Archive for June, 2010

“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

By Sarah Stanley

Renowned poet, playwright, and Simmons College professor Afaa Michael Weaver treated the Woods Hole community to a poetry reading on Friday for the village’s annual Juneteenth celebration. Weaver, a Baltimore native who spent several years working with his father and uncles in a factory before embarking on a remarkable literary career, read a number of poems to honor the June 19, 1865, implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, over two years after it was signed into law. The anniversary of the law’s enforcement is now celebrated as Juneteenth, commemorating the national abolishment of slavery.

Afaa Michael Weaver performs a poetry reading for Woods Hole’s annual Juneteenth celebration. Photo by Sarah Stanley

Afaa Michael Weaver presents a poetry reading at Woods Hole’s annual Juneteenth celebration. Photo by Sarah Stanley

Surrounded by antique botanical prints, Weaver captivated the crowd gathered in the Meigs Room of Swope Conference Center. His selections showed his wide range as a poet, covering topics from childhood crushes to familial love, from personal growth to class and race. He opened, appropriately, with a poem called “Science,” in which his childhood self begs to be rescued from science class. He followed with thoughtful poems— many dedicated to various family members, friends, and acquaintances—that recalled experiences throughout his life. “Remember,” a particularly poignant poem written for his granddaughter, urges her repeatedly to alert him if he forgets to protect her:

If I forget to plug the sun,

let me know

If I forget to tame the sharks’ teeth,

let me know

If I forget to stop the tsunamis,

let me know

If I forget to tie up the bears,

let me know

If I forget to chase away the viruses,

let me know…

“[Poetry is] my way of legitimizing my life,” Weaver said in a Q&A after the reading. “It led me gradually to a realization of who I am spiritually and secularly.”

Scientists and other community members enjoyed Weaver’s readings before heading into the late afternoon sun for a barbeque on the lawn at the nearby NOAA Fisheries Service.

The event was organized by the Black History Month Committee, which includes members from the MBL, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Sea Education Association, USGS Science Center for Coastal and Marine Geology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Woods Hole Research Center. The committee celebrates and educates the Woods Hole community on African American history and culture.

It’s summer! Welcome back to the MBL and our seasonal blog, @MBL. We are firing up our “Photo of the Week” series again, and we’d love to feature your shots of life at the MBL: what’s unique, intriguing, beautiful, funny, classic. Please send “Photo of the Week” submissions to mblnews@mbl.edu, and include caption information (who, what, when, where, why).

Earlier this month, Loeb Laboratory suddenly morphed from a beautiful, but quiet, showcase for modern lab design to a energized beehive of MBL students and faculty. And over in Rowe Laboratory, the rooms are filling up with researchers from around the world. MBL Club activities began yesterday, and already there is a full schedule of lectures and other events on campus to inspire and entertain you. Have fun choosing!

Woods Hole aerial by Karen Casciotti

Woods Hole aerial by Karen Casciotti