For the love of science: what we can learn from the magic of MBL

MBLcollageIn 2009, I took the nine-week neurobiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. I came into the course as a fourth year graduate student. Getting my Ph.D. was a fantastic experience, and I often referred to myself as the least bitter grad student in the room. That said, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue on in academic science after grad school. Other avenues were calling me. Taking the course at MBL was a test. Can I have fun doing science for 15 hours a day? The answer was an overwhelming absolutely yes.

I have returned to MBL every year since, to do some work or reunite with some of my favorite scientists in Boston and Woods Hole. This year I found myself reflecting on what made my experience at MBL so great, and why it can be difficult to recreate that joy outside of the magic land of horseshoe crabs, three eyed frogs and the squid giant axon.

Science is best when unburdened by expectations

Hollis Cline was the course director in 2009, and I think her attitude and selection of faculty and students was a big part of the reason I had such a great experience. The title slide of her talks often includes this quote by Yogi Berra: “You can learn a lot just by looking.” Good science is science without bias. Many curious minds have developed increasingly sensitive tools to directly observe what nature is doing. Then you can look, quantify, carefully report, and speculate.

You can learn a lot just by looking.

The act of science is more fun when you do not expect a particular outcome. This is true both for an expected result, and also for an expected rate of discovery. One of the reasons I have had a hard time as a postdoc is because I decided that I knew what biology was doing, and set out to prove it. What foolishness! It was only after I admitted that my hypothesis was wrong and essentially gave up that I finally saw something interesting.

At the MBL summer courses, everyone gets to do science without expectation. There is no concern for publication, only for having a good time while learning. Often the experiments are high risk, trying out new tools or studying a tangential (unfunded) but interesting phenomenon because there is no consequence for failure. This is great for learning, because you get to do a lot of puzzle solving, equipment building, and method optimizing. Unsurprisingly, this leads to exciting breakthroughs.

Science is more fun when done collaboratively

I have never been in a more collaborative environment than at MBL. People share knowledge, research tools, and data. Everyone openly discusses the methods they are using and the data they are getting from experiments. This is done constantly in a way that is immediately beneficial. Clearly, this is great for scientific progress, but it also helped me to understand the importance of emotional support. We are social animals (yes, even scientists!), and life is better when our experiences are shared with and validated by others. It helps when those others have an infectious enthusiasm for science. I was surrounded by instructors and students who were overwhelmed with excitement about how cool science is.

My entire thesis project was based on a method that my Ph.D. mentor, Alvaro Sagasti, learned at MBL. Mark Terasaki taught him how to use a two-photon laser to precisely damage individual sensory neurons in the zebrafish skin. I optimized this technique with the help of Carlos Portera-Cailliau at UCLA, and used it as a tool to study neuron regeneration in live zebrafish embryos. It was at MBL that I met JoAnn Buchanan and Stephen Smith, scientists from the Molecular and Cellular Physiology department at Stanford. I ended up collaborating with JoAnn, using the electron microscopes at MBL in 2010, and then continued to work with her at Stanford. This resulted in the publication of beautiful serial electron microscopy images demonstrating that the terminals of zebrafish sensory neurons are actually enveloped within basal skin cells. I consider this the coolest, most unexpected discovery that came out of my graduate experience. Since then I still reach out to JoAnn every time I have a question about electron microscopy or just want to visit, and Stephen provided the live karaoke entertainment for my wedding. The Sagasti Lab has continued to investigate the interactions between sensory neurons and skin cells.

Science is most productive when you are fully engaged

Lecture from nine to noon, lab from two until midnight (drinks and ocean swimming until three). That is the schedule for the duration of the neuro course. I was afraid of this rigorous schedule going in, but I found the constant immersion invigorating. Projects completed during the course are often surprisingly productive, given how few days are spent working on any given experiment.

If I think through my experience outside of the course, I see a pattern –- science moves forward in bursts of focused effort. Productivity is greatest during those rare weeks where available time, concentrated effort, equipment availability, and luck combine. Working at the MBL makes everything but luck a given, so that the chances of success are high. The constant interaction with enthusiastic mentors and students helps to keep you engaged, adding more reinforcing benefits to this ideal research environment.

How can we bring the magic of MBL home with us?

Is it possible to maintain this enthusiasm in the “real world” where we need funding and publications? We can certainly try.

  • Practice science without expectation – a hypothesis is great for grant writing but can blind you to what is happening right in front of your eyes.
  • Take on a risky side project – do a difficult or weird experiment just because it is cool.
  • Share your science – get talking, listen, and exchange ideas. A larger community of scientists and science lovers is waiting for you in social media, and innovators are creating software and improving annotation methods to help us more easily share our data.
  • Collaborate – take advantage of the expertise of others and reciprocate. We are all working together to increase our understanding, so why not help each other out and be open about what we are up to. Right?
  • Support the lab community – a lab is full of emotional human beings who can benefit from interaction and espresso.
  • Make time to take advantage of those moments when the lab juju is in your favor – if at all possible, drop everything else and become fully engaged.

These are just a few ideas. I would love to hear yours so please share. For the love of science, we have got to find a way.

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