Wednesday, 01 January 2014 00:00

Cell biologists? Funny? Herewith a New Year's Elevator Speech on Diatoms

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In the pantheon of Great Biologists, there are major discoveries and powerful insights but great humor is more or less limited to GBS Haldane's wisecrack about evolution revealing the Creator's "inordinate fondness for beetles." But if you're looking for funny in cell biology, try the pantheon's very small humour annex in Chicago where Stan Cohn teaches at DePaul University and studies diatoms, the vast group of unicellular algae that anchors the oceanic food, acts as water pollution markers, and continues to intrigue cell biologists because of their silica cell walls and exquisite photo sensitivity.1

But don't take our word for it. Here is Cohn and two of his students on the uses for diatoms, especially in elevators. This was Cohn's entry in the 2013 ASCB Elevator Speech Video Contest in New Orleans. We offer it here as a special 2014 New Year's Treat. For the record, it did not win as the rules clearly specified that all speeches were to be one minute or less. Cohn and company finished in 129 seconds so after wiping away their tears, the ASCB Elevator Speech Video Contest judges voted to give Cohn their Special 2013 Judges' Award. The only prize is fame. The two-time winner of ASCB's "CellSlam" (a contest that is currently on extended sabbatical) as well as an Honorable Mention in last year's Elevator Speech Contest, Cohn is in a class by himself, according to his students and the judges.


1Cohn SA, Bahena M, Davis JT, Ragland RL, Rauschenberg CD and Smith BJ (2004) Characterisation of the diatom photophobic response to high irradiance. Diatom Research 19:167-179

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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