. With the Web, iBio provides a way for students and scientists around the world to hear these talks. The goal of iBio is to make science as available as possible.”

Vale confers with iBio's videographer/digital editor Isaac Conway-Stenzel. Photo by Diana Kenney

This summer at MBL, Vale videotaped a whole gallery of “stars” in biology, many of whom were on campus to teach, lecture or conduct research. They included Gary Borisy, Shinya Inoué, and Roger Hanlon of the MBL; Ed Taylor of University of Chicago; Alfredo Quiñonenes-Hinojosa of Johns Hopkins University; Jack Szostak, Matthew Meselson, Tim Mitchison, Andrew Murray, Xiaowei Zhuang, and Scott Edwards of Harvard University; Nancy Knowlton of Smithsonian Institution; Hugh Huxley of Brandeis University; Avram Hershko of the Technion in Haifa, Israel; and Melissa Moore of UMass Medical School. Vale also filmed a segment about BioBus, a biology classroom on wheels; and one about the state of Indian science and education with Satajit Mayor of NCMS, Bangalore, and Subhash Lakhotia of Banaras Hindu University.

One July morning found Vale prepping Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy (the MBL’s president and director) for an iBio taping. The topic? Their discovery of a fundamental structural protein in cells, now called tubulin, in the mid-1960s when Borisy was a Ph.D. student in Taylor’s lab.

Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy prepare for videotaping in iBio's "chroma key" studio set up in Lillie Laboratory. Photo by Diana Kenney

After a spontaneous and colorful discussion of how the two would enter the frame, Vale began coaching them on the do’s and don’ts of iBio conversations. One bump in the road soon appeared: Taylor and Borisy didn’t have the same version of the tubulin story in their heads. Their chronologies differed slightly; as Borisy noted, “Memories dim and we have different takes on things.”

Vale was nonplussed. “This could be a lot of fun!” he said. He positioned them in front of the “chroma key” green screen, a backdrop similar to what TV weather anchors use, upon which slides, maps, and other visuals would be displayed later, during editing. Vale then encouraged Taylor and Borisy to tell the story of their discovery, and to conclude with a message or lesson to young people about how science really happens.

Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy prepare to tell the story of the discovery of tubulin. Photo by Diana Kenney

With the camera rolling, Taylor and Borisy traveled back nearly half a century to a tale of discovery that included their mutual fascination with understanding how living cells divide, Borisy’s first visit to the MBL, tantalizing leads, intriguing paradoxes, several “red herrings and blind alleys” and ultimately, a fundamental discovery about cell structure that has had widespread and lasting importance.

Taylor’s takeaway lesson? “Choose an important problem when you are just starting out in science. Don’t work on a trivial problem. Then, if you succeed, you’ve really done something good.”

And Borisy’s: “Sometimes you encounter contradictory results, paradoxes. Don’t sweep those under the rug. Resolving those can bring you to your answer.”

Curious about the full story? You’ll just have to see the movie.

iBio Seminars is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the University of California-San Francisco.

A source of both constancy and continual change at the MBL is the Whitman Center for Research and Discovery. Every year, hundreds of researchers from other institutions migrate to the MBL (which they affectionately call “Woods Hole”) to rub elbows with colleagues from around the world, and collectively dive into an intense period of research. For some, their MBL stay lasts a few months, but for many, the relationship continues over years, decades or entire careers.

On Wednesday, a group of Whitman Center investigators gathered in the lobby of their “home away from home,” Rowe Laboratory, to celebrate the rich tradition of biological discovery that they are carrying into the future. MBL President and Director Gary Borisy noted that several of those in attendance wore a red carnation and a round lapel pin with the MBL’s double seahorse crest. These were Whitman investigators who have had a laboratory at MBL for the past 20 years or more. “You cannot buy this pin at any price! This is a precious pin, the MBL pin,” Borisy said, laughing, but most of those gathered would agree.

The leadership of the Whitman Center (from left): Gary Borisy, MBL; Joan Ruderman, Harvard Medical School; Peter Armstrong, University of California-Davis; Bob Goldman, Northwestern University. Photo by Beth Armstrong

Bob Goldman of Northwestern University, director of the Whitman Center, said he has been coming to the MBL since 1963, and that is what “turned me on to becoming a cell biologist.” Joan Ruderman of Harvard Medical School, who is speaker of the MBL Corporation, said she first came to the MBL as a student in the 1974 Embryology course and “it changed my life.” She then returned for many years as a Whitman investigator, when the program was conducted in the old Whitman Building. Eventually, she said, building renovations were necessary to stay abreast of advances in cell research technologies, and she applauded the $18 million transformation of Whitman to the cutting-edge Rowe Laboratory in the mid-2000s.

