Disclaimer: this blog post is really just a sappy love letter.
Well everything’s come full circle now. By this time, everyone has gone back home, back to school, or off to start fresh adventures. We printed our posters, drained our sea tables, and returned our animals. We presented our research to the scientific community of Charleston on Wednesday, got to do a really cool outreach session at the Charleston Marine Life Center on Thursday, and had a goodbye dinner at Richard’s house on Friday.
I really liked talking to other people about my work, inviting them to scratch their heads with me, or howl in outrage (the howling was probably just me) about this interesting phenomenon I’ve been studying. And it was really cool to hang out and talk with the kids at the CMLC too. Kids are the best, and it is really neat to be able to share with them a little part of the world they didn’t know before. I love when I can share curiosity, openness, and the joy of discovery with other people.
At the “goodbye” potluck at Richard’s house on Friday, when everyone thought I was napping, I was really closing my eyes and feeling everybody in the room, what it felt like to be with them. Then I just watched each person, one at a time, just sitting, or talking and laughing, and I just admired them, and the tears came a little, and I felt sad I wouldn’t see them anymore, but so grateful to know them too. The group of people I’ve been working with all summer were seriously the most pleasant and amazing group of people – interns and mentors and coordinators alike -- Every single one of them is precious and brilliant in their own way, and brought something different to the table.
We (the interns) shared everything: not just our living spaces and our meals, but our cars, the rest of our time, and our talents: Leela drew pictures of everyone’s research topic, Elena wrote haikus, Kaz made friendship bracelets, Nico gave everyone trail names. We shared field work, our thoughts and our music and our laughter, we discussed our frustrations, and we relished in each others’ victories. “You got babies?!” “Your microinjection experiment worked?!” “Your crabs molted?!” “You found a way to fix the error bars on your graph?!” Yay, yay, yay.
We worked incredibly hard, and played incredibly hard too. As the end of the program approached, we celebrated everything we had accomplished, kept dreaming of everything we want to do, made plans to meet again, and were grateful we got to participate in the program and get to know each other.
I believe in myself so much more than I did at the start of the program. I have learned a tremendous amount in such a short period of time. Book stuff, and lab stuff, and life stuff. I have much more confidence in myself as a scientist, and a better sense of my own strengths and my own interests. I’m very excited to keep doing research, to keep learning, and to keep growing.
The final three:
Oh man. The program is coming to a close. The waves of nostalgia are rolling in. already. It’s funny to be nostalgic about things before they’re even over. But some of us are like that. *sigh* Once a Tina, always a Tina.
We’ve mostly been working on our posters this week. I’ve still got lots of odds and ends to tie up: messes to clean up around the lab (sorry Richard), a new batch of larvae to look at (!!! thank you Richard, thank you Cyanoplax dentiens), and yes, the final edits before the posters get sent to the printer.
It is interesting after weeks of work, that as you know (at least from reading my blog) are sometimes wrought with frustration and ambiguity, to then take it and wrap it up in a tidy little bow and say: this is what we know!! I was surprised at how much I was able to report, even after I cut out 2/3 of what I wanted to write on there. You can learn a lot by just looking at something, even if you don’t know what it means.
I think making a good poster, and communicating science effectively in general, is about good storytelling. Stories are so important, they're how we get others to care about and understand our work, how we make it relatable and place it into some greater context. Maybe sometimes the story is something we have to make up to get people to… fund us, for example… but there is always a story and finding the right way to tell it is important.
And yes, sometimes the right way to tell it involves cutting out 2/3 or more of what you wanted to say. Everyone has worked really hard, and wants to report on all of it, but sometimes saying everything little thing you’ve done, and launching into every caveat, detracts from the value of your work, and makes it less clear.
It’s really neat how much we can improve our work by being receptive to others’ suggestions. On Wednesday during our professional development session we critiqued each others posters. I took it a little hard, and it took a lot of self control not to burst into tears when it was my turn. But then I got to work, and made all the changes people suggested to me, and my poster looks a lot better now. I think it’s really valuable to be open minded about others’ input, and to trust that people challenge you to make you better. If people aren’t pushing you, or asking the hard questions, that may reflect a lack of investment in your work and also your growth as a person. When we don’t challenge each other, we do a great disservice to each other. It’s hard to remember that when you’re in a room of 13 people, and they’re all telling you things you should do that you didn’t do, all at once, when you just want someone to pat you on the head and tell you you did a good job. But help is really at the heart of it. At the same time, it can also be important to stand your ground. That is probably the ultimate skill: Enthusiastically embracing others’ suggestions while sticking to your guns when it counts.
