Mark was off on business in Cali this week and he left Amalie and me an assignment: Extract DNA from the leeches of which I was able to take clear pictures of the caudal ray, then run PCR using CO1AB, COIII, 12S, 18S, and 28S, create agarose gels, and nanodrop. To a non scientist, or a new one, this sounds like gibberish and when I was told to do it, it sounded to me like abstract, semi-English. I could not fathom how much time it would actually take because I didn’t know the exact steps that would need to go into the entire process.
First things first, before extracting DNA from the leeches, I needed to make sure I had clear documentation of their caudal rays, or the lines on the sucker that all meet in the middle, kind of like the top of an umbrella. Then, in order to extract DNA, I had to cut off a piece of the caudal ray about the size of a 12 font period. This piece goes into digestive enzyme and thus begins the long process that results in DNA sequences.
I have to say, repetition is quite the way to learn. It gives one no choice. After a week of full days of lab work, I can finally provide an outsider with a full explanation of what I do in the lab and receive a genuine blank stare in return.
I’ve become acquainted with Amalie, a 17-year-old student who has been working with Mark for two and a half years. She is a pro in the lab and such a sweetheart in general. From her confidence on the first day I met her, I could have sworn she was twenty-five. After managing to recover an old iMac with a new hard-drive, Mark and I surprised Amalie with a good-as-new computer. We put together a spreadsheet of the miscellaneous leeches, recording every piece of information we could find. Thus began my first big project: categorizing the “back-log” of leeches that Mark says has been sitting around for years.
Mark told me to chart the code name of the specimen(s) as labeled on the jar, then to use the scope and Nikon to find several parts of the leeches and take images of them. If more than one leech is in a jar, I record how many and make sure they are all the same species by observing discerning features such as the pattern on their dorsal side, and the numbers of eyes, annulates between nephridiopores, and rays on the caudal sucker. It’s been surprisingly rewarding taking photo after photo, noticing the differences between characteristics of different leeches. It’s repetitive in a good way–I’ve become so comfortable with the leeches that I’ve gone a little nuts. I’ll pull one out that’s been sitting in ethanol for twenty years and I’ll start talking to it. “You’re not lookin’ so hot there,” I find myself saying out loud. “Don’t be shy. Show me your gonopore.”
I’m taking a two-day CT (x-ray computed tomography) 101 course taught by a graduate student split up between yesterday and today. The voluntary 4 hour course originally designed just for the REUs was filled with what seemed to be the entire Richard Guilder Graduate School. Mark had already planned to set me up on a CT project before I had even heard that the course was being offered. To make a long story short, the scanner works by sending x-rays through a sample and the differing densities of the parts of the sample allow certain molecules to penetrate better than others. Eventually, reconstruction of the many 2-D image angles is done to create a 3-D image which can be looked at from any angle and taken apart piece by piece.
I will be scanning leeches that are too tiny to dissect and I will analyze them in bread-slice images--the reconstructed image can be seen in about 1,000 bread-slice images–and from those, Mark wants me to try to draw how the anatomy actually looks 3-dimensionally. It sounds like quite the task, and I’m stoked to take on the challenge.
After spending many hours slicing and dicing leeches on Thursday I saw gonopores, guts, and goo when I closed my eyes to go to bed at night. I couldn’t wait to do it all over again the next day, and sure enough I spent my Friday expanding my understanding of the leech anatomy. Dr. Kvist gave me a fancy hardcover lab notebook to take down notes and we took more images with the Nikon.
An enthusiastic Dr. Tyson provided 18 bottles of wine, explaining their flavors and countries of origin, as well as several bowls of bread, carrots and a platter of cheese. He made all the REUs feel welcome, cracking jokes and teasing us. What an experience.
So Dr. Seb Kvist was excited to tell me some good news as soon as I walked in the door today. He told me that he had run into some people who worked a science gallery so he dropped them my name… and they said they would be interested in talking to me and perhaps offering me an internship in the future (!!!)
He handed me their (fancy shmancy) business card and I saw that they’re located in Ireland. My summer has been getting more and more awesome by the second.
I’d been excited by the idea of dissections forever, yet somehow, I’d never had the opportunity to do one until today. I was worried that I was more enamored by the idea of dissection than actually cutting through flesh and guts, and when I saw the leeches that I was about to operate on, I lost confidence for a moment. What if I’d gotten in way too over my head? What if I wasn’t emotionally stable enough to do something this nasty? But then I decided that I was going to be the best small-scale surgeon I could be and impress myself with my work. I would look at the leech like a piece of artwork and make the incisions as beautiful as possible.
Seb told me to take a flat hirudo verbana out of the jar with a pair of forceps. Right away I dove on in, dipping my bare hands into the putrid smelling ethanol to select the perfect victim. Sebastian was impressed. I was glad I didn’t vomit or pass out. He first told me to cut an incision through the mouth to find the three jaws and locate the teeth. He told me to look through the dissection scope at the pattern of annulation (segmentation), to locate the rays of the sucker, the eyespots, the gonopores and on and on, patiently letting me search and congratulating me on my every little success. He walked me through each step of cutting through the insides of the leech and continually told me how well I was doing. I had an absolute blast. I felt like I was creating art, cutting perfect incisions, removing spiraling pink and white guts, (well I thought it was pretty…jeez) and 5 hours flew past. We took pictures to record every step of the process.