Yet one person in the crowd topped everyone with his MBL “stripes.” Peter Armstrong of University of California-Davis, who studies immunity in the horseshoe crab, said he “may have been conceived in Woods Hole in 1938.” (Peter’s father, Philip, was a researcher and later director of the MBL from 1950-1965, and he secured the federal funds to have the original Whitman Building constructed.) Peter’s early years as “an MBL brat” aside, he has been a principal investigator in the Whitman Center since 1975, “and its been an enormously successful place to be,” he said. “Half of my publications list the MBL as a place where the research was conducted.”

Borisy also recognized several Whitman investigators who, in the past, had laboratories for two decades and more. To conclude, Borisy announced the establishment of a $2 million Whitman Endowment fundraising initiative, with an initial $500,000 matching commitment from MBL. This endowment will support two strategies: continuous building enhancements to maintain Rowe Laboratory as a state-of-the-art facility, and fellowship funds to continue to bring the world’s best researchers into the Whitman Center fold.

“The Whitman Center is a critical part of the MBL,” Borisy said. “It is a crossroads, a place where scientific ideas germinate and are tried out. The MBL will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2013, and since its very first year it has been a nexus for the world’s biologists. We aim to solidify support for the Whitman Center for the next 125 years.”

Some of the more than 200 Whitman investigators in 2011 gather on the steps of Lillie Laboratory. Those wearing red carnations have had a Whitman lab for the past 20 years or more. Photo by Beth Armstrong

The 4th of July parade is one of the must-see events of a Woods Hole summer. If you missed this year’s parade, here are a few photos by MBL Club coordinator Daisy Glazebrook.

Students in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the MBL show their colors. The NSF-sponsored program is directed by Alan Mensinger of University of Minnesota, Duluth and Paul Malchow of University of Illinois, Chicago.

Students in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the MBL show their colors. The NSF-sponsored program is directed by Alan Mensinger of University of Minnesota, Duluth and Paul Malchow of University of Illinois, Chicago.

Course assistants from the Children’s School of Science and their walking volcano.

Course assistants from the Children’s School of Science and their walking volcano.

"Uncle Sam" (MBL Director and CEO Gary Borisy) leads the parade.

"Uncle Sam" (MBL Director and CEO Gary Borisy) leads the parade.

SPINES (Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics and Survival) participants on the march.

SPINES (Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics and Survival) participants on the march.

MBL Communications interns Daisy Glazebrook and Elizabeth Kelly refreshed parade-goers with watermelon slices.

MBL Communications interns Daisy Glazebrook and Elizabeth Kelly refreshed parade-goers with watermelon slices.

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Something remarkable happened this weekend. It was not that the rain finally stopped. It was not that the street-gastrulating, red-blood-cell-lysing, tadpole-mutating, infectious-disease-emerging July 4th parade in Woods Hole once again enthralled and puzzled throngs of happy patriots and onlookers (photos to come).

It was the message that you, the Woods Hole community, sent to the leaders of the Woods Hole research institutions during my introduction of Susan Avery, President and Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) at her July 3 Friday Evening Lecture, “Coastal Cities, Coastal Impacts: The Tides, They Are A-Changin’.” In the course of my introduction, I mentioned that the heads of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, WHOI, and the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) came together this spring and signed a Memorandum of Agreement at the Captain Kidd to create the Woods Hole Consortium, an alliance that will bring our combined scientific power to bear on some of the major issues facing society today.

You, the full-house audience attending the lecture, burst into spontaneous applause. I was stunned. I shot Susan a look and she, too, was astonished. The discussion to form the consortium began with WHRC Director John Holdren, WHOI Director Susan Avery and myself, and continued with WHRC Acting Director Richard Houghton after John Holdren became Scientific Advisor to President Obama. We proceeded cautiously, fully involving our respective scientific leadership and boards of trustees. If we had any doubt about the wisdom of establishing the Consortium and working together, your affirmation by applause totally dispelled it. Thank you, Woods Hole!

MBL Director Gary Borisy, WHOI Director Susan Avery, and WHRC Acting Director Richard Houghton shake hands after signing the Memorandum of Agreement creating the Woods Hole Consortium. Photo by Tom Kleindinst/WHOI

MBL Director Gary Borisy, WHOI Director Susan Avery, and WHRC Acting Director Richard Houghton shake hands after signing the Memorandum of Agreement creating the Woods Hole Consortium. Photo by Tom Kleindinst/WHOI

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