By Jason Kelly, courtesy of University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Daniel Cojanu

The system heats up here to a boil, and the pot is stirred in ways that often don’t happen at your home institution.”
—Ron Vale
Professor at University of California, San Francisco

Editor’s note: This story is adapted from the September/October 2014 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

At the Marine Biological Laboratory, neurobiologist Jennifer Morgan studies how sea lampreys recover from spinal cord injury—a regenerative marvel and mystery. Within three weeks of injury, the sea lampreys typically regain the ability to move, at first in irregular fits and starts. As the weeks pass, their improvement continues until, about three months after a spinal transection, it’s hard to distinguish a previously injured animal from an uninjured one.

Sea lampreys are vertebrates with genetic similarities to humans, so the level and consistency of their recovery is especially tantalizing. Analyzing brain and spinal cord tissue at different stages of the healing process, researchers can identify what genes are expressed to understand the neurobiological mechanisms driving regeneration. 

“The goal is to say, OK, what’s the recipe that gets you good regeneration?” Morgan says. “What’s happening in an animal that doesn’t recover very well, like a mouse? And make that comparison.”

Morgan explores those questions at the Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering, where she is associate director. Part of the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Bell Center recently added to the web of connections developing between the Woods Hole, Mass., institution and the University of Chicago since they formed an affiliation in 2013. 

In July a $3.5 million gift from the Millicent and Eugene Bell Foundation endowed the Eugene Bell Professorship in Tissue Engineering. The position will be based at the University’s Institute for Molecular Engineering with the faculty member directing a research project at the Bell Center as well. 

Also this past summer, seven College students and recent graduates worked at the MBL as part of Career Advancement’s Jeff Metcalf Internship Program for UChicago undergraduates. They budgeted to hire five Metcalfs, but Joel Smith, the MBL’s associate director of education, says several of the students’ research proposals were of such high quality that they were “impossible to distinguish between.” Additional funding allowed eight to be hired, although one could not participate.

The students were, in a sense, experimental subjects themselves, offering the first inklings of the ways UChicago undergraduates could be assimilated into the MBL’s array of programs. Mostly, though, they were participants. Smith describes the lab’s philosophy as “teaching science by doing science,” and that’s just how the Metcalf students learned.

Moments of discovery

On her first day, second-year Clara Kao used tweezers under a microscope to remove zebrafish embryos from their eggs. She had never worked at such a tiny scale before. “I was dizzy for a while,” Kao says, but that eventually faded into a different kind of heady feeling. “Afterwards, I was like, ‘Wow, I actually did something today.’”

Kao works with Jonathan Gitlin, the Bell Center director and the MBL’s deputy director of research and programs, to study what happens when zebrafish are put into a state of suspended animation, or hibernation. Heart attack survivors, for example, experience a phenomenon called stunned myocardium. “The heart cells at the time of that event just stop,” he says. “And they wait.”

Gitlin’s scientist’s intuition and his physician’s imagination merged in a basic research question with hopeful medical implications. “How does a cell turn way up or way down its metabolism, its metabolic rate?” Gitlin says. “A great way to think about this is, the old physiologists used to call this turning down to the pilot light.”

Could children suffering from brain cancer have cells put into suspended animation—“stunned brain”—to prevent damage from aggressive treatment of the tumor? Could such a process better preserve organs for patients who are waiting for a transplant? 

Turning the pilot light up and down in zebrafish allows for genetic testing to understand the cellular processes that keep the animals alive in and out of the induced torpor. “You take away all the oxygen. You put them in an environment called anoxia. Everything stops,” Gitlin says, pausing for a few beats, as if to mimic the state. “Then if you come back with the oxygen 30 hours later and add it in, everything starts right back up again. The heart starts beating again. The blood starts flowing.”

Scientific and intellectual destination

Scientists appear to experience a similar phenomenon during the bustling summer months at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Many visit from academic institutions around the world. They talk about shedding administrative burdens and returning to the source of their inspiration.

A historic whaling, fishing, and shipping port, Woods Hole is also a venerable scientific destination, its rocky coastline dotted with research institutions, including the Marine Biological Laboratory, which dates to 1888. Each summer the migratory biologists arrive.

“One of my favorite things about being here,” says third-year Metcalf intern Medha Biswas, “is that there’s so much intellectual stuff going on,” even beyond her own summer project with UChicago neuroscientist William Green. The curious stuff through the open doors of other labs, for example, into which everyone feels free to wander to peek at other people’s work. “Just come over and we’ll show it to you,” Biswas says, describing the prevailing sentiment. 

Days start early and end late, as a virtuous cycle of research gathers momentum in Woods Hole. “They just go on a data binge over three months, and then they spend a year or so analyzing, and then they discover things,” says Shalin Mehta, a microscopist in the cellular dynamics program. “And then they come back with new questions, which comes from the data they have taken previously.”

Like the questions researchers ask, and like the marine and terrestrial creatures they study to answer them, the programs at the MBL are diverse. The summer courses are perhaps the institution’s most distinctive offering. In 1892 Jacques Loeb, one of several early UChicago faculty members whose names adorn MBL buildings, founded the flagship physiology course.

This summer there were seven graduate-level full submersion courses in subjects such as embryology, microbial diversity, and neurobiology. Each course has 20 to 24 students, who come from all over the world, paying $5,625 in tuition this summer—costs that their home institutions, scholarships, grants, and need-based aid help reduce.

Summer’s precious few months bring a rush of scientific interactions, making the MBL a hothouse of ideas. “The system heats up here to a boil,” says Ron Vale, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, “and the pot is stirred in ways that often don’t happen at your home institution.”

'Critical density' of scentific research

Drawing on what Smith, the associate director of education, calls a “critical density” of scientific talent and technology, the MBL’s pooling of resources is part of its historic philosophy. “We have laid the principle of cooperation at [the MBL’s] foundation,” as the lab’s second director, Frank R. Lillie, PhD 1894, put it, “and we have attempted to build it into every one of our activities.”

Adding to that foundation, last year the University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory created the Frank R. Lillie Research Innovation Awards as one of the affiliation’s first initiatives. Lillie was a student under Charles O. Whitman, the Marine Biological Laboratory’s founding director in 1888 and the University’s first zoology chair. Lillie went on to become zoology chair himself and then biological sciences dean, in addition to serving as MBL director from 1908 to 1925. In all he spent 55 consecutive summers in Woods Hole.

Despite connections dating back to the founding of both institutions, UChicago and the MBL had no official relationship until 2013. The benefits of establishing a partnership were mutual. Similar to the management of Argonne and Fermilab, the MBL relationship broadens the scope of the University’s research and educational potential, particularly in biological and environmental sciences. As Prof. Neil Shubin noted last year, the affiliation offers UChicago scientists “the means to develop academic programs otherwise not possible.” 

Hanlon mentions another benefit UChicago offers the MBL: “access to students.” Exactly how undergraduates, in particular, can contribute to and benefit from the relationship remains an open question: One option includes the possibility of a quarter abroad in Woods Hole.

The learn-by-doing culture will be central to any MBL-based education for UChicago students, who don’t solve textbook problems with predetermined answers. 

Originally published on December 9, 2014.