New Microbiome Center to Combine MBL, University of Chicago, and Argonne Expertise

UChicago Strategic Collaborative Initiative Seed Grants

“What Happens at the MBL Doesn’t Stay at the MBL”: Postscript to the UChicago Lab Schools Visit

Junior Owen Lasko at Sippewissett, a salt marsh and research site near the MBL. Credit: Beth Simmons

Junior Owen Lasko at Sippewissett, a salt marsh and research site near the MBL. Credit: Beth Simmons

Inspired by a week spent at the MBL last summer, several high schoolers are pursuing independent marine science projects at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. As recounted in the schools’ magazine, LabLife, two students built a saltwater tank once they got back to Chicago so they could continue studying marine organisms. One student had been intrigued by instrumentation development at MBL, “so we set him loose with some old microscopes, and he’s taken them apart and rewired them,” reports Lab Schools teacher Sharon Housinger, who set up a blog about the MBL visit. And three students set up experiments to study rotifers, the microscopic animals they met via MBL scientist Kristin Gribble, who uses them as a model system to study aging processes.

“We all learned so much and we had a great group dynamic … it just really worked on every level,” said Lab Schools junior Owen Lasko of their MBL trip. Read the article here.


Data Science Specialist Michael Franklin to Lead Computer Science at UChicago

Michael Franklin UChicagoThe University of Chicago announced today that prominent data science scholar Michael Franklin will chair its Department of Computer Science and serve as senior advisor to the provost on computation and data science.

Franklin will provide leadership for a major expansion in faculty, education programs, and scientific directions of the computer science department, building upon ongoing UChicago data science projects, and the expanding research area of data science among the University’s affiliated institutions, including the MBL.

Research at the MBL depends increasingly on the generation of large amounts of data of many different types, ranging from to imaging, to genome sequences, to longitudinal environmental surveys.  As such, one of the key areas of strategic focus at the MBL is the use of cutting-edge imaging and computation to illuminate cellular function and previously unknown biology.

“We are delighted with the appointment of Professor Franklin and look forward to engaging him fully in the work of the MBL,” said Jonathan Gitlin, Director of the Division of Research at the MBL. “His appointment will greatly enrich our ongoing partnerships in computational sciences with UChicago and Argonne National Laboratory that are vital to our collective research vision.”

Read UChicago announcement

Of Whales, Scales, and Microbes: New Program for UChicago Undergraduates at MBL Offers Broad View of Marine Biodiversity

By Diana Kenney

It’s one thing to debate Darwin’s evolutionary theory in the classroom. It’s quite another to do so after vivid encounters with the natural world: mucking through a salt marsh to scoop up microbes; observing a dolphin dissection and seeing how strikingly human it looks inside; gazing into the eyes of a whale that seems eerily aware.

Jutting from the façade of the MBL’s Candle House is a replica of the bow of the Charles W. Morgan, a whaleboat built in 1841 in New Bedford, Mass. After many voyages, it was restored at Mystic Seaport, Conn., where it is open to visitors, including students in the Whale Program last fall.

Jutting from the façade of the MBL’s Candle House is a replica of the bow of the Charles W. Morgan, a whaleboat built in 1841 in New Bedford, Mass. After many voyages, it was restored at Mystic Seaport, Conn., where it is open to visitors, including students in the Whale Program last fall.

That may be why the 10 University of Chicago students who just completed a new quarter-long program, “The Whale: Biology, Culture, and Evolution on Nantucket Sound,” comprised “one of the best classes I’ve had at the undergraduate level,” says Robert Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor in the History of Science and Medicine. “These kids were all extremely sharp. We argued to the end, in kindly and good fashion. They wanted to challenge everything! They were the kind of students you think of as ideal at the University.”

Richards has taught Darwinism at UChicago for many years, but last fall it was in the context of the new “Whale Program” held at the University-affiliated Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. For three weeks prior to Richards’ course, the students, all non-biology majors, took an intensive laboratory course on “Experimental Biology by the Sea,” led by Karl Matlin, professor of surgery, and Chris Schonbaum, senior lecturer in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division.

“We introduced them to research on not only whales, but also fish and crabs, sea urchins, frogs, and microbes,” Matlin says. “The whale was a foil for this course in many ways,” he says, one being exposure to marine research experiments at the MBL and in Woods Hole. “We hoped that, by the time they got to Darwin, they would have a better sense of biodiversity and the natural environment, and how evolution might work.”

