MBL Shines in “Why Study Biology By the Sea?”

400-why-do-biology-large-9780226672939-682x1024“Why Study Biology by the Sea?” (University of Chicago Press, 2020) is a fascinating collection of essays on the historical emergence of marine biological stations, the diversity of work they pursue, and their significant contributions to scientific discovery and knowledge.

The volume sprang from discussions at the 29th annual MBL-ASU History of Biology Seminar at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in 2016, organized by Jane Maienschein of Arizona State University and Karl Matlin of University of Chicago.

Several essays explore MBL history, including a profile of the seaside lab that inspired its formation (the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy) and the MBL’s inspiration, in turn, of the first marine lab in China. Bookending the volume are a foreword by MBL Director Nipam Patel and an epilogue by Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado of the Stowers Institute, both of which situate the MBL in the present day.

As essays on the MBL’s early years reveal, the lab remains remarkably true, in many respects, to the ethos on which it was founded. The MBL’s first director, C.O. Whitman, felt strongly that the lab’s scientific integrity depended on integrating research and education, a topic MBL McDonnell Fellow Kate MacCord explores in the book. (Whitman even fended off a proposed merger with the Carnegie Institution during a dire period in MBL’s financial history, MacCord writes, because a condition of the merger was scuttling the MBL’s educational mission.) And in an era of increasing specialization in biology, Whitman firmly believed the lab should investigate a wide diversity of organisms and questions, a strategy that both Patel and Sánchez Alvardo pick up as being essential today, with particular reference to marine biodiversity.

In “Microscopes and Moving Molecules: The Discovery of Kinesin at the MBL,” Matlin probes how a culture of intense collaboration and competition at the MBL, along with new, enabling technologies in light microscopy, played crucial roles in a major new finding. In another essay, MBL McDonnell Scholar Kathryn Maxson Jones focuses on research using the squid giant axon in the 1940s and 1950s, including at the MBL. Her essay, writes Fabio De Sio in a review of the volume, argues for “the importance of marine stations for the birth of the neurosciences, as frameworks for novel experimental systems, and as niches for the cultivation in parallel of both model-based and comparative approaches.”

Both longtime fans and new members of the MBL community will find much to discover in “Why Study Biology By the Sea?” The volume, co-edited by Matlin, Maienschein, and Rachel A. Ankeny, is available for purchase through the MBL Gift Shop.


This book is the third volume in a series edited by Maienschein called “Convening Science: Discovery at the Marine Biological Laboratory.” The next volume, “Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds,” will be published in July 2021.