My first listen to Jimi Hendrix’s album, “Are you experienced?” was as a prepubescent kid who still had a Matchbox car collection. It’s hard to describe. A world of magic opened up for me; to the chagrin of my parents, I decided I wanted to be a musician instead of a scientist, and in a word, it was transformative. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Woods Hole Embryology workshop, enough years later that I’d rather not quantify, had pretty much the same effect on me. If you’re lucky enough to be admitted, a world of magic awaits you.
I myself felt lucky to be admitted because I’m a professor now rather than a student, and I’ve worked in a completely different area of science (theoretical and computational molecular biophysics). The course directors, David Sherwood and Rich Schneider, saw some reason to take a chance on me—maybe they didn’t read my application carefully enough, or maybe I just looked like someone who needed a career change.
We gave presentations every 2 weeks. I just had another look at my first presentation, which I think was a fairly typical one compared to the other presentations. That said, I’m surprised to see that it contained a menagerie of strange and wonderful topics, including laser ablation of microtubules in sea star embryos to investigate Dishevelled localization, knockdown of distal tip-germ cell interactions in C. elegans using siRNA, heterochronic transplants in zebrafish to look at cell-fate reprogramming, a nostalgic but unsuccessful (and bizarre-looking!) Spemann’s organizer graft in Xenopus, and, apparently because I had too much time on my hands, an experiment on Tardigrade desiccation. And that was just the first 2 weeks!
We started every morning at 9am with a lecture; I remember during the first couple days leaving at midnight and thinking it was a long day. After about the 3rd day I realized that people were actually leaving for the bar before it closed, only to come back to the lab after last call to get back to work! Evenings (or rather mornings?) often ended with a group trip to the beach. There was a new organism to work on practically every day; we counted at one point that there were almost 100 different species that we had available to study during the course.
Two weeks stand out for me as particularly special. These were the weeks that I ended up working alongside other students in the class. One week was with Johannes Girstmair, and another was with Atray Dixit. These were the weeks that I felt most like a student myself. I felt the energy of exploration and discovery that only a non-jaded newcomer can possess, and I got to realize the caliber of genius possessed by the students enrolled in the course. I got the impression—and I still feel this way—that while looking around at the students in the course that I was looking at the future of embryology.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Embryology and Physiology have a long-standing rivalry that culminates in a softball game towards the end of the course. Physiology wins so often, and was so sure they’d win, that they didn’t even bring the trophies—engraved wooden buckets like ghetto versions of the Stanley cup—to the game. I think the final score was 12 to 8, Embryology. We immediately broke into a chant as we all danced around in a huge circle on the field: “Hey, ho, let’s make an embryo!”. Maybe you had to be there, but in summary, the satisfaction was profound.