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A Week at the Marine Biological Laboratory

Tabor student at a microscope
Tabor student at a microscope
A Week at the Marine Biological Laboratory

This week, 10 Tabor students set off for the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, for an intensive week-long experience in the sciences. MBL is well known as one of the top research labs in the country. Affiliated with the University of Chicago, they have a dual mission of research and education, where undergrads can come to learn for a term and where graduate students work in the labs alongside outstanding faculty from around the world.

Our students were the beneficiaries of a recent decision by MBL to expand their reach toward high school students in order to raise awareness and interest in the field of Marine Science.  Tabor was among a small group of schools invited to participate in the first High School Science Discovery Program held March 10-17. It is an incredible opportunity to be taught by professional scientists, including MBL’s Director, to hear about their passion for their work, and learn from them first-hand about the procedures and fundamentals that ground their research questions. 

The kids settled in very quickly their first night, finding common interest with the students from Exeter, Hotchkiss, and Winsor School. The total group of 31 students were broken into two mixed working groups, each moving through four areas of focus for the week, and led by a different scientist. Between lectures and labs, the students and their faculty chaperones are staying in the Swope Center dorms, enjoying great meals in the dining hall with free time in the evening for socializing: games, movies, and enjoying Woods Hole. 

The Discovery Program focus areas include embryology and gene editing of Xenopus embryos (an aquatic frog native to sub-Saharan Africa) to learn how animal research directly translates into improvements in human health; coastal specimen collection and sophisticated microscopy to create high‑quality 3D reconstructions and video; DNA extraction, replication and sequencing techniques for identifying specimens; and learning about color and pigmentation used by some creatures, such as butterflies.

On a brief visit to the MBL on Thursday, it was clear that all the students were very engaged in what they were learning. Their questions were insightful and they were enjoying using the equipment in their care. Marc Millette ’19 said, “I think I’ve found my people!” Not a bad outcome!  It was clear that the experience they were having together was transformative and it is fun to think about what each will bring back to their respective schools, not to mention where this experience might take them in their next school choice.

Kelli Navarro ’19 explained that about half the group were seniors, while the other half were underclassmen, making some of the material a little harder for students who hadn’t taken physics yet. That said, the faculty seemed very down to earth and terrific at explaining things in ways everyone could grasp. The MBL faculty had prepared lesson plans that actively engaged the students to illustrate the points they were making through observation. Each of the areas of focus were complementary, showing students how many of the lab skills they employed are transferable to different areas of study.

It was fun to watch the students discover the difference between pigment and how we perceive color due to the refraction of light. Using Zeiss confocal microscopes, beautiful images of butterfly wings were created pixel by pixel, showing the structure of the light refractions, almost looking like fine, woven glass beads. Next, the students added different chemicals to change the refractive index of the light allowing them to see the colors change to just the pigment of the wing: most often brown….and changing back to vibrant colors when the chemical evaporated and the light again reacted with natural air. This pigment study, as well as the imaging, was related to the work they were doing with the frog embryos, as was the DNA project.

Here are some of the procedures and laboratory exercises: 

  • Collection, Biodiversity Assessment, and Identification
  • Biological Imaging Microscopy of Collected Species
  • In Vitro Fertilization and Injections
  • Introduction to Genome Editing and Gene Structure
  • sgRNA synthesis (PCR), DNA gels, Columns, Injections
  • Embryo Sorting Genomic DNA Isolation PCR
  • Genomic DNA Isolation from Collected Species
  • Post-PCR (Polymerase chain reaction, used to amplify a single copy of a segment of DNA) Preparing Samples for Sequencing
  • GIS (Geographic Information System) Embryo Imaging
  • Testing Cuttlefish Camouflage
  • Confocal/TEM/SEM Microscopy
  • Analyze Data and Mutants Imaging of Transgenic Frogs
  • DNA and Phylogenetic Analysis (DNA Barcoding)

A week of discovery is a perfect way to spend spring break for any student who loves science and loves to learn. The fascinating science, combined with ambitious peers and scientists eager to share themselves and their work is pretty much a win-win situation! We are lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of it, and we look forward to how MBL will fine tune the class for future students.