Kicking off this new study-abroad style program was a course on “Whales, Whaling, and American History,” taught by Michael Rossi, assistant professor of the history of medicine. “How to Observe Alien Animals,” taught by UChicago graduate student Lily Huang, rounded out the quarter in Woods Hole.

A sense of place

Woods Hole whalers took part in the golden era of American whaling in the early 19th century, spearheaded by enormously profitable operations based in Nantucket and New Bedford, Mass. American whalers were especially good at hunting sperm whales and extracting the valuable spermaceti from the head, a waxy substance that was refined for luxury items such as high-quality candles, lamp oil, and perfumes. MBL’s Candle House building was originally a spermaceti candle factory.

University of Chicago students inspect a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. The students recorded whale sounds and behaviors for a unit on cetacean bioacoustics and communication. Credit: Michael Rossi

University of Chicago students inspect a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. Credit: Michael Rossi

Rossi’s course immersed the students in the intellectual, social, and cultural history of American whaling through readings, discussions, and excursions beyond Woods Hole.

“It’s one thing to read about a harpoon and another thing to see this 12-foot-long piece of wood and iron,” Rossi says of their trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. They spent a day exploring Nantucket Island, where they met with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, recently released as a movie. And they observed whales in the wild during a boat trip out of Provincetown, Mass.

“It’s really neat to study in a place where we learn about what is right around us,” says Greg Ross, a second-year student in the Whale Program.

“Just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s forgotten in Woods Hole,” adds Kelly Peyton, a fourth-year anthropology major. “The alignment of it all was awesome.”

As they moved forward in history, they considered shifting social attitudes toward whales. “We went from thinking of whales as an exploitable natural resource that is more or less insensible and perhaps even malevolent, to an animal that perhaps is a model for other types of mammalian cognition, such as humans,” Rossi says. “How would you know? What happens when you project intelligence onto another creature?”

And they read Moby Dick, which Rossi calls “a deeply weird, strange book. You can read it almost without a plot. It’s all about the risks of confronting the vastness of the unknown—and the rewards.”

The power of observation

Observation was a common theme running through the Whale Program’s courses, Matlin says. Huang’s course, for example, began with the question, “What would be a better strategy for studying the lives of other animals: To assume that their experience is basically assimilable to ours, or utterly alien?” “The course was brimming from the start. There was a lot to say,” Huang says.

UChicago students Luiza Gundim and Alexander Okamoto pipette reagents for DNA extraction in a lab led by MBL scientists Linda Amaral Zettler and Julie Huber. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

UChicago students Luiza Gundim and Alexander Okamoto pipette reagents for DNA extraction in a lab led by MBL scientists Linda Amaral Zettler and Julie Huber. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

“In the lab, observation is critical,” Matlin says of his experimental biology course. The students carried out several classical experiments in sea-urchin embryology, some originally conducted at the MBL, and learned about MBL’s formative role in this field through a lecture by historian Jane Maienschein of Arizona State University. They then moved into a microbial ecology unit, led by MBL scientists Linda Amaral-Zettler and Julie Huber.

“We stomped around the marsh measuring salinity, temperature, oxygen, and taking sediment samples,” Huber says. “By the end of the week, the students had looked at the samples under the microscope, extracted microbial DNA, amplified genes from the DNA, and sequenced the DNA.”

The students then spent several days at another research organization, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where they studied cetacean anatomy, physiology, and coastal strandings and whale communication.

Their varied observations in embryology and animal physiology later proved valuable in Richards’ course. “They had much more evidence, and more kinds of experience to prepare them to talk reasonably about Darwin’s theory,” Richards says.

Darwin, of course, “was a great observer,” Richards says. “A good deal of his argument for evolution by natural selection depended on his observations in biogeography, embryology, artificial selection, the patterns and variety of species and genera in the natural world.

“While each one may not be completely convincing, all together they produced, as Darwin said, ‘one long argument’ for his view.”

Julie Huber Presents “Planet Microbe” at UChicago 125th Anniversary Event

Leadership and scientists from the University of Chicago and its three affiliated laboratories — MBL, Argonne National Laboratory, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory – gathered in Chicago last month to celebrate the past, present, and future of these collaborative partnerships, as well as the University’s 125th anniversary year. (Please see University of Chicago news story about the event here.)

