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Caught in the act!

June 18, 2014
Kylla Benes measuring fucus reproductive effort.

Kylla Benes measuring the reproductive effort of focus seaweed.

For our ‘Caught in the Act’ feature today, I found the lovely Kylla Benes measuring the reproductive effort of fucus seaweed. Kylla is in the middle of one of those experiments that addresses an important and straightforward question, but requires long stretches of tedious work (a fair description for most experiments, I’d say). Kylla collected seaweed from 20 quadrats and is measuring the size and relative proportions of reproductive sections on the seaweed. Kylla says today’s measurements will take two people about 6 hours to complete, and she is halfway through. Keep up the good work, Kylla!

Calling All Marine Scientists for the Ocean 180 Video Challenge

June 17, 2014

Let’s play a little game.

Without cheating (aka Wikipedia), can you name the 2014 Academy Award winners for best actor? How about best actress? What about the name of Kim and Kanye’s spawn? Beyonce and Jay-Z’s?

Now, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine? Chemistry? Physics?

I’d be willing to be that the vast majority of you had no trouble coming up with correct answers to the first four questions. I know this in the same way I know that the vast majority of you have no idea who won last year’s most prestigious awards in science.

This is not your fault. At all. You’d have to live under a rock not to know that Leonardo DiCaprio was passed over for an Oscar YET AGAIN. (Seriously people, isn’t it time?!). Or that celebrities continue to bestow their children with inexplicable names. Now you might have heard of Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, but only because their boson was splashed all over the news and rightfully so.

However, until 10 minutes ago when I looked them up, even I had never heard of James Rothman/Randy Schekman/Thomas Sudhof (Physiology/Medicine) or Martin Karplus/Michael Levitt/Arieh Warshel (Chemistry). And I’m theoretically a scientist (more or less). The first group discovered vesicle trafficking inside the cell. The second group figured out how to calculate the course of molecular chemical reactions. I had a college cell bio professor once tell me “life is molecules changing shape.” Ipso facto, these people are literally answering the questions of life! That’s what scientists do.

Unfortunately, scientists are also terrible at PR. It’s not that Nobel laureates aren’t interesting or that their work isn’t exciting. It’s just that no one ever talks about it! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, research for research’s sake is useless. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, its time to climb down from the ivory tower and make science accessible to everyone.

Enter The Ocean180 Video Challenge.

This contest is designed to connect marine research to the public. The added bonus of a cash prize never hurt anyone either. In an age when ocean health is deteriorating at an exponential rate, this type of communication is more important that ever. In a nutshell, this is an opportunity for marine scientists to share their research, to start a dialogue about various marine systems and why they are significant. We have the power to change the perception that science is boring or too technical. We have the ability to create a new culture in which the Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies are more popular than the Academy Awards. After all, aren’t coral reefs more interesting than Kardashians?

Caught in the Act! A wedding fit for a marine biologist

May 20, 2014

This past weekend, our very own MSC grad student Christine Newton tied the knot with fellow marine biologist Jason Ramsey. As the title of this post indicates, everything from the ceremony location to the tablecloths at the reception made it abundantly clear that two marine biologists were getting hitched.

Under a beachside gazebo in the coastal town of Narragansett, Rhode Island, with the bridal party adorned in ocean blue dresses and sea star earings, Chris and Jay read their self-written vows, in a short but moving ceremony.


The newlyweds pose for a photo following the ceremony

After the ceremony, the wedding party and the guests spent some time enjoying the coastal scenery and beautiful spring weather, before heading to the reception at a nearby farm. As we made our way inside, I was delighted (while undoubtedly non-marine biologist guests were confused) to see that the tables were labeled as genus names! And most appropriately, the genus names corresponded with the study organisms of the Bride and Groom: seaweed and sharks, respectively. Fellow blogger Kylla Benes and I were so thrilled that we high-fived upon finding out that we were assigned to the Fucus table – even though you might think we’d be sick of that particular genus of brown, canopy-forming seaweed by now….


I kept my table assignment rock and this Fucus table label…I am such a sucker for marine themed nicknacks…


Doesn’t that table cloth look adorned with seaweed? Or is it just me?

Other fun marine themed accents included a penguin and a shark in the place of the traditional bride and groom wedding cake toppers, floating candle holders filled with seaweed and sharks teeth, and table cloths that were very reminiscent of seaweed…although I may just be projecting my love of seaweed onto everything at this point.


Ace of Cakes: you’ve got nothin’ on the creator of this coastal-themed cake!

One thing is for certain, it was a truly a wedding fit for…not a king and queen…even better: marine biologists!

Congratulations to Chris and Jay!

Do you make decisions based on temperature? This crab does!

