Sally Seraphin’s life in the research lab started with rats and roseate terns. Chimpanzees and rhesus macaques came next, then humans (and a brief foray into voles). When she pivoted to red-eyed tree frogs, Sally once again had to learn all kinds of new techniques. Suddenly, in addition to new sample prep and analysis techniques, she needed to get up to speed on amphibian care and husbandry. That led her to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA.
“It’s a seaside resort atmosphere with experts in every technology you can imagine,” Sally says. “It’s a place to incubate and birth new approaches to answering questions.”
Sally spent the past two summers at MBL learning everything she needed to know about breeding and caring for amphibians. During that time, she also worked closely with Applications Scientists from Promega who helped her start extracting RNA from frog samples.
“The hands-on support from industry scientists is definitely unique to Promega and MBL,” she says. “It’s rare to have a specialist on hand who can help you learn, troubleshoot and optimize in such a finite amount of time.”
Adopting a New Model Organism
Sally studies how early stress impacts brain and behavior development. She hopes to deepen our understanding of how adverse childhood experiences connect to mental illness and bodily disease later in life. In the past, she studied how factors such as parental absence affected the neurotransmission of dopamine in primates. Recently, she changed her focus to developmental timing.
“Girls who are exposed to early trauma like sexual or physical abuse will sometimes reach puberty earlier than girls who aren’t,” Sally explains. “And I noticed that there are many species that will alter their developmental timing in response to predators or social and ecological threats.”
Marine animals are fascinating. Not only are their appearances alien-like (think tentacles, suckers and bioluminescence). But many have also developed unique capabilities unlike anything you see on land.
In fact, most of the biodiversity of the world lies beneath the ocean. According to the World Register of Marine Species, there are more than 400,000 marine species, and it is estimated that 91% of marine species have yet to be identified. Studying marine animals may help us learn more about how we evolved and even lead to new ways to study and treat human diseases. At the forefront of marine biology research is the Marine Biological Lab (MBL), located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
This summer, I had the opportunity to go to the Marine
Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. MBL was founded in
1888 as an institution that focuses on research and education. Woods Hole is
located on Cape Cod and has rich biodiversity that is the focus of the resident
researchers and the many others that travel there each summer. It was here that
new model organisms were discovered, allowing significant advancement in
various fields. For example, squid have large axons that allowed researchers to
expand our knowledge of neurons.
Over 500 scientists from over 300 institutions in over 30
countries come to MBL each year as trainees1. There are 19 advanced
research training courses for pre-and post-doctoral scientists in development, reproduction,
cell physiology, microbiology, infectious disease, neuroscience, and microscopy.
Faculty that teach the courses are leaders in their respective fields. In
addition, MBL has a neuro-physiology fellowship program through the Grass
Foundation that allows early-stage researchers to come to MBL for 14 weeks to
I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.
As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?
My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:
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