Julie Huber speaks at the William Eckhardt Research Center last month at the University of Chicago. Credit: Rob Hart

Julie Huber speaks at the William Eckhardt Research Center last month at the University of Chicago. Credit: Rob Hart

As part of the celebration, Julie Huber, associate scientist and associate director of the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center, gave one of four “Short Talks on Groundbreaking Research” (see video here). Huber and her colleagues are interested in large, cross-disciplinary questions, such as “How does life spread across the planet?” and “How do life and its environment co-evolve?” In that context, her lab is focused on the smallest and most abundant life form on Earth, the microbes.

Huber described the “stunning diversification” of microbial forms, which inhabit almost every niche on the planet. “What we do very well in Woods Hole is study the ocean,” she said, and her lab is exploring the mostly unknown realm of microbes living in deep-sea volcanic systems and beneath the seafloor. In these extreme, high-pressure environments, microbes have evolved novel strategies to survive, such as harvesting energy not from the sun but from the chemical energy of water-rock reactions.

Describing extreme marine microbes “may seem like very strange science, but the implications and applications are wide-ranging,” Huber said, including for research on how life began, the search for extraterrestrial life, and for discovery and development of new natural products ranging from anti-cancer drugs to biofuels.

“We have a lot left of our Planet Microbe to explore,” she said.

UChicago-MBL Undergraduate Scholarship is Awarded to Daniel Morrison

Daniel G. Morrison, a graduate of Falmouth High School, is the first recipient of the UChicago-MBL Scholarship for undergraduate study. Daniel received a full-tuition scholarship to UChicago and enrolled in September as a first-year student.

Daniel is the son of Hilary Morrison, senior research scientist in the Bay Paul Center. Children of year-round MBL employees (minimum 20 hours/week) who are accepted to the University of Chicago are eligible for consideration for this scholarship.

Daniel reports that “UChicago has been great so far; it’s a very challenging experience but also extremely rewarding.” He is considering majoring in either math or computer science. “Outside of class, I’m really enjoying singing in the Rockefeller Chapel Choir,” he says. “We’ll be performing Handel’s Messiah before winter break starts.”

The deadline to apply to the University of Chicago for the 2016-2017 academic year is January 1 (regular decision candidates).

Dan Morrison

Applications Now Accepted for UChicago-MBL Scholarship

Beginning its second year, applications are now being accepted for the University of Chicago – Marine Biological Laboratory Scholarship for undergraduate study.

Each application cycle, the University of Chicago will offer one full-tuition MBL scholarship to a qualified applicant. The scholarship will be renewable for four years as long as the recipient remains in good academic standing and one of their parents is a year-round, minimum 0.5 FTE (20 hours/week) employee of the MBL. This is a great opportunity for MBL families to take advantage of the outstanding education the University of Chicago provides for its students. We ask any families that have students applying to the University of Chicago this year to fill out the following by January 3, 2016: MBL Employment Verification Form.

uchicago.campusTo be awarded the full-time scholarship, the student must be accepted for first-year admission to the University of Chicago and must be among the most qualified applicants from Marine Biological Laboratory families as judged by the admissions committee. First-year applicants are required to complete either the Universal College Application or the Common Application , both available online. Additionally, students will be required to complete the University of Chicago Supplement which is available online or through the Common Application. The deadline for applications to the University of Chicago is November 1, 2015 for Early Action and January 1, 2016 for Regular Decision.

These are merit-based scholarship and do not preclude the possibility of additional need-based financial assistance from the University. The University strives to ensure financial need is not the controlling factor in determining whether a student can attend. To apply for financial aid, the UChicago Financial Aid Worksheet is due November 1, 2015 for early action applicants. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) must be filed with the appropriate processing agencies by February 1, 2015 for regular notification. For additional information, please visit

If you have questions about the scholarship or would like additional information about admission to the University of Chicago, please contact Emily Benoit, Assistant Director of Admissions, at or (773) 702-7944.

Undergraduates Wrap Up an MBL Summer with Successful Poster Session

By Diana Kenney

Looking ahead to a new academic year starting in late September, several University of Chicago students recently flew home after a summer at the MBL. Before leaving, they shared the knowledge they had gained during their Metcalf Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) at a well-attended poster session in Swope Center.

Each student had spent twelve weeks in the lab of an MBL scientist who provided mentoring on a research project. Several of the students partnered on their research with an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) student from another university.

