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A lab with a view

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research has a new laboratory—with an ocean view.

03 October 2023

By Rachel Scanza, Ph.D.

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research has a new laboratory—with an ocean view.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and the Stowers Institute are separated by 1,500 miles and more than a century in history, but they share common scientific missions and motivations. The MBL opened by the sea in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1888, while the Stowers Institute began on the Great Plains in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2000. Both are actively engaged in the pursuit of how life works and embrace an environment of curiosity, innovation, discovery, and education. And, as of 2022, the Stowers Institute has a year-round satellite lab at the MBL.

The MBL: A magnet for curious minds

Myriad meetings of minds and creatures—from countries and seas spanning the globe—distinguish the MBL as a destination for diversity and discovery. And learning.

Aerial view of the Marine Biological Laboratory, the town of Woods Hole, MA, Eel Pond, and Vineyard Sound.

Education is not only essential for training new generations of scientists but also an opportunity for teachers and students to learn from each other. The MBL’s founding director Charles Otis Whitman, Ph.D., termed this “instruction and investigation.” There are 21 Advanced Research Training courses offered at the MBL—which Director Nipam Patel, Ph.D., emphasizes as being their “crown jewel”—and some have been part of the core curriculum since its beginning, including Embryology and Physiology. More than half of the 60 Nobel Laureates associated with the MBL were either students or instructors, or both, in these two courses.

“The faculty that teach here, the students that participate in courses, they come from all over the world,” said Patel. “Obviously, the access to the marine environment, while it doesn’t define everything we do, adds a huge dimension to everything we can do.”

For example, a morning boat excursion with Stowers President and Chief Scientific Officer Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Ph.D., led to an enlightening “show-and-tell” that same evening in the Stowers laboratory at the MBL. Under the microscope that evening Sánchez Alvarado observed a rainbow prism of light refraction produced by ctenophores (pronounced “teen-oh-fours”). These ancient animals are completely transparent jellyfish ancestors more colloquially called comb jellies. “The reason we’re looking at them is because we caught them today,” said Sánchez Alvarado. “It’s not every day that I pull a ctenophore out of my pocket, so I want to take a look at it.”

Group photos of the MBL Physiology course participants over the years.

The MBL offers a place for scientists to step away from their home institutions. Intense, immersive courses allow students and scientists to gather as peers, fostering chance encounters, creature-specific or not, that can lead to original trials and sometimes entirely novel discoveries. “We’re all here to do something new, and we all feed off this energy of curiosity and wanting to know more,” said Stowers Predoctoral Researcher Augusto Ortega Granillo of the synergy between students and instructors in the MBL Physiology course.

Stowers Predoctoral Researcher Kaelan Brennan likens the MBL to “a village of scientists.” Brennan, who recently completed the MBL’s famous Embryology course, which just celebrated its 130th anniversary, explained the benefit of having a Stowers Institute presence at the MBL—with both long-time Stowers faculty members teaching the MBL courses and the current on-site lab. “Stowers and the MBL are at the forefront of asking really big questions in an exciting way. Being on-site also gives us a more holistic view of where these organisms come from.”

Physiology course students preparing for their final presentations.

Patel, who has been teaching in the MBL Embryology course since 2001, commented that most students define their MBL experience as transformative. For Sánchez Alvarado, who took the Embryology course as a postdoc in 1995, the experience helped shape the path of his research—regeneration. Ironically, regeneration was considered a recapitulation of embryogenesis, and deemed irrelevant as a research subject in 1995. For Sánchez Alvarado, that was an invitation. “Challenge accepted,” he said.

Inspiring future research

Stowers Associate Investigator Randal Halfmann, Ph.D., visited the MBL for the first time this summer. And while his research—the random nature of protein shape changes—doesn’t require access to marine life, it parallels what the MBL proffers.

“Really great science requires spontaneity; it requires creativity. And it requires you to release your mind from the limitations of normal day-to-day activities in the lab, yet have that kind of environment around you, surrounding yourself with other people who are thinking about the kinds of problems that you're thinking about,” said Halfmann. “Hopefully, those interactions and ideas will seep into my own creative process, into my own thinking as I'm working.”

Stowers President and Chief Scientific Officer Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado walking with MBL Director Nipam Patel.

“There is an opportunity in our association with the MBL that significantly increases the value of all our members,” said Sánchez Alvarado. “Our institution, just more than 20 years in existence, is fairly young for a research institution. When you look at the history of those institutions that have managed to withstand the test of time, many of them essentially have followed a single thread, which is to empower the scientists’ minds to achieve their very best.”

MBL Director of Imaging Services Louis Kerr has worked at the institute for 42 years and witnessed the genesis and career trajectories of many scientists. He said, “To see them come back, from a student to a postdoc to then an investigator, that’s the best reward.”

Sánchez Alvarado was delicately leafing through a collection of 19th century manuscripts in the MBL’s library, meditating on the rich history surrounding him. “I hope that our partnership will serve members of both institutions in coming together to produce entirely new solutions to longstanding questions in biology.”

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