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August 1, 2013

Slimy, Nervous Tracing


Lizzie Kripke   Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA

One of the best things about working in Woods Hole during the summer is that when you’re not working in the lab, you’re probably at a nearby beach.  There’s nothing quite like finishing a day of microscopes and cleanliness with shoulders planted in the sand, inviting Cape Cod’s gentle breeze to turn the pages of your salt-caked book.

Of course, as summer goes on, this behavior inevitably leads to fat clumps of sand clogging your shower drain.  And if, like me, you share a bathroom with a few other beachgoers – the long-haired, lady scientist kind – your toes will begin to make regular company with a soggy hairy pellet friend every time you take a shower.

Now, venture with me as on a humid day in late July, you think it’s a good idea to pick up that gooping chunk of hair n’ things and bring it near to your face.  You start to examine it carefully.  Is it possible to classify its different contents?  Is that a strand of hair?  Perhaps sand?  Maybe just general grime bits?  And as you attempt to parse out the individual hairs and trace their tangled pathways (hey, maybe you even try to match each strand to its original housemate!), it dawns on you that the sheer act of looking – and I mean, really looking closely – at this ordinary drain creature somehow brings you to a deeper connection with the tangible, orderly chaos that underlies our everyday lives.

This summer, I find myself examining the skin of squid.   Relative to a wad of drain muck, squid is surprisingly more slippery, far more motile, and its odor of rotting fish is markedly more pronounced.  Squid are readily found in the coastal waters off New England, and frequently make appearances on nearby restaurant menus and popular TV shows.

In other words, I have seen squid plenty of times, but it was not until I first started examining them – and I mean, really looking closely – that I became enthralled with the swarming, intricate curiosities embedded in this common marine form.

My current affair with squid finds me lost in microscope images of their skin.  The aim is to understand and trace certain hair-like structures, called nerves, which in some unknown way network together and bestow this organism with its unmatched ability to manipulate the color of its skin.


As it turns out, doing this is a lot like making sense of the individual hairs and debris embedded in our familiar little hunk of drain slop.  You’ll get a sense from the image below about why this is such a daunting, and largely unattempted, task.

To sort through such messy complexity, science often works by isolating and reducing things.  So, when trying to map nerves, it is useful to develop staining methods that exclusively trace out the nerves and differentiate them from other neighboring biological structures.  Our current methods of staining have only done this in part.  Another additional challenge is that these microscope images are really just two-dimensional slices of what is really a three-dimensional structure.  In other words, I must piece together two-dimensional information in order to comprehend a three-dimensional form (1).

Confronting visual complexity and dancing between multiple dimensions, however, is absolutely captivating for me – as, I suspect, is the case for many a RISD student.  In fact, it was the realization that I could do this in both studio art and neuroscience that initially motivated me to simultaneously pursue the two.

And so, happily, I look – and I mean, really look – at these tiny parcels of squid skin.  Right now, I see a disorienting corner of the world that is little understood.   But I keep watching.  Keep looking.  There’s divine order there, ripe for discovery.

I keep looking.


Microscope image of squid skin. This is a small portion of one of the data sets I am currently analyzing.

(1) Nerves change their shape and activity over time, so, ultimately, they must be considered in greater than three dimensions.

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