Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scientists as the salt of the earth

Personal virtues that might be commonly attributed to scientists include intelligence, persistence, concentration, diligence--virtues of the head, one might say.

Less frequently associatated with scientists are virtues of the heart: kindness, generosity, compassion.

Yet it was an abundance of these latter virtues that constantly impressed me during the four-day Strathfest extravaganza, a retirement party for Richard and Megumi Strathmann. Students, colleagues and friends gathered at Friday Harbor from around the world to celebrate the "global influence of Strathmann". As they spoke of lessons they'd learned from this brilliant scientist couple, I heard the same threads being woven together again and again:

Meticulously credit others with ideas. Provide students with the best materials and support. Always be respectful. Treat students as colleagues. Take your science seriously, but don't take yourself seriously. "I love being wrong because that's when I really learn something new." He makes you feel smart. Someone comes into their offices, and it doesn't matter what they were doing before, now they're yours.

This sweetness, this humility, wasn't present just in Richard and Megumi, it was the flavor of the whole crew. Everyone, absolutely without exception, was smart and interesting and funny and, most especially, kind. It didn't matter whether I was talking to a retired whitebeard or a fellow grad student or anyone in between. Every conversation was shaped by mutual interest and respect. I met for the first time famous people whose names I have heard and read for years, and I made friends I'd like to keep forever.

Mentioning my desire to move into science communication after I finish grad school, I met with nothing but enthusiasm and encouragement. With several people I brainstormed a coffee table book about field stations, across America or across the world. It would be such fun to research and write! Field stations are remarkable places, marked by a certain cosmopolitan insularity, populated by characters so distinctive you'd swear they're fictitious.

As background, I have to read Here's How We'll Do It, a book on the creation of Shoals Marine Laboratory in the 1970s. Other books recommended in various conversations throughout the weekend include Oranges, Volcano Cowboys, Science at the Edge (is this the right book? I have to ask Moose!), The Crest of the Wave, Mindless Eating, The Plug-in Drug, and the Dictionary of Word Roots. Also, one TV show: Slings and Arrows, about a troubled Shakespeare festival.

But all conversational diversity aside, the party was at its core a four-day ode to invertebrate larvae and embryos, since Richard basically invented the field of larval ecology. I met him (and Friday Harbor itself) in the summer of 2008, when I took Invertebrate Embryology. I had an absolute dream of a time drawing embryos night and day, composing poetry, and falling a little bit in love.

Strathfest, just as I'd been hoping, was a concentrated dose of more of the same. Just about the most awesome way I could imagine to ring in the new year.

January 1st, 2010: The Larval Art Auction

The goal was to raise money for a scholarship fund. To this end, I contributed the very hand pluteus whose creation is illustrated in Make Your Own Hand Pluteus. I was a little embarrassed to see it rubbing shoulders with such unique wonders as hand-knit echinoderms and photographs of dancing larvae, but was pleasantly surprised that it did get a few bids. And since only one person could take it home, I now have commissions to make several more for the non-winning bidders!

The darlings of the auction were the incredible twin cuttlefish sculpted, glazed, and fired by Richard's last student Fernanda. They carried the evening, a perfect blend of biological accuracy and aesthetic interpretation. I have to prod Fernanda to see if she would be willing to post pictures somewhere . . .

January 2nd, 2010: The Larval Poetry Slam

Writing poetry about larvae has been a glorious tradition since the days of Walter Garstang. The pairing seems extraordinarily appropriate to me, because both larvae and poetry come in a wild diversity of form. Limerick. Actinotroch. Sonnet. Pilidium. Haiku. Planula.


The triolet is an old French form of eight lines. The first line is repeated twice, the second once. It has enjoyed much popularity with modern poets as well; one of the best examples is from Wendy Cope. I readily confess that I completely ripped off her rhyme scheme for my contribution to the poetry slam, which was born out of my frustration with growing baby squid at home in the lab.

You see, during the Invertebrate Embryology class, we fertilized dozens of species' eggs and watched them develop with ease to hatching and beyond. But at home, when I try to fertilize Humboldt squid eggs in the lab, my success rates are dismal. Other researchers don't have much better luck. One of the big problems has to do with an envelope, called a chorion, which surrounds the embryo. It's supposed to expand as the embryo develops, giving it room to grow, but this expansion can only be stimulated by jelly from the mother squid's special jelly glands. Sadly, we can't get her to extrude jelly on demand, so we take the glands, freeze-dry them, grind them into power, and sprinkle the powder in the water with the eggs.

Heh. When I say it like that, it sounds impossible that it would work at all. Miraculously, it does, but not very well. So, in closing, here is an

Embryonic Triolet

In vitro
looked so easy. But embryonic
squid are awfully difficult to grow.
The nature of the challenge, chorionic.
In vitro looked so easy. But embryonic
squid require a freeze-dried jelly tonic.
And even then the embryos won't grow.
In vitro looked so easy. But embryonic

squid are awfully difficult to grow!


  1. I am so completely non-scientific that I don't even hit that meter. This was really funny, interesting, and approachable. You are such a good writer. :)

  2. Thank you! I really appreciate you saying so. =)
    Somebody did a whole re-write of Poe's The Raven . . . I wish I could remember who, and some of the content.

  3. Sorry for leaving this as a comment, but here are some things I think you'd like:
    squid sox
    squid keychain knitting pattern
    I shared your hand pluteus with my friend Dr. Mah, who authors the Echinoblog. Check it out if you haven't already.

  4. I love those! I have a foot-long knitted squid that a friend made for me, but the keychains are just adorable. And I don't know how I missed seeing Clicky the Pixel Squid before now. This is a fine thing to leave as a comment. =)


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