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Perspective: Why Woods Hole?

A Stowers Science Writer reflects on a visit to Woods Hole

02 October 2023

Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

By Rachel Scanza, Ph.D.

“They are all arranged like the teeth of combs. In the middle is part of their circulatory system. If you look closely, you can see particles moving through this tube. That’s part of the digestion. See how the combs are refracting the light and how quickly they move?”

Yes, like a bright fluorescent flutter. I am listening to Stowers President and Chief Scientific Officer Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado as we look at something structurally resembling a human spine. The tips of each vertebra glow green and vibrate violently. It looks like nature’s version of flashing disco lights in the Institute’s satellite lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Microscope projection of a ctenophore's cilia-like combs called ctenes.

Fishermen have been angling here for centuries. Scientists have been visiting for at least 150 years. Six research institutes within walking distance of each other call Woods Hole home.

Early on a mid-July morning, our group—Sánchez Alvarado, and a cohort from the Stowers communications team, me included—assembled in the lobby at Swope Center, a dormitory-style lodging facility at the MBL, and strolled around the corner to board an 11-foot speed boat docked in Eel Pond. We were bringing the lab—in the form of three Tupperware containers, a plankton net, a hand net, and a small cooler—to nature.

Zoomed in projection of a ctenophore.

But now it’s 7 p.m. and we are looking at a single ctenophore, or comb jelly, on a magnified screen projected from a petri dish under a light microscope. It’s one specimen our five-member crew collected nearly 12 hours prior. We had taken the lab to nature and brought nature back to the lab.

“It’s trying to move, to locomote. When they stop you can see the light refract. You can see all the ctenes,” explains Sánchez Alvarado gesticulating with enthusiasm. The name ctenophore (the “c” is silent) derives from hair-like projections called ctenes (pronounced “teens”), which are exquisitely ordered arrays of cilia used for swimming. Though subject to some phylogenetic debate, ctenophores are really old. Like really, really old. Circa 600 million years ago. At least.

Next to the lab is the little village. The little village is lined with seafood restaurants, a small general store, a few gift boutiques, two coffee shops that invariably involve waiting in line, no matter the time of day, and even a real estate office selling idyllic slices of Cape Cod. However trite it may sound, the only word I can find to describe Woods Hole is “quaint.”

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado describing a ctenophore from our plankton collection.

People walk around town, work in local businesses, come and go from research labs or lecture halls. On summer nights, students gather to jump from the drawbridge connecting Eel Pond to Vineyard Sound. Nothing is shiny or new, and nothing feels hurried or rushed. A deep sense of history anchors this place.

The draw bridge operator radios that we are now free to pass into Vineyard Sound. It turns out, coffee in the morning isn’t always the best idea. As we start to speed up, my cup’s contents start splashing everywhere when the best course of action is to hold on—to the boat, not the coffee.

If the town seems leisurely, the same can’t be said for the currents flowing through Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay. Warm water from the Gulf Stream and cold water from the Labrador Current collide, and sea life flourishes in the turbulent mix. Just a couple centimeters below the surface of the sea is a cacophony of plankton, the catchall term for near-surface ocean organisms. Lobsters, jellyfish, ctenophores, all species of fish eggs, and much more are at the fingertips of the hand I let dangle into the water.

Plankton net for collecting in Vineyard Sound.

We finally slow down to look for “mirrors” on the ocean’s surface where the currents collide and cancel each other to create a still spot for the day’s first collection. Sánchez Alvarado throws the plankton net about four meters out. “We will wait for 10 minutes,” he says. The seasick prone among us look a little green. Sánchez Alvarado sets an open Tupperware tub on the side of the boat.

“Look at the little white dots. See? Not the foam, the dots!”

Those dots are plankton. Sánchez Alvarado dips a hand net into the water. Fewer than 60 seconds pass and he deposits the net’s contents into the open plastic rectangle. At least a dozen or more ctenophores, nearly invisible in their transparency come abruptly into focus.

The Cape Cod coast on a mid-July morning.

Several hours pass at sea collecting plankton, with a few stops along the beaches of the Forbes family-owned Elizabeth Islands for swimming, drone flying, and searching for shells. Then there are three interviews, a tour of the MBL’s imaging department, and time in the lab looking under a microscope at our plankton net’s catch of the day.

On Friday afternoon, a few days later, the MBL Physiology course students were working on their final presentations. Students and their instructors were huddled in small groups, pouring over data, discussing possible explanations for different cell functions. Some were waiting to use a microscope or lamenting over who could possibly have let a perfectly good, iced coffee reach room temperature.

Microscope projection of a baby lobster collected from Vineyard Sound.

After six weeks of 16-hour days, including Saturdays and frequently Sundays, everyone in Physiology is tired. After just six days of this schedule, I am too. But Woods Hole and the MBL seem to have found a special balance because, even through exhaustion, we feel a kind of electricity. There is a palpable sense of excitement, curiosity, energy, and at the same time calm and peace.

“Where is baby lobster hiding?” asked Sánchez Alvarado, who had prepared another petri dish for plankton viewing. “There it is. In all its glory, the two little eyes and pinchers. It’s terrified of the jellyfish.” Are we children playing with tiny sea creatures, anthropomorphizing their every movement? “Oh man,” Sánchez Alvarado sighed as he watched baby lobster. “You are going to grow up delicious!” Or, are we scientists, observing and analyzing and also having fun?

Maybe we are both. Everyone seems happy in this little corner of Cape Cod. So, what’s the catch? There actually isn’t one, unless it’s for research or dinner. Woods Hole may just be magic.

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