April 24, 2014

Have you ever spent a winter vacation on the warm, sunny beach and came back to the cold weather and thought, “I am definitely meant to be where it’s warm!” I think this feeling is common among us Northeasterners (especially after this winter’s polar vortex), but it’s certainly not universal across the animal kingdom.


The Jonah Crab – look familiar?

My recent article, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology and Ecology, addresses this question of temperature preference in the Jonah crab, Cancer borealis. This crab might sound or look familiar—we eat it, it’s a model organism for us neuroscientists, and you can probably find it on any rocky shore in New England. I became interested in how this animal responds to temperature after learning the activity of its nervous system can maintain precise rhythmic coordination over a large range of temperatures… and that acclimation to warmer temperatures increases the threshold temperature at which the nervous system “crashes” (more info here). I thought, “Ok, so it can withstand a lot of temperature stress, but at what temperature does it optimally function?”

Temperature preference in Cancer borealis

Results indicated that the temperature where the animal had been living (its acclimation temperature) significantly affected its preferred temperature. Warm acclimated crabs preferred warmer temperatures than cold acclimated crabs.


You can read more about my methods and results here, but in synopsis we learned this crab is thermotactic. It navigates away from extreme temperatures and towards a preferred temperature. We also learned that the ‘preferred temperature’, where its physiological function is presumably at its optimum, is around 16˚C. Finally, we discovered the preferred temperature is significantly affected by the temperature it had previously been living (i.e. cold acclimated crabs prefer warm waters, and warm acclimated crabs prefer even warmer waters).

We hope this research helps inform future research on the nervous system function of this model organism, and also provide some background information on the seasonal migration and catchability of this species as an emerging fishery in New England and Canada.

PS- If you were an early converter to this blog, this post IS a follow up to my posts on cool examples of thermotaxis and my sneak peek on the temperature gradient design used in this experiment! The experiment is DONE and the results are OUT! :) You can read more about my research here.

Caught in the act: RISE 2014

April 23, 2014

Earlier this month was Northeastern University’s Research Innovation and Scholarship Expo. Students from across all disciplines presented their work to the public. If you missed it, I recommend going next year where you can learn about everything from sustainable architecture to robotic bees (a personal favorite).

Here’s Lara (a fellow blogger and second from the left) at the event where she served as a judge:


She joined a team of judges who evaluated research presentations for a variety of academic awards.

Lara is also quite the researcher herself. She just published some cool research about how crabs adjust to water of different temperatures. Check it out here.

Three Cheers For…!

April 22, 2014

The past month has brought a lot of good news, recognition, and mile-stones for the hard-working graduate students here at the MSC.

First and foremost, a congratulations to a student who made it “across the finish line” and successfully defended their thesis. On April 11th, Catherine Matassa defended her PhD dissertation on how “Ecological context shapes the response of consumer to predation risk”.
Job well done!

Catherine celebrates the big day with her father and sister.

Catherine celebrates the big day with her father and sister.


Additionally, two graduate students just starting their path to dissertation, Alli Matzelle and Tanya Rogers, were awarded NSF graduate dissertation fellowships. Chris Baillie, Robert Murphy, Jessica Torossian, and former Three Seas student Barbara Spiecker all received honorable mentions.

Last but definitely not least, undergrad Benjamin Moran was awarded a NU Scholars Independent Research Fellowship to work in Dr. Bill Detrich’s lab this summer.

Congratulations to All!


Cash for Corals: Crowdfunding at the MSC

April 10, 2014

One major goal of this blog is to bring academia out of the ivory tower and into the public eye. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: researchers cannot exist in a vacuum. Scientific knowledge belongs to the world; it affects everyone and influences nearly every aspect of life. Now, before you start thinking I’m priming to champion some grad student socialist crusade, let me ask you for money…

Click here to help save the corals!

Due to the sorry state of this country’s discretionary budget, more and more researchers are turning to nonconventional funding sources to support their work. Enter crowdfunding. Although well established for charities and politics, crowdfunding for science is very new. It is also very exciting. Not only is crowdfunding a great way to raise money, but it is also an outreach opportunity, an innovative strategy for making research accessible to the public. Since we at the Marine Science Center pride ourselves on walking the bleeding edge of technology, it is only natural that we should dive (literally for this project) headfirst into this project. Now onto the details. The Vollmer Lab, led by Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn and Felicia Aronson, has started a campaign to fund our research in Panama. In a nutshell, we want to study a nasty disease that has devastated the populations of two very important coral species in the region.

palmata crowdfunding

I know all of you reading this are thinking and/or exclaiming to your computer screen, “Corals are about the coolest things ever! How can I learn more about this project and contribute to this exciting endeavor?!” I’m so glad you asked. Just visit this link to Sarah and Felicia’s campaign video and follow the instructions on the page. Seriously, any amount helps. You’re contributing to a very worthwhile cause. The corals thank you.



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