March 30, 2015

Workshop at MBL Explores Past, Present, and Future of Cell Biology


Edmond V. Cowdry, author of General Cytology (1924), when cell biology was an emerging field. Credit: History of the Marine Biological Laboratory

A recent workshop at the MBL exploring the past, present, and future of cell biology attracted nearly 40 leading biologists, historians, philosophers, and graduate students. The workshop, “Updating Cowdry at the MBL,” was organized by Karl Matlin of the University of Chicago and Jane Maienschein of the MBL and Arizona State University through a collaborative grant stemming from the UChicago-MBL affiliation. It was the first event in an ongoing project that will lead to publication of a book on the topic.

The point of departure for the workshop was a gathering of biologists at the MBL more than 90 years ago led by cytologist Edmund V. Cowdry. Cowdry convened this group of scientists, all of whom conducted research at the MBL, with the intention of producing a volume that would examine “the cell fundamental,” recognizing that such a book could no longer be produced by a single individual and instead required contributions from multiple perspectives and fields. In 1924, General Cytology, the product of Cowdry’s efforts, was published by The University of Chicago Press.

As these biologists, including Cowdry, Edmund Beecher Wilson, Frank Lillie, Thomas Hunt Morgan, and the other authors acknowledged, cell biology in 1924 was only in its infancy. Cytologists sought to find ways to describe details inside cells, including sorting out which features are important, and physicochemical and physiological processes remained relatively mysterious. In many ways, despite the growing number of researchers studying cells and a recognized need to understand the most fundamental cellular structures and processes, the cell remained a frontier for exploration.

In the subsequent decades, cell biology has developed far beyond what Cowdry could have imagined. New technologies, such as electron microscopy and cell fractionation, enabled cell biology to become a molecular science, while new disciplines, including molecular genetics and systems biology, have expanded the scope of possibilities. More recently, the ability to examine molecular events in living cells using fluorescent probes, and the capability to model these events using computers make it possible to extend the age-old search for mechanisms in biology into the realm of emergent structures and functions dictated by dynamic properties.

All of these topics were represented at the October 23-24 workshop, with historians framing the past, cell biologists describing the present, and philosophers analyzing the evolution of epistemic strategies accompanying the maturation of cell biology into a 21st-century science.

The next steps in the project include a moderated discussion of ideas emanating from the workshop with the goal of identifying new frontiers and paths of exploration. This will result in a list of topics for deeper exploration at a second workshop to be held at the MBL in October 2015, and leading to the anticipated book.


University of Chicago Graduate Student Research Awardees Discover the MBL

By Laurel Hamers and Diana Kenney

Six University of Chicago graduate students are discovering the MBL this summer or fall as inaugural recipients of University of Chicago Graduate Student Research Awards, an ongoing program arising from the MBL-UChicago affiliation.

The students’ doctoral research topics at UChicago are diverse, ranging from evolutionary development to cell migration to indoor microbial communities. At the MBL, they have the opportunity to enhance their research programs by enrolling in a summer course and/or undertaking research with an MBL mentor.

“I am guessing at least one of you will have a transformative experience at the MBL, and will come back here for the rest of your life,” said Jonathan Gitlin, MBL’s deputy director of Research and Programs, at a breakfast honoring the 2014 MBL Research Awardees, including the UChicago graduate students. [Read more…]

Science Teachers from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Visit the MBL

By Diana Kenney

Three science teachers and a principal from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools spent Friday, May 16 on the MBL campus, where they explored various ways in which their middle- and high-school students could engage with the MBL.

Photo caption: Teachers from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools visited the MBL last week. From left: Daniel Calleri, Science Department faculty and biology instructor; Bill Reznikoff, MBL Director of Education; Michael Wong, science teacher; Scott Fech, principal, University High School; Sharon Housinger, science teacher, and Joel Smith, MBL Associate Director of Education. Credit: Jonathan Gitlin

Photo caption: Teachers from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools visited the MBL last week. From left: Daniel Calleri, Science Department faculty and biology instructor; MBL Director of Education Bill Reznikoff; Michael Wong, science teacher; Scott Fech, principal, University High School; Sharon Housinger, science teacher; and Joel Smith, MBL Associate Director of Education. Credit: Jonathan Gitlin

“We are meeting with MBL scientists and staff, and I am becoming incredibly jealous of the awesome things happening here! I’ve already had 1,000 ideas from these conversations,” said Daniel Calleri, a biology instructor in the Laboratory Schools’ high school.

The private Laboratory Schools include five schools, ranging from nursery to high school, located on the University of Chicago campus. Children of UChicago faculty and staff comprise about 60 percent of the schools’ 1,850 students, while the rest come from Illinois and beyond. Founded by education reformer and philosopher John Dewey in 1896, the Laboratory Schools’ mission values including “learning experientially, exhibiting kindness, and honoring diversity.”

“We have a learning by doing philosophy,” said Scott Fech, principal of the high school (known as University High School or U-High). “We look for ways to make a tangible connection between what the students learn in class, and what is happening out in the world,” added Michael Wong, a middle-school science teacher.

The teachers saw the marine organisms in the MBL’s Marine Resources Center and the frogs in its National Xenopus Resource, and met with MBL scientists working in a variety of fields, including cell, developmental, and regenerative biology, neuroscience, and environmental science.

“What is going on here? Everything! The sky is the limit,” said high-school science teacher Sharon Housinger.

Among other possible interactions, the group explored ways to engage the students in a research question during a visit to Woods Hole, which they could continue to pursue in Chicago. For example, Wong suggested, the students could set up two shoreline webcams, one on Lake Michigan and one on Cape Cod, and collect the data on the web to compare freshwater and ocean ecology. “This is the way education is going: We are interested in forming partnerships with other schools and institutes, and continuing to share on the web after the initial engagement,” Fech said.

“The MBL doesn’t yet have program for middle- and high-schoolers,” said MBL Associate Director of Education Joel Smith. “We see this opportunity with the Laboratory Schools as an excellent way to start, to begin building a flagship program that excites kids about science for the rest of their lives.”