“Twelve weeks is a long time; we managed to accomplish a lot,” said Associate Scientist Linda Amaral Zettler, who mentored Metcalf SURF student Irene Zhang and REU student Louise Barias of Dartmouth College. “Irene was exposed to all the major analyses in my lab. She has those skills under her belt now, which will really help her if she moves on in the field.”

Below are a few snapshots from the Metcalf SURF poster session, which was organized by Beth Simmons, Assistant Director of Education. Other UChicago Metcalf undergraduates this summer and their MBL mentors were: Clara Kao (Jonathan Gitlin); Eva Kinnebrew (Chris Neill); Hanna Weller (Roger Hanlon); Leonard Shaw (Maureen Conte); Petra Byl (Joe Vallino/Julie Huber); and Jonathan Michelson (Jim Tang).

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UChicago Lab School Students “Get Their Hands in the Water” at MBL

By Rachel Buhler

Taking a break in a lounge in Loeb Laboratory, the two high-school science teachers looked sunburned, tired, but very happy. Daniel Calleri and Sharon Housinger of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools had spent the prior day with 12 of their students on Naushon Island, off the coast of Woods Hole. Nets in hand, they scouted out and collected marine organisms with the expert help of Dave Remsen, director of the MBL’s Marine Resources Center. After boating back to Woods Hole, the group took their finds into an MBL lab for further study.

“We wanted the students to jump right in and get their hands in the water, to take full advantage of Woods Hole in this short period of time,” said Calleri.

The 12 Lab School sophomores, juniors, and seniors spent a week at the MBL last month with Calleri, Housinger, and Alexzandra Wallace, the Lab School’s Manager of Special Projects and Outreach. The teachers had come to the MBL in 2014 to explore a possible collaboration with MBL Education Director Bill Reznikoff, and this summer’s stay was the successful result.

“This is another example of the MBL’s expanding relationship with the University of Chicago,” said MBL President and Director Hunt Willard. “We were happy to help introduce the Lab School students to the Woods Hole environment and the study of local marine organisms.”

UChicago Lab School students Whitney Thomas and Delnaz Patel observe plankton from the plankton tow, one of their many encounters with microorganisms during their MBL trip. Credit: Beth Simmons

UChicago Lab School students Whitney Thomas and Delnaz Patel observe plankton from the plankton tow, one of their many encounters with microorganisms during their MBL trip.
Credit: Beth Simmons

In their MBL lab, the students observed fertilization of sea squirt (Ciona) eggs and, through the microscope, watched the embryos divide. They also experimented with neural stimulation of squid skin thanks to inspiration from the YouTube hit “Insane in the Chromatophores” by Backyard Brains, which was recorded at the MBL in 2012. In addition, they learned how and why other organisms at the MBL are studied, including frogs, horseshoe crabs, and microscopic animals called rotifers.

After being chosen to visit the MBL through a competitive application process, the Lab School students prepared by taking a quarter-long marine biology course. In Woods Hole, their teachers were thrilled to bring them into the ecosystems they had studied in their textbooks. “It was like instant connection and understanding,” Housinger said. “I was thinking this morning when they were in the lab looking at the embryos, that they probably learned more embryology in two hours than we would have been able to teach in two weeks in the classroom.”

The students also saw at MBL that there are many ways to engage with marine biology, such as through training in physics (leading to microscope development) or chemistry. “For biology, traditionally they are taught, ‘Here’s this list of words, memorize it, and now you know marine biology,’ and it’s no wonder why people don’t go into it,” Calleri said. “It’s never presented as a field that has opportunity for professional growth and development. But at MBL, you get to see that writ large.” The MBL showed students who are starting to form collegiate aspirations several real-life examples of careers in the sciences.

A number of MBL faculty and staff members offered their time to interact with the Lab School students to ensure they had a well-rounded experience. They included Beth Simmons (Education Department); Dave Remsen and Scott Bennett (Marine Resources Center), Shalin Mehta and Hiro Ishii (Bell Center), Kristen Gribble (Bay Paul Center), Ivan Valiela (Ecosystems Center), and Esther Pearl (National Xenopus Resource).

The teachers hope an MBL trip will become part of the annual curriculum at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. “The students are seeing the MBL motto of ‘Biological Discovery’ in real-time,” Wallace exclaimed.