The 12 University of Chicago students who arrived at the Marine Biological Laboratory for the first-ever “Autumn Quarter at MBL” found an interesting box on their room desks: a kit with the parts to build a simple microscope, and two prepared samples for imaging.
“We had our first lab in our rooms, while we were in quarantine. It was great, though it was difficult to build the microscope over Zoom. A lot of times one of us would say, ‘Wait, wait! I put the wrong lens on!’” said Miranda McKibben, a UChicago biology major. “It was a little sad because we couldn’t go outside and get samples of organisms to look at. But then a few days later, we could!”
Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the Marine Biological Laboratory is a nonprofit research institution affiliated with the University of Chicago. It draws a unique mix of researchers ranging from early-career scientists to Nobel Laureates and students at levels from high school to postdoctoral, whose studies have led to multiple, transformative breakthroughs in our understanding of biology—such as how fingers evolved from fins and how hurricanes affect life in the ocean.
Bringing the first student group back to the Marine Biological Laboratory since March, when COVID-19 emptied the campus, took an enormous, all-hands effort. “We had to rethink all of our processes, from A to Z,” said Kerri Mills, the laboratory’s housing and conferences manager. But it was a joy to pitch in, by all accounts.
“We missed having students here!” said Linda Hyman, director of education at MBL. “The proof in the pudding will be next year, when we scale up to many more students. But this was also an opportunity to get students back on campus, which we frankly couldn’t wait to do! Hands-on research courses are what we do best.”
Teaching in quarter time
While spread over more weeks, the core facets of a Marine Biological Laboratory course remains: Students attend lectures but spend most of the time in the field and lab, learning how to use high-end equipment and conduct real-world research.
On a recent afternoon in the “Microbiomes Across Environments” course, taught by MBL faculty David Mark Welch and Elena Peredo, nine students were busily engaged in lab activities, conversing through face masks and across 6-foot distances. They had been out on the MBL’s research vessel, the Gemma, where they collected sea urchins, starfish, and horseshoe crabs.
Back in the lab, they used swabs to sample the microbiome from several organs of the animals, and talked about the research questions they might ask. Is the microbiome different between a male and female crab, and how? How do the mouth and anus microbiomes differ? How does the microbiome change after the animal has been in the lab for several days? “We are teaching them how microbial ecologists ask questions,” said Mark Welch.
“I was really excited about the field component of this course,” said Megan Garvey, a biology and visual arts major, “especially now when everything is online.”
McKibben agreed: “Interacting with the animals, doing the DNA swabs, was really unique. At another school, you might just get little tubes of samples. Here, you are a part of where the organisms actually came from.”
That day, the students worked on purifying and amplifying short pieces of DNA from the microbial samples. These pieces will be sequenced in the MBL’s Bay Paul Center, and the students will get back computer files containing tens of thousands of unprocessed DNA sequences. They will then use bioinformatics to analyze the data, so they can answer the comparative questions they’ve chosen.