“How does is feel to know more about leeches than most of the other people in the world?” Seb inquired during lunch.
I’ll admit that I’m surprised I could ever find such enormous satisfaction in something so random and geeky as knifing open a leech.
When I heard that I’d been accepted for an R.E.U.(research experience for undergraduates) as an advisee of Dr. Mark Siddall in the department of Invertebrate Zoology, I was absolutely enthralled. I did a bit of googling/online stalking and discovered that Dr. Siddall, “The Leech Man,” is THE man in general… and then, when my Clark biology advisor, Dr. Susan Foster, pointed out to me that he in fact created an artsy biological exhibit at the museum, I realized that I had been chosen by the absolute perfect mentor. Many times have I tried to explain to people that there are many connections between art and biology–a belief I still hold strongly–yet, I’ve always struggled to explain in words just what those connections are. Perhaps after this summer I will finally gather proof.
Yesterday, Dr. Sebastian Kvist (who successfully defended his dissertation 5 days ago at the Richard Guilder Graduate School’s first Ph.D. defense) warmly and enthusiastically welcomed me as his new coworker. He greeted me at the museum entrance and led me straight past the security check through the familiar lobby of the museum. But this time, I wasn’t just a child on an elementary school field trip. We took an enormous freight elevator (big enough to carry an elephant, literally) up, up, up above the… well, museum part of the museum. We stepped out into “the second longest hallway after one in the Pentagon,” lined from beginning to end with locker upon locker of specimens. The museum houses millions, and these were just a taste.
Seb showed me the desk I’ll be sitting at, complete with a couple books, several jars of preserved leech species, an enormous Mac desktop computer, and 6 boxes of girl scout cookies that Dr. Siddall generously left for his new intern. He just gets cooler and cooler. Then Seb introduced me to my new best friends: dissection equipment, a microscope hooked up to a Nikon digital camera hooked up to a computer, and the lab filled with super nerdy, high-tech, and expensive genetic analysis machinery including a pyrosequencing machine.
Then he brought me through a maze of specimens toward a large metal box containing his “favorite,” and he prepared me for the stench of a “fish martini.” Inside was an enormous preserved octopus. He showed me its eyeball and the humanness of it was creepy. “People always are shocked by the size of that thing,” he said, as he escorted me to a box at least 10 times its size and asked me for assistance opening the lid. A huge whiff of alcohol blew up my nose into my brain and I wasn’t sure if the 20-foot giant squid that I saw actually lay before me. Seb scooped up one of its enormous tentacles and told me to feel the teeth on its suction cup. He told me that the giant squid likely has the strongest bite of all organisms in existence–Giant Squidward needs to chew his food really well so he doesn’t harm his brain, which happens to be wrapped around his stomach. I was aware that evolution could do some crazy things, but this? Who knew?
For tomorrow, I’ve been instructed to start tearing open leeches with the dissection equipment and to play Where’s Waldo with a list of body parts that Dr. Siddallcreated for me. I’ve never been more excited to begin an assignment, and I’ve never felt nerdier.
Over the past couple of years at Clark, I’ve realized that not only am I an artist but I am an artistic thinker. I’m a visual learner and I remember details and faces. I don’t need absolute logical answers to be satisfied and I’m happy thinking abstractly. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time pondering philosophical life questions: why am I here? Who or what put me on this earth? Is what I see real or an illusion? Like all happy children, I spent the first part of my life playing all the time, with full acceptance of my surroundings. But inevitably I learned about the more complex things in life as I grew up, and now I look at the world through completely new eyes. I still long to play as much as I can, but to be happy and motivated enough to do so I find myself looking for answers to my philosophical questions that have personal value for me.
In my 20 year adventure through life I’ve come to the realization that I will not be satisfied purely as a creator. I love to make art, to write and to read, but my creative capacity will be limited if I don’t continually educate myself about what already existsâ€”what I cannot invent or alter myself. And that is why I decided to not only major in Studio Art at Clark, but to double up in Biology.
This summer, I have the internship of my dreams. I will be working with Dr. Mark Siddall at the Richard Guilder Graduate School at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, doing research on terrestrial leeches. The LEEP project brought to me a whole new outlook on the research I’ll be doing. Not only will I learn about the biological side of leeches (the morphology of their blood-sucking mechanisms, phylogenies, etc.) but I plan to incorporate an artistic aspect as well.
I recently purchased a brand new Nikon D5100. When I say recently I mean a couple weeks ago, and I’m still too intimidated to open to box. I’ve never taken a digital photography class before but I’m confident that my excitement about plus some advice from a few professionals will be all I need to be successful.
Throughout this summer at the museum as well as over the next couple of years, I plan to explore and uncover the artsy side of biology in order to create a visual exhibit that draws the interest of non-artists to biology and of scientists to art.