I covered my eyes with my hands, at first too afraid to look. “That is so gorgeous,” I heard Jessica Mark Welch say.
Mark Welch is a microbiologist who uses fluorescent probes to generate images of bacteria, such as those on our teeth. These images help her investigate the structure and composition of human microbiomes, a growing research area in biology. Slowly peeking through my fingers, I looked at the computer to see, well, a picture of the inside of my mouth.
And, yes, the image truly was gorgeous.
Mark Welch conducts her research at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., where I had the opportunity to attend the University of Chicago’s new September course, “Visualization and Biology: Science, Culture, and Representation.” In this History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science and Medicine (HIPS) course, my classmates and I explored the question: “How do scientific images get made?” Through ethnographic and archival research—as well as hands-on excursions with faculty experts—we unpacked this seemingly simple question, even producing scientific images of our own.
At MBL, Michael Rossi, associate professor of the history of medicine and science, introduced us to different researchers on campus and led us on excursions to local beaches to integrate hands-on research experiences with their theoretical and philosophical underpinnings. Over the course of three weeks, we collected marine specimens from a research boat, interviewed leading scholars, flipped through books dating from the 16th century, and made our own biological images. For our final project, we created short films analyzing an aspect of scientific visualization that we had explored throughout the course, gaining new insight into the challenges of producing accurate and informative images.
MBL’s tradition of welcoming researchers from across the globe played a key role in our studies. We made use of novel equipment in MBL’s laboratory spaces and spoke with researchers like Mark Welch and Abhishek Kumar, a microscopist with expertise in optical (light) microscopes. In Kumar’s lab, we learned how scientists use magnets to levitate their work tables! This helps minimize vibrations in order to observe organisms as small as worm embryos through a microscope. Looking through Kumar’s laser microscope, I was struck by the immense effort and time required to investigate tiny organisms. Mark Welch and Kumar’s presentations sparked my interest in exploring how and if scientists readjust themselves to miniature scales.
As I began researching my questions on changing scales, my classmates and I gained access to archived notebooks and early field drawings at MBL’s library, a building held firmly in the hearts of many distinguished scientists. The first time we visited the MBL library, we held in our hands the Nobel Prize medal awarded to Thomas Hunt Morgan, which was made of solid gold (and really heavy)! We then marveled at the details featured in the biological drawings we found from books aging as old as the 1550s.
As a third-year biological sciences major, I was new to approaching science from an ethnographic and historical perspective. During the second week of classes, we traveled to nearby beaches and explored MBL’s campus with guest lecturers. Beatrice Steinert, a graduate student at Harvard University, showed us her work on how biologists visualize embryonic development. She also screened her short film titled, “medium,” which explored how biologists use instruments to represent their research subjects. Her work gave us the inspiration we needed to develop our own short films, and I began to understand how I could think about the routine tasks in my biology labs, like looking at a sample on a slide, in new and interesting ways.
Later that week, we met Emily Gephart, a historian of art and visual culture of the United States at Tufts University. She led a field trip where we hiked through the sand dunes of Falmouth Beach and began filming scenes for our projects.
My favorite field trip was the afternoon we spent on Gemma, a specimen-collecting boat. As the boat plowed through the waters, the ship’s crew collected aquatic specimen using a small cylindrical filter. Even though the organisms they caught were small, the researchers made sure to make detailed preliminary observations. Sometimes the captain turned the entire boat around to gain access to more sunlight for the researchers to better see their samples. We also had the opportunity to participate in specimen collecting practices with a group of UChicago students taking Biodiversity and Genomics, another September course at MBL. During each of these trips, we interviewed the scientists and took footage of their practices as part of our participant-based research.
My classmates and I spent our final week at MBL filming and editing our final projects. During the day, we interviewed MBL’s scientists and animal caretakers and filmed scenes from around campus. At night, we often searched for bioluminescent organisms at a beach only a ten-minute walk away. If we waited long enough, we could make out glowing jellyfish and plankton drifting along the waves. When the night was free of clouds, the stars speckled the sky just as brightly as the glowing organisms in the water. When we weren’t on campus, we were most likely eating pies at a local coffee shop or watching humpback whales flick their tails to dive back into the ocean.
My final project investigated how scientists reconfigure their biological images in order to adjust for their subject’s change in scale. In the film, I hoped to show how scientists must balance many considerations when producing images, and how even the clearest rules are challenged or obscured when scientists have to work on tiny scales.
Throughout this course, I learned about the challenges scientists faced putting into words and images some of the strangest discoveries they had encountered. On tiny scales, even concepts like physical boundaries for inside vs. outside, an individual vs. a species, an original vs. a copy, are confounded. Biological mechanisms like respiration that I sometimes take for granted underwent years collaboration, doubts, and sketches. Before scientists can begin to teach their findings to others, they must first teach their findings to themselves. Biologists are life-long learners, and I, for one, can’t wait.
"Visualization and Biology" is the first HIPS course at the MBL. The remainder of the September courses at MBL are upper level biology electives. The new Spring Quarter at MBL is also now accepting applications. Deadline: December 1, 2019. See https://college.uchicago.edu/academics/mbl-spring-research-quarter for more information.