The most striking realization I have had over the course of last four weeks spent at MBL, Woods Hole is how limitless is the scientific spirit . Pioneers of classical embryological manipulation techniques appreciating the importance of mathematical modeling, groups going to non-model organisms in search of an answer, groups identifying novel questions by merely observing or rather comparing differences between two organisms in one aspect of development, all are examples of the same. Working with a wide range of organisms we have been able to appreciate the diversity of body plan, and its molecular, cellular and behavioral attributes. It’s like learning is fun so, trying to create a five-limbed tetrapod and two-headed frog was fun but also every failed attempt made us realize the importance of temporal and spatial context in development. Not every experiment performed has to be hypothesis driven and so we see fish organiser grafted into frog and mouse organiser into chick, imagination and curiosity are the only drive here. We enjoy the freedom to explore and experiment. Faculties and TAs are available around the clock, eager to help better define the question and design experiments. This encourages to think and ask questions without bothering about practical limitations. A glimpse of the wonderful scientific outcome of this can be seen in the “Fish-bowl” previously known as “Sweat-box”, the one hour post-talk discussion session with the speaker. The speaker is bombarded with questions by students, not all of whom are working in the same field. Many of the questions, including the naive ones, provide novel directions or lead towards yet unexplored possibilities. It’s the most fulfilling one-hour of the day for me and I hope all my course-mates and faculties share the feeling.
Though I am part of a vertebrate developmental biology group, organiser grafts, tissue transplants, gastrulation, chimeras etc. have mostly been text book concepts for me. Learning these classical techniques and concepts from the experts in the field was overwhelming. As they went down memory lane, we learned the evolution of the field. Sitting through the talks we were introduced to the discovery aspects of many molecular and cellular phenomena that so far we have been reading as facts. How the field started from inquisitive observation and systematic documentation followed by attempts to interpret the same. Hypotheses were generated and tools to validate the hypothesis were created. Need based emergence and evolution of the fields of molecular biology, imaging, biomechanics, bioinformatics and so on took place. You are introduced to different model organisms, their advantages as well as limitations. Also to the most recent techniques available for different kind of expression and functional analysis for different organisms, along with feedback on the performance . You get to hear about the questions that led to adoption of non-model organisms in labs and that make groups run more than one lab spread across globe on seasonal basis. In the lab session, you find faculties and TAs happy to help you try any and every experiment you can think of, always ready with tips from their experience and demonstrations. This deroots almost any hesitation one has in working with new model organisms or trying different techniques. It’s all about daring to try something new and different combined with patience and perseverance. In the last two weeks I have had the privilege of working with five different vertebrate species with experiments ranging from classical grafting, skeletal preps., bead implantation to assess the morphogenetic potential of proteins and drugs, to laser ablation, mouse embryo culture, mouse in utero electroporation and TALEN injection in transgenic fish lines. Imagine !!!
You set up a time-lapse last night to capture cellular movements along with lineage tracing by injecting dye in a two-cell zebrafish embryo. Today morning you found that due to improper sealing , and subsequent evaporation of embedding media, you could not capture anything. You are very upset and sitting quiet and calm at the dining table. “What happened?”, comes from your friends. And then comes a long list of strange disasters, time-lapse of an unfertilized egg, time-lapse of a dead embryo, embryo crawling out of the field just few minutes into time-lapse and so on. You just can’t help laughing all your worries away and happily start the next attempt for the same experiment. The group has participants from places spread all over the world. Strangely, you don’t feel the diversity unless, one of your group members suddenly in the middle of the night in the confocal room, tired after a long day, starts speaking Pourtuguese. It’s only after looking at your expression-less face with wide open eyes that she recalls you being an Indian . You enjoy a refreshing laugh together and move on with your experiment trying to find the best possible orientation of the mouse embryo for the time lapse. That small element lying there somewhere deep within us which wants us to read “the mind of nature” is what connects us all beyond our differences.