Archive for July, 2010

Denise LoydA grad student, a post-doc, and a visiting scientist walk into a lab. What happens? Well, better science! Better, that is, than for a group composed of all post-docs, or all grad students, or all scientists from the same institution, according to Denise Loyd (left), an assistant professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Loyd, who studies the effects of diversity in groups, presented her research last week in a talk sponsored by the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative.  Loyd provided evidence that the presence of diversity in a group strengthens discussions in which final group decisions are made. Groups in which a majority of members fall into one category (based on race, background, institution affiliation, etc.), while a minority fall into another, put more time and thought into their conclusions.

We might assume the benefits of diversity in groups are solely attributable to the unique perspectives of the minority members. However, Loyd’s research shows that the simple existence of diversity can alter group dynamics in such a way that brings out different, positive behaviors in majority members, such as showing greater openness to others’ ideas.

Loyd also emphasized the importance of seeking out the unique strengths of members who may have lower perceived status in a group, such as undergraduates working in a lab with graduate students and post-docs. Her talk will no doubt prove useful to Woods Hole scientists and other community members seeking to strengthen group efforts. It also might help explain why the peer-to-peer dynamic in the MBL’s courses—where students problem-solve real-world research problems alongside some of the world’s top scientists—is often so energizing and productive.

Loyd’s talk was part of a Woods Hole Diversity Initiative event series called  “Synergy and the Group; the Hidden Power of Diversity.” For more information on upcoming events, visit http://www.woodsholediversity.org/.

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.

Part of what makes the MBL unique is that its biologists are able to learn so much from the marine animals found just offshore. Fundamental biological processes in these creatures are often similar or identical to those in other species, including humans. For example, MBL scientists use sea urchins to study embryo development, sharks to study the neural basis of behavior, and squid to study nerve cells.

Last week, members and guests of the MBL Board of Trustees and Board of Overseers enjoyed a tour  aboard the MBL’s collecting boat, the R/V Gemma. Below is a photo tour of their excursion, as sea urchins, starfish, and other model organisms destined to help MBL scientists in their studies were netted. Animals collected on the R/V Gemma are brought back to the MBL’s Marine Resources Center, where they are maintained until they’re used for research.

R/V Gemma crew members prepare to haul in a net used for catching plankton.

R/V Gemma crew members prepare to haul in a net used for catching plankton. The boat leaves from Eel Pond in Woods Hole and heads two miles offshore into Vineyard Sound for sample collection.

____________ explains the importance of plankton as copepods, small crustaceans, swim around in his sample jar.

Ed Enos, superintendent of the MBL's Aquatic Resources Department, explains the importance of plankton in the food chain as copepods (small crustaceans) swim around in his sample jar. Looking on is William (Bill) Zammer, a member of the MBL Board of Overseers.

Crew members bring in a net after dragging it along the seafloor to catch crabs, sea urchins, starfish, and other creatures.

Crew members bring up a scallop dredge after dragging it along the seafloor to catch crabs, sea urchins, starfish, and other creatures.

A crab tries to escape across the deck, away from the sea urchins and shells piled up behind it.

A crab wanders away from the sea urchins and shells piled up behind it. Crew members will sift through the pile, keeping some animals for MBL research and returning the rest to the ocean.

One catch of the day is this slimy set of translucent squid egg cases.

One catch of the day is this slimy set of translucent squid egg cases.

This sea star is regenerating a lost leg, a process that has been studied at the MBL.

This sea star is regenerating a lost leg, a cellular process that is studied at the MBL.
Back in Eel Pond, the Gemma is docked near the Marine Resources Center. Ebert Hall is in the background.

Back at Eel Pond, the R/V Gemma is docked near the Marine Resources Center. Ebert Hall is in the background.

For more information on the R/V Gemma, visit http://www.mbl.edu/mrc/outreach/gemma.html.

Nine science journalists and editors are rubbing elbows with polar researchers at the lab bench and in the field as part of the MBL’s Science Journalism Program at Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska. The Polar Fellows were awarded the unique opportunity to learn about Arctic climate change from the experts while participating in data collection and analysis. Before returning home on July 2, the Fellows will have visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Brooks Range, the Arctic coastal plain, and the Prudhoe Bay oil field.

In true journalistic fashion, the writers have been keeping a blog of their Arctic experience. Check it out here: http://toolikblog.wordpress.com/.

The 2010 MBL Polar Fellows are:

Victoria Barber, News Editor, The Arctic Sounder
Michael Barnes, Freelance Science Documentary Producer/Director
Julia Gross, Freelance Print Journalist, Germany
Louisa Jonas, Louisa Jonas Media
Julia Kumari Drapkin, Global Post, Argentina Correspondent
Susan Moran, Freelance Print Journalist
Ben Shaw, Producer/Editor, National Geographic Weekend
Chelsea Wald, Freelance Science Journalist
Gretchen Weber, Associate Producer, Climate Watch, KQED

Polar Fellow Gretchen Weber, associate producer for KQED’s Climate Watch, snapped this stunning shot in Alaska’s Brooks Range.

Polar Fellow Gretchen Weber, associate producer for KQED’s Climate Watch, snapped this stunning shot in Alaska’s Brooks Range.