Friday, May 15, 2015

In the lab

I remembered how to do my own lab work this week. It was so nice to sit in lab and pipette, without students interrupting and asking questions, without having to run off to a meeting, and with all of the equipment and reagents I needed. I was productive!

I successfully troubleshooted some RACE PCRs that we need for some summer fieldwork. Yeah.

And I did my first Western Blot. Now, at this point one might think that I should have already done a Western. But alas, I came into molecular biology from, well, ecology, so I skipped the requisite western done in a molecular biology teaching lab. Besides, I can detect changes in gene expression using RT-qPCR, whole mount in situ hybridizations, fluorescent and histochemical immunostains. Why use more techniques?

In this case, the answer is because the antibodies aren't good enough for immunostaining in cells, tissues or the organism. So, I got to learn Westerns.  And the best part is that, though preliminary, it looks like I was able to knock down a gene in corals! Fabulous... now to be able to repeat it!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Close of Class

So maybe my silence this semester was in part due to the fact that I taught my first full class. Or maybe not... either way I learned a lot about how I like (and don't like) to teach.

Step 1) Choose a great topic. Done.  Ecological Developmental Biology.  What a great thing to discuss! We dove into fascinating ideas and hypotheses that spanned multiple biological disciplines. How do new phenotypes come about? What determines an individual's fitness? Is everything that determines who we are really in the genome?

Step 2) Teach with people you like.  Done.  I got to co-teach the course with Dr. Henry John-Alder, the chair of the Ecology and Evolution Department. As a seasoned vet at teaching, I felt comfortable diving into a new course - my first new course. He also knew all of the endocrinology that I glaze over.

Step 3) Let the learning begin... hum. My goals for the course were not to memorize content or understand the mechanics of gene expression. My goals for the course were more a change in perspective - introducing a new way of thinking about old problems. The environment doesn't just work as an agent of SELECTION on existing variation, it can also contribute to CREATING VARIATION.  While an amputated limb will not be inherited between generations, there are some traits acquired within a lifespan that CAN be inherited. The genome is a set of bases (ATGC) that serves as a starting point for something more dynamic - the development of an individual - with methylation, acetylation, transcription factor binding, microRNAs, long RNAs, and a mix of other things we don't even know about yet.

How do we teach new perspectives? Pedagogically, I don't know the answer. Our approach, right or wrong, was exposure followed by synthesis and application to their own research areas. I think some of it may have actually worked.

Step 4) Wait in the silence. A discussion based course requires, well... discussion. It is easy for us professors to fill any silence by listening to ourselves talk.  Oh, how professors love to listen to themselves!  It took me a while to accept the silence and wait for a student to fill it. But by the end, we had some excellent discussions that convinced me that the students were actually listening, reading and learning throughout the semester!

Step 5)  What I think we (or at least I) failed on was teaching some of the non-technical skills - presentations, writing summaries, meeting deadlines, promptness. Throughout the semester, these were things that drove me crazy... and I enabled. Any student reading this -- for all future courses, a deadline is a deadline. Miss it and I might not accept the assignment or I might dock a grade.  Why should I have do something on the weekend or at night because you missed your deadline? No more.  On a more positive note, tips and tricks for writing and presenting will become part of all future courses as well. Feedback, feedback, feedback.  I think having a multi-step final paper/proposal with drafts that received extensive feedback was valuable to everyone involved.

Step 6) A glass of wine to read through the final products of a good semester.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

With Honors

The end of the academic year is a crazy time with tests, essays, pomp and circumstance. We are saying goodbye to three of our undergraduate researchers.  Two of which were my first undergraduate researchers - Angela Coccagna and Christian DiLiberto. They both accomplished a lot - generating research results that will be included in future publications - Angela contribute to a manuscript on the evolution of phenotypic plasticity and Christian contributed to a manuscript on the role of Wnt signaling in urchin plasticity.

Christian made a huge commitment by doing a Seniors Honors Thesis. This means different things in different universities, schools within Rutgers, and departments. Christian did his in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MBB) - a tough department that also ranks the honors - No Honors, Honors, High Honors, and Highest Honors. Highest Honors is usually reserved for students who have done 3-4 years of laboratory research and generated a paper... and yes, many of the Seniors Honors students in MBB did 3-4 years of undergraduate research in a single lab.  Despite this, and the potential handicap of doing research in a Marine and Coastal Science Lab (aka the Adams LaRVAE Lab), Christian was awarded second place for best Senior Honors Thesis!  WELL DONE, Christian! 

We're very proud of all of our students. With three leaving and another taking a semester off, we are sad... we'll have to try to find more great people at Rutgers to join the lab.  Congrats, Seniors!  Best of Luck.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Welcome Colette!

Although the time will be short, we're very excited to have recently minted Dr. Colette Feehan join the lab this summer as a postdoc. Dr. Feehan is an expert in disease as a driver of marine community dynamics. Her PhD thesis focused on sea urchin disease in Nova Scotian kelp forests. She is a prolific scientist with more than 10 publications before she even got her PhD!

This summer, she'll be leading a new project in the Florida Keys investigating the barriers that are preventing the recovery of Diadema. Diadema is a sea urchin that was wiped out by disease the 1980s (when I was 3!) and again in the early 1990s. The demise of sea urchins has been blamed for an increase of algae on reefs that are out-competing and killing corals. Managers and vacationers, who want to see beautiful coral instead of algae, are very interested in facilitating the recovery of Diadema. Hopefully, the results of our research can help both the public and government understand how to do this successfully.