GaLS (Girls Love STEAM)

Groups of middle and high school girls from the Bellefonte Area School District have visited the lab on multiple occasions. GaLS or ‘Girls Love STEAM’ is a program developed by librarian Naomi Rupert in conjunction with the State College Chapter of The AAUW and Discovery Space (A local children’s science museum). The students heard about transgenic organisms and looked at fluorescent fruit flies and had a ‘look’ at their DNA inside their own cell nuclei on a research grade microscope.


Arts & Design Research Incubator

The Penn State ADRI ‘Symposium on Arts + Health’  was a fun event that made connections between the arts and health related sciences. In a talk entitled ‘The Accidental Art of Cell Biology‘ I described how we use fluorescent microscopy to locate cellular components and how colour is central to both the detection and presentation of this data.

Detection colour is, of course, dictated by rigorous physical/optical principles, but data presentation is generally in a ‘false-colour’ space where investigators make aesthetic choices about how best to show their cells and the relationship between the things that they observe within them. Between the selection/framing of cells and the colour choices that scientists make, I argued that although Cell Biologists are not trained as artists, we are nonetheless producing a personal expression of our data that might just be considered a form of ‘art’!

Biology 230 tutorials

Several years ago, we developed a set of tutorials for an introductory Cell and Molecular Biology course (Biology 230W). Authored by Dr. Esther Siegfried, these have always been publicly available. They were designed to deliver a core set of concepts, not to be a comprehensive textbook—somewhere between a 100 level general Biology course and where we would end up at the end of semester in Biol 230. Check them out here and feel free to use them.

Just for fun

I have always delighted in the humor and nerdy fun to be had in science. Here are a few highlights that have proven popular with friends, colleagues, and students over the years…

The ‘forget-me-blot’

Back in the dim dark days when Southern Blots were state of the art, if you did enough of them you would see some interesting (mostly unexplained artifacts). Around this time the molecular biology supply company BRL used to publish a technical bulletin called  ‘Focus’. Here is a letter to the editor that I submitted that concerns two examples. If you’ve never done a Southern Blot and probed it with a 32P-labeled DNA, it is essential to know that detection at the time was by autoradiography wherein the blot was pressed against film to visualize the bands in a -70oC freezer for as many days as it took. I propose a theory…..but it was mainly an excuse for a great pun. I was subsequently contacted by an anxious forensic scientist in California to make sure that this was a joke. 🙃 Rest assured that it is. Enjoy!

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Writing in a gel with DNA

I created this gel for my final lab meeting of my first postdoc at Wash. U. Copying the way a digital display creates letters, I gel purified different size band groups from a marker ladder then recombined them as needed to create the letters. Otherwise it’s self explanatory. My PI, Dr. Sarah Elgin, continued to use the image for several years to end her seminars.

The naming of karst

I am sometimes asked how I named the βHeavy-spectrin locus ‘karst‘. There is a long tradition of naming genes in Drosophila based on the appearance of their mutant phenotypes or genetic/molecular interactions in some way that elicits that phenotype.  The most distinctive phenotype of a karst mutant fly can be its rough eye that is characterized by loss of some ommatidia that fall into the brain leaving flat patches on the surface. I also  wanted to use a geographical or geological term in honour of my father who was a Geomorphologist. So, I scoured the globe for images of landforms that resembled these mutant eyes and found a place that had a startling resemblance to the karst eyes in the Chocolate Hills of the Philippines. These were an example of a karst landscape: Specific topologies associated with limestone, dolomite, and gypsum (wikipedia). Some of the most famous karst landscapes are characterized by domed hills surrounded by flat valleys, such as the mountains of Guilin in the Guangxi region of China….and the Chocolate Hills. It was perfect!! An SEM image taken at a low angle that was used on the cover of Development is particularly effective at showing off this resemblance.

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The Charge of the Flight Brigade

My graduate student Dr. Matt Philips and I wrote this parody of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (about an ill-fated cavalry charge in the Crimean War on On 25 October 1854) in response to a posting on an old (mid-noughties!) Drosophila message board. The posting sought fly strains that had been caught in the Crimean Peninsula.

Half a vial, half a vial,
Half a vial downward,
All in the bottle of Death
Flew the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Flight Brigade!
Charge for the cotton!’ he said:
Into the bottle of Death
Flew the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Flight Brigade!’
Was there a fly dismay’d?
Not tho’ the larvae knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to breed and die:
Into the bottle of Death
Flew the six hundred.

Ether to right of them,
Ether to left of them,
Ether in front of them
Volatilized and slumber’d;
Pursued with swat and smell,
Boldly they flew and well,
Into the bottle of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Flew the six hundred.

Flash’d all their wings bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Surprising the PI there,
Charging the Academe, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the ether-smoke
Right thro’ the cotton they broke;
Student and Postdoc
Reel’d from the ethers’ choke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they flew away, but not
Not the six hundred.

Ether to right of them,
Ether to left of them,
Ether behind them
Volatilized and slumber’d;
Pursued with swat and smell,
white male and female fell,
They that had flown so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Away from the bottle of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Flight Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

This parody was first presented as a reply on the message board, then in poster form at a Drosophila Conference. It was on FlyBase for some time, and now lives on in print in Drosophila Information Service (1999) 82;viii-ix (view PDF). The background used for the original poster is taken from the painting of the charge in 1894 by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.

Flies in Shakespeare

The great geneticist Dr. Barbara McClintock is widