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MBL Embryology: Perspectives from a teaching assistant

Posted by on June 23rd, 2014

This year will mark the 6th year since I have been assisting in the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) course in Embryology. Each year I am excited at the prospect of meeting students and postdocs from around the world, as well as the outstanding faculty and old friends that offer their time to continue a long tradition of teaching in the village of Woods Hole in Cape Cod. My involvement in the course began when I was postdoctoral fellow and continues after I obtained my first faculty position at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, where I set up my own lab in the study of neural development. To recover from grant writing, administrative duties and teaching, each summer I escape to Woods Hole to re-invigorate my joy of discovery and sharing that with a new class of eager students. The Embryology course has been given almost every summer in one form or another for over 125 years. Several generations of eminent embryologists have passed through the wind swept and sun bleached buildings of MBL. Few courses can boast such a tradition.

The pages of The Node attest to the exhilarating and often life changing experience afforded by the Embryology course. Most hail from around the world to learn the secrets of embryos. Beautiful little animals floating, spherical or misshapen, pigmented or transparent, in seawater, representing potential. During 6 weeks in the summer, these embryos will be poked, sliced, grafted, transfected, stained, and photographed to reveal their astonishing molecular and cellular organization. It is a privilege to be a developmental biologist and be able to study what has occupied our thoughts from the beginning of recorded wisdom: the story of origins; how do fantastic and amazing creatures each with their own unique ways of experiencing the world come to be? From this broad question, our field has shattered into many sub-disciplines and specialties. But as developmental biologists, we remain unified in our pursuits of how form and function arise in life. At the embryology course, students and postdocs learn to address this from a variety of different angles. They burn the midnight oil studying gastrulation and pattern formation in arthropods, nematodes, vertebrates, planarian, mollusks, and whatever they dredge up from the cold waters on the Atlantic. Like the embryo, as the course unfolds, so too will the students acquire new characteristics and reveal their potential. They will make lifelong friends, and perhaps a newfound direction of research. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives.

This year, the FIFA World Cup of Football (as it is called in the rest of the world!) will add a festive international flair to a diverse student body that hail from Argentina, Spain, USA, Croatia, Germany, England, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, and China. Games will be broadcast across laptop screens and on the overhead projection screen in the main teaching lab. Some hearts will be broken, others will triumph! Ole, ole! But embryos are indifferent as they float translucently in the petri dish. Revealing their secrets only reluctantly to those who ask the right questions and probe with the right tools.

Basic scientific discoveries at places like MBL have lead to fundamental insights into the role of oceans in biogenic cycling and climate, diversity of ocean life, neurobiology and embryology. They all affect how we will cope with the changes of climate, and contribute to our understanding of diseases such as neurdegeneration and cancer. Perhaps there is something in the sea air that stimulates the minds of MBL fellows and scientists. One thing is certain however, without government support for basic research, these discoveries would not have been made. It is not hyperbole to say that our future, and the life forms we share our planet with, depends on a thorough understanding of the world in which we live in. We need places like MBL to lead in discovery and train the next generation of scientists in curiosity-driven research. That is the team I am rooting for.

- Angelo Iulianella (
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