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October 4, 2013

On We Go


Lizzie Kripke   Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA

It’s kind of chilly out.  It’s October.  Summer is over.  Summer has been over.  I was supposed to post my “final report” to this blog over a month ago.

But over a month ago, on the last official day of my fellowship, I simply could not tap into my sense of finality because, well, it just didn’t exist.  And it still doesn’t exist.  But that’s just the nature of this art+science game.  Let me explain…

I’ve discussed in previous blog posts that my goal this summer was to trace specific nerves embedded in the skin of squid.  I started by looking at microscope images (data) that had been previously collected by others in my lab.  While these images were pretty good approximations of what I was trying to see, they did not get down to the level of detail that I really needed in order to resolve my scientific questions.  At that point, my project could have gone in two directions: (1) While the pre-existing data might not have been useful for scientific analysis, I could still glean enough information from it to develop a more artistic, educational visualization of the nerves in squid skin, or (2) I could generate new, more detailed data through scientific experimentation.  After trying to do both of these things for the first half of the summer, my boss decided that I needed to focus on executing just one of these things.  He, very reasonably, wanted to ensure a product would come out of my time in the lab.  So he urged me to work on the first of these options – an artistic visualization.  The second option, scientific experimentation, often results in failure, and because my time was limited, the risk would be too big that I would come away from my experimentation with nothing to show for myself at the end of the day

And that’s when I decided to take a risk.  Against my boss’s wishes, but with the support of my scientific mentor (who works under the same boss), I decided to continue experimentation.  While I would also continue developing my visualization, I would only devote part of my time toward it.

After a few weeks, it was the last official day of my fellowship, and I was pretty sure that my risk was not going to pay off.  The visualization simply wasn’t as finished as I wanted it to be – the clear result of me not focusing on what I was supposed to.  And my scientific experiment?  Well, that was the one thing that could save me.  And since it was an imaging experiment, I wouldn’t know if the experiment was a success or not until the very last hours, when I would finally be able to see my results through a microscope.

I’ll never forget those last few hours.  I was walking with my mentor to the microscope imaging room, totally absorbed in the relative gravity of the situation (‘Lizzie, this is it.  This is the difference between piteous head-nods goodbye or giddy, uncoordinated scientists toppling off their chairs in a radiant fluster of high fives.   This.  Is.  It.’) that I blatantly stomped into the wrong room.

“Oh whoops, that’s not the microscope room.  That’s the creepy old hallway with the out-of-place golden Confucius statue.”


And when I went to turn around, my mentor stopped me.  “Hang on,” he said, and, knowingly, plucked two pennies from his pocket.  He placed the pennies in the shiny, willing hands of ol’ Confucius, and then, swiftly, guided me once more to our real destination, the imaging room.

Moments later, the results of the experiment came in.

It was in that instant, for the first time in my life, that I found myself a befuddled, ecstatic, hands-clapping, shoes-untied scientist.  The experiment worked.  The experiment worked!

The experiment aimed at labeling and tracing nerves that ran along certain muscles.  So, if successful, we would look through the microscope and see blue lines running along muscle fibres.  What we actually saw when we looked through the microscope was a glowing network of blue lights, like stars strung together, flowing through microscopic space.  Nerves, in stunning clarity, as they effortlessly wove around each other, splitting and spiraling across the garden of cellular components that comprises squid skin.


Results from my experiment. Squid skin. Individual nerves labeled in blue.

This data answered some of my original questions coming into the summer, but what’s more, it laid the groundwork for further scientific experimentation, as well as for further refinement of my visualization (the thing I was supposed to be focusing on the whole time).  Instead of talking about how to wrap things up, we were talking about how to keep things going.  Could I keep visiting the lab throughout the semester?  What journals, scientific and artistic, should we start thinking about submitting to?  How close can we really get to shrinking ourselves down to one tenth of a micron and walking around inside the skin of a cephalopod?

It’s a curious pursuit, confronting  the limits of human knowledge and experience, but it’s just that – a pursuit.  And you just can’t write a “final report” for that sort of thing.

Oh!  By the way, Golden Confucius?  Here’s his plaque:

confucius plaque_edited

“This is a statue of Confucius, a gift to the Laboratory from Charles R Crane (1858-1939) who was Minister to China (1920)… and was presented by Charles R Cane in 1913… There is a Laboratory tradition to the effect that if one occasionally leaves a penny in Confucius’ hands for children to find, one’s experiment will be rewarding. If one offends Confucius, one’s work will only be fit for THE JOURNAL OF NEGATIVE RESULTS.”

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