So there was some hard work, and some stress, but there was also a trip to waterfalls, lots of dancing, a meteor shower, and arm wrestles. So everything rounds itself out.
Oh man. What a stressful week. But crunch time always is.
We’re making posters as a kind of final synthesis of the work we’ve done, and I’m really (really) looking forward to getting mine done because I think it will help give me some perspective on everything I’ve accomplished this summer. I have tried so many things that haven’t quite panned out, or that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. When you talk to real scientists, they always tell you “that’s science.” I was joking the other day at our professional development session about getting “it’s not failure, it’s science” tattooed on my face. We all laughed a little too hard at that.
I must say, it’s a little hard to learn so much all the time. It’s difficult to keep moving forward when you constantly realize how you might have done something better. It is good to see the limitations of your own work, and to consistently improve your methods… but it’s also important to make definitive conclusions about what you’ve done, to see your own growth, and to realize how much you’re learning. It can be a challenge to stay optimistic when you don’t get the concrete results you’re looking for. But zeros are a thing too! Sometimes when what you’re looking for isn’t there, that IS telling you something! It can be hard to tell sometimes whether you’re getting a “no” or if your protocol doesn’t work for what you’re trying to do. I am learning how to make that call and move on.
It’s funny how much you can look at something without really seeing it. I’ve been looking at these crystals for weeks, but if I didn’t remind myself to look at their approximate location, or their shape, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell them to you. I realize patterns so much more quickly when I keep good notes about what I’m seeing, and don’t assume anything is a given. Everything about a familiar thing seems obvious, until you don’t have one to look at anymore. This week I am almost out of larvae and juveniles, so trying to be specific about what I see, even in photos, is a challenge. It’s like that thing they do in middle school, when they show you twenty pictures of a penny, all slightly different, and ask you to pick out the right one. And you can’t, and it makes you wonder where you’ve been.
It’s important to maintain a balance between compartmentalizing things and seeing the big picture. An excel spreadsheet is a perfect example of this. There are lots of rows and columns, and you could potentially do a million different things with the data you’re compiling, but when you work through it, you really just have to think about one thing at a time. What does this cell tell me to do? Find the long dimension of the crystal? Okay. And it’s very manageable. This boils the world down to a tiny little question that is manageable and that you can answer. If it’s not the most straightforward answer to give, or measurement to take, you just take it one tiny thing at a time, and keep it moving. I find if I can focus on one thing at a time while recognizing that piece’s place in the bigger scheme of things, I can be a lot more productive and keep my spirits up.
Lots of adventure this week! I got to channel my inner lizard and bathe on sun warmed rocks, see a thousand shades of green, swim under a waterfall, observe a washed up whale, and run around beaches and rocks and see lots of cool animals. I feel grateful to be in such an extraordinarily beautiful place, and to have met so many truly incredible people.
One of the coolest things about this week, and about this program in general, has been hearing from such a wide variety of people about their backgrounds and paths in science. The common denominator in all of these talks and conversations with people seems to be passion for their work, persistence and innovation in the face of problems, and openness.
Openness can come in many forms: being open to learn something different than you originally set out to (for instance, learning how many different ways something can go wrong, then (persistence) trying to figure out how to respond), to opportunities that arise. It’s allowing your work to evolve, and sometimes knowing when to give up on something, or switch gears.
And passion! Finding my passion has been a beautiful experience. I know I have it, but it’s a little diffuse, it spreads itself out over so many different topics and interests. Narrowing it down and cultivating a more specific scientific interest is a rewarding work. The more I learn, and the more time I spend doing science, the more I develop my own sense of the kinds of things I like to work on, and the kind of things I don’t. I think figuring out what I don’t like to do or are not interested in is just as instructive as figuring out what I do.
And finally, in case any of you wanted to hear about actual science, here’s what’s shaking out in the lab:
I collected some more chitons as a final effort to get more early stage larvae. We’re getting close to the end here, and I need to focus on wrapping up what I’ve got, but if I could get some more larvae it would be useful for really narrowing down the window of time that the disco balls appear, and it might give me a chance to do a function experiment. I’ve focused a lot on what the crystals are made of, and on trying to prepare them for confocal, but I think it would be interesting to try to test what they’re actually doing. I’m also trying to figure out when the disco balls disappear. Then of course, there is the business of sorting through everything I’ve got so far and seeing what it wants to tell me!
