Biology summer camp: Life lessons from embryos

      THEY’RE GLOWING! THEY’RE GLOWING! THEY’RE GLO-” I stopped, blushing in the dark microscope room. It was 3 a.m., but I was completely enamored with the ball of cells under my microscope. Twelve hours ago, I added a cloud of sperm to a dish of eggs and silently rooted for their successful union. Since then, I had injected the resulting embryos with chemicals to make them glow, then grafted the glowing tissues from one embryo onto another to reveal which regions were important for proper development. It was my introduction to sea star embryology. I had a lot to learn from these strange, transparent embryos that looked more like hairy space ships than their iconic, star-shaped parents. But sea stars were only the first of many organisms I would study at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), a world-renowned research and educational institute perched near the tip of Cape Cod in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Established in 1888, the MBL “attracts the best and brightest students in the world, from more than 400 institutions and 40 countries,” says Director of Education Rae Nishi. She adds that course directors “empower students to pursue science at the very highest levels” in fields like neurobiology, cellular physiology, and embryology. Last summer, I had the opportunity to take the embryology course at the MBL. Embryologists rely heavily on microscope technologies to look at tiny embryos and benefit greatly from studying diverse life forms to make comparisons between species. In this course, I had access to cutting-edge equipment and new experimental organisms every few days, along with expert advice from invited specialists. Every morning, we listened to a two hour lecture on a different organism, which varied from roundworms and squid to chickens and mice. Afterwards, we convened in the so-called “Sweat Box,” where that day’s lecturer—armed with nothing but markers and a whiteboard—answered questions from students. The Sweat Box became an intellectual sanctuary where we could freely discuss questions like, “how does a snake embryo know how long it should be?” or “what is the minimum number of cells a hydra needs to fully regenerate?”. While embryologists often ponder questions like these, at the MBL we could try to answer them experimentally. In the afternoons, we practiced culturing the embryos of various organisms. We also had time to tinker with the many tools at our disposal: powerful lasers to remove cells in living embryos, chemicals to label the tiniest molecules, and advanced software to examine tissue architecture in three dimensions. After dinner, we pursued our own experiments. We often worked until three or four o’clock in the morning, stubbornly resisting fatigue. The next morning’s lecture began at 9 a.m., continuing the cycle all summer— always something new, six days a week, for six weeks.

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