Oct 2013 WEB - page 9

9
OCTOBER 2013
ASCB
NEWSLETTER
The sun floods into the Physiology course
break room at the Marine Biological Laboratory
(MBL) less than a block away from the narrow
inlet between the mainland and Naushon Island
that gives Woods Hole, MA, its name. Woods
Hole is at the shoulder of Cape Cod, a popular
summer vacation destination. In the harbor,
vintage sailboats carry sunbathers, giant ferries
take tourists to Martha’s Vineyard, and the MBL
work boat brings squid harvested from Vineyard
Sound to neuroscience labs. But the 27 graduate
students and postdocs who are enrolled in
MBL’s legendary Physiology course have little
time for the sights. Instead, the students use the
break room to refuel, analyze
data, and argue about PALM
vs. STORM or the latest on
tropomyosin. Then it’s back
to the Physiology lab where
the students live 16 hours a
day for seven weeks. Asked
about a famous beach up the
road, a Physiology student
sighed, “I’ve been there once.”
“Break room” is a bit of a
misnomer. The countertops
are littered with quick
rations and fortifiers—trail
mix, Skippy peanut butter,
a pair of coffee makers,
Folgers cans, an empty case
of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale,
and a family size container
of Chips Ahoy. The white
board features scrawled
multicolored formulas for
yeast bud initiation and mean curvature, as
well as a drawing of a guy with a Mohawk. In
the background, Bob Marley sings to students
focused on screens cluttered with the morning’s
data. The pace is grueling, and yet most of the
Physiology students love the experience. Woods
Hole in summer is that kind of place.
A Distinguished Legacy
MBL started as a research station in 1888
and since then 55 Nobel laureates have been
affiliated with the institution. This summer,
five Nobelists were there conducting research,
including Avram Hershko, who won the Nobel
Prize in Chemistry in 2004 for the discovery
of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.
Graduate students and postdocs come from
around the world to learn in 22 intensive
courses including Embryology, Neuroscience,
and Physiology. The Physiology course was
started at MBL in 1892 by the German-born
biologist Jacques Loeb, who was renowned for
his demonstration that sea urchin eggs could
be induced to develop into embryos without
sperm. It was the second course started at MBL,
just after the Zoology course.
Most students come because they catch
the buzz from former students about the
opportunities Physiology
offers—the chance to rub
shoulders with research giants,
the energetic environment,
and the long-term friendships
and collaborations that result.
Admission is competitive,
and students who get in
generally have part of their
tuition covered by their
home institution. Various
fellowships, grants, and
private donations cover much
of the rest, including room
and board in MBL dorms.
The course is intense but
distractions are minimized,
says Ron Vale, of the
University of California,
San Francisco (UCSF),
who discovered kinesin as a
graduate student at MBL and
is both a former Physiology course director and a
former ASCB president. “Back at the universities,
students have a lot of other things to do, like
thesis writing.” Vale says that being away from
everyday life—cooking, commuting, TA-ing, or
thesis writing—gives students time to focus on
the work.
Physiology kicks off with a one-week “boot-
camp” in which students learn biochemistry,
microscopy, image analysis, and the programming
software MAT-LAB. “The boot camp sets the
tone for the course. Computational scientists
are helping the biologists with MAT-LAB and
biologists are helping physicists with a protein
Working 16 Hours a Day on Cape Cod at the
MBL Physiology Course and Loving It
Most students come
because they catch
the buzz from former
students about
the opportunities
Physiology offers—
the chance to rub
shoulders with research
giants, the energetic
environment, and the
long-term friendships
and collaborations
that result.
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