Wow, another week gone by.
It is interesting: I feel like this week I have actually dealt with the most failure, and frustrating tasks (massive culture die off, lots of abnormal development, no new spawning events to speak of. and so a dwindling larval supply, missing trips to dunes to take pictures of disco balls, making tons of preps of larvae side by side on a slide in the same orientation without smashing them (sometimes), really ambiguous results, etc. etc.), but have had the most positive attitude about it.
It makes me feel like I am becoming slightly less of a baby scientist. Like maybe an early trocophore, maybe right around the time the crystals are forming. Whatever data I collect, whatever I manage to find out, I am learning how to deal with failure, with ambiguity, and with painstaking or futile-seeming work without taking it personally, without getting overly frustrated (again, sometimes), and without giving up. I am learning how to come up with ways to target specific questions or problems (mostly by talking to other smart, experienced people), and I am gaining tons of practical lab skills. Perhaps most importantly, I am learning the joy of exploration and discovery (well,…maybe…), the joy of indulging my curiosity, and working on something I feel really invested in and interested in learning more about.
Doing research helps me appreciate how ingenious and creative scientists have to be. Not just in conceiving of experiments that get at their questions, but a lot of times, in actually building and constructing various apparatuses that can be used to carry them out. Sometimes the clever part is in adapting someone elses’ methodology to make sense for what you’re trying to do, or following up your results with more tests to help rule out alternative explanations (after coming up with alternative explanations to begin with). This is mostly stuff I see other people do, but hey, that’s learning, ain’t it?
Anyway. I’m still just feeling around blindly in the dark, and it is a privilege to do so. As far as actual things go: I’m closely tracking the development of one batch and taking lots of pictures, in the process of doing the murexide test (finally) and about to see how many more solutions I can find that will dissolve the disco balls. Just kidding, I’m totally going to find one that won’t.
I’m having a lot of fun with this project. There are so many rabbit holes, so many ways to think about what may be going on, so many things to try, and, of course, so little time.
This week’s three:
It’s been another dreamy and productive week here at OIMB! There’s been crabbing, proposal writing in cafes, an awesome seminar on algae, late nights in the lab, foosball, a tuna BBQ, and of course, lots of baby chitons.
This week I’m really learning to see the forest for the trees. The last couple weeks I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off: trying to keep my adult chitons from escaping their containers (and the sea table), checking for eggs, taking care of my larvae, making quality images of them, keeping track of the developmental stages of each of the batches and all the projects I want to do with these different batches. (There are so many things to keep track of. And. Why is it so hard for me to make a good prep, and not smash everything?) It’s easy for me to get hung up on one little (big) part of it, like: what are the crystals made of? And what are they doing in there?!! Big questions that are not going to be easy for me to answer, but that I don’t need to be able to answer to do some useful work on this project.
We had to write a proposal this week, and that was extraordinarily useful in grounding me. I had a really productive conversation with Richard about my project, and it helped me gain some perspective on what I’m trying to do, and what is well within my means to do, even if I can’t answer some of the really big questions. At the onset of our conversation, I launched right into a long-winded, frantic explanation of all the projects I wanted to do or had tried to do, and he kindly prompted me to back it up and give him a more general statement of what I wanted to accomplish: to describe these novel structures. What would people asking about these structures want to know? What would I, as a student, want to know, if I was looking for information on this structure? Where are they in the animal? When do they develop? How long do they persist? How big are the whole structures? How big are the parts that make it up, and how many are there? What shape are they? All this comes down to describing the crystal structures in time and space and in the context in chiton development.
“unknown crystal structures” will be referred to as disco balls from here on out
Since last we met:
I have been raising lots of chiton larvae. It is very rewarding to watch the larvae grow and develop, and acquire characteristics in a predictable and orderly fashion. Each time I raise a batch, I get a little bit better at it, in terms of keeping them alive and happy (?), and in terms of diligently keeping notes. It’s cool to read about this stuff, but it’s even cooler when you learn from your own experience ….that a day and a half after fertilization a tiny spherical bundle will hatch from the egg and swim around, the body will elongate, develop eyespots, girdle spicules, disco balls, and a foot. After about a week, it will stop swimming, settle onto a hard surface and transform into a bottom dwelling animal that crawls around.
