TOAD Talk: Lessons from the Lab

Heather Grant, IS2 and Advanced Biology teacher, shares a few of the lessons she learned while on sabbatical during the 2021-2022 school year. 
While this is my 17th year at Thacher, it also actually feels like my first because last year I was on sabbatical, living with my family in Woods Hole, MA—a small village in Cape Cod. Sabbatical is an amazing opportunity that Thacher provides its full-time teaching faculty to take a full year off to do something radically different from teaching and living at a boarding school. While I had lots of ideas for this year, I still kind of can’t believe that I got to live in what is a world-renowned center for biological research and ocean science and that I got to be a member of an active research lab for the year. Three days a week I volunteered in Loretta Roberson’s lab at the Marine Biological Laboratories where the core of Dr. Roberson’s research is focused on two main projects: algae and coral. 

So today I’m going to tell you two things I learned about coral and research that relate to everyday life, even if you’re not a research scientist or if you don’t think that corals are inherently fascinating.

So first thing, for just a moment, I want to think about a time when you attempted something that felt utterly impossible at first—maybe a task that felt insurmountable, a problem that seemed too tricky to solve, or a trail that was just one endless switchback for miles upon miles but you did it anyway. Everyone have some examples in mind? Okay, good.

My sabbatical year was just jam-packed with new, challenging experiences—here’s what I learned about tackling seemingly insurmountable challenges in the lab:

Part of the research project I did used a very large, very technical, very expensive microscope that has lasers of different wavelengths to illuminate samples. After our first trip to the microscope it was clear we needed to adjust our protocol because the laser was so intense it killed the coral—just burned it right down to the skeleton. So, we developed a new idea. What if we just trimmed off one tentacle and imaged that. The tentacle would be lost, but it would protect the rest of the coral and allow the experiment to continue. The tricky part is that coral tentacles are tiny and translucent—like 1/3 of a grain of rice. And I had to prepare them by soaking them a dye and then rinsing them off three times with distilled water before putting them on a microscope slide. This all felt hard, but the part that felt impossible was all of this needed to happen in the dark. I’ll save you the technical details, but the logistics had me totally stressed out. Throughout the process Mayra Sanchez-Garcia, the manager of Loretta’s lab, was there to help me and we’d problem solve together when things didn’t work out. I would be preparing each new sample as Mayra would work her magic with the fancy microscope and, in the end, we got it done. 

So my advice when you’re tackling something terrifying and impossible:
  1. Recognize the terror. Pretending that it’s not hard might prevent you from figuring out the challenge itself.
  2. Identify a mentor. Choose someone who will balance out your strengths with their own. I was just so lucky to have Mayra helping me with the project.
  3. When you do figure it out or get through the challenge, celebrate that and really dwell in the accomplishment, this is something that we tend to skip in our busy lives at Thacher.
I think we could all agree that doing hard things takes strength. Now I want you to think of the strongest person or thing you know. Imagine what makes it strong, why you thought of it as an example of strength, and how that strength makes you feel about that person/thing. Everyone have some examples of strength in mind? Okay, good.

Now I’ll share what coral taught me about strength. One of the less exciting but probably most important parts of my research involved just keeping the corals alive during the course of the treatment.

One of the most time consuming parts is cleaning algae from their bodies. If this isn’t done, algae will grow over the coral and smother it to death. The cleaning process involves using dental tools and forceps and teeny tiny scissors to scrape and trim the algae away from the coral. It was very satisfying and also, sometimes, nerve wracking because some of the corals were so tiny that just holding them applied enough pressure to break their skeletons. The first time I did this, I was sure I killed the sample. I’d like to pretend that I got better at cleaning the corals and stopped breaking their skeletons, but I’m not sure that’s actually true. At first I was convinced that I was doing more harm than good—what good is a clean coral with a broken skeleton! But...I was wrong. I misjudged these little polyps. Broken skeletons or even the time I ripped a polyp in two just provided an opportunity for regeneration--and corals are really, really good at that. And when I got covid and couldn’t come into the lab to clean the corals for two weeks--the algae killed 50% of them, so keeping them clean was really important. 

So the lessons I learned here:
  1. What assumptions are you making about what is hard or easy for others (coral or humans)? Like how I misjudged what might be harmful for the coral, what is good or easy for you might be bad or hard for someone else and their experience is just as valid as your own.
  2. How do you measure strength? Again, I was totally wrong with my idea of the coral and I know that having a broader definition of strength is valuable for us as a community. 

Combining those two lessons, when someone is tackling an impossibly difficult thing and they share that struggle with you, believe them, collaborate with them, and celebrate their victories even when (and maybe especially when) those victories might look very different from your own.

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