I’ve been trying to get myself organized this week in terms of planning and preparing for the experiments I want to do on my larvae.
The very first question I hope to be able to answer is: What are the crystals made out of? So far we have come up with two procedures to investigate this: soaking larvae in Calcein and then viewing them using florescence microscopy, and performing the murexide test on extracted crystals.
Calcein is a substance that can be used to “tag” calcium inside an organism. If you soak animals in Calcein while they are forming structures that contain calcium, the dye gets incorporated into them and can be detected using florescence microscopy. I soaked my larvae in various concentrations of Calcein during the time I knew the structures were forming, and compared these treatments to a control. My findings are complicated by the fact that the disco balls exhibit autofluorescence. This means they glow brightly under the microscope whether they are treated with Calcein or not. This is a prime example of why controls are important! I have to process the images I took of the treatments and controls to see if there is any difference in the glowing with and without the treatment.
I also want to do a uric acid test on the crystals. There is a procedure called the murexide test that can be used for this (thank you gout). We are hoping to be able to suck the disco balls out of the animals and test the crystals. We have uric acid in the lab, so I am going to do a test with known uric acid to make sure the procedure works, and to see what a positive result looks like. We also have to get the crystals out… but we’ll talk about that next week.
A Chiton chronicle
Wow. What a couple of weeks! It is astounding how much can be learned and experienced in so little time.
It is very cool to see everyone immerse themselves in their questions, and find ways to investigate them. There is so much growth and excitement in this process, and it has been a privilege to be a part of it. I am lucky to be surrounded by so many starry-eyed, kind hearted, intelligent young scientists, so many inspired veterans to the field.
I am perpetually amazed by how quickly we can adapt to entirely new (for us) ways of thinking about and understanding the world; how quickly I take on the perspective of that baby chiton, or that seaweed, or evolutionary time.
As a big, clumsy vertebrate with a limited sense of time (and physics, and a bunch of other stuff), it takes some work to really appreciate how tiny marine organisms experience their world and function within it. In the larger contexts of evolution and development, it is challenging to consider the forces and mechanisms by which structures appear or disappear from different groups of animals or in the course of the development of an individual.
But I’m trying.
Richard always says we know a lot more about structure than we do about function, and I am feeling that this week. Especially because I know so little about structure.
I am investigating a structure which appears early on in the development of chitons that has not been well studied. I want to know what it is, and what it’s doing in the animal. We know from the way it behaves under polarized light that it is some kind of crystal, probably lots of little ones, but what is it made out of? How is it organized? How long does it persist in the animal? And of course: What is its function?
It might be some component of a gravity sensing organ, it might be a product of the excretory system, it might be both of these things, it might be neither. What’s cool about thinking about this is nobody knows what the answer is. To try to figure this structure out I have to take what I know about how the structure appears under the microscope, the period of time in which it persists in the animal, the various organ systems that form or operate in early development, and chitons’ phylogenetic relationship to other molluscs and their structures and development.
For me, this project has two major components: 1) coming up with a series of tests or procedures with a logic that will provide some insight into the structure, and 2) ensuring I have enough study material, in the appropriate stages, to conduct these experiments.
I have taken away a few solid things from these couple of weeks.
Hi readers! My name is Christina Ellison and I am a Marine Biology major in my senior year at the University of Oregon. I was born in southern California, raised in Utah, and have lived, worked, and studied in Salt Lake City, Ojai, New York City and Eugene. I am also a painter, and sometimes a writer and a dancer. Whatever else I may be, I try to be a liver first. I strive to foster a sense of connectedness to the world around me, and to open myself to the wonder that is life, and death, and change, and beauty in all its many forms. I am fascinated by marine life and processes, and by living things in general. I can become interested in most things if given enough background, and as I develop my own understanding and find a way to put myself to work. My work as a student has inspired a deep appreciation for both the diversity and unity of living things, and for the scientific process. I am not only a student to the facts, but to the process by which we come to regard them as such. I think the scientific process is the pure spirit of curiosity with the moral responsibility and the discipline not to get attached to any theory or outcome, or in any case, not to let our hopes, or our biases, interfere with the conclusions we draw from honest work. Ultimately, it is the process that facilitates our understanding of, and thus our relationship to, the world around us. My interests in marine biology remain very broad. I am interested in ecology and organismal biology. I like learning about how bodies work, how they interface with their environments, and how interactions between individuals scale up to inform community structure. I have also recently become interested in the life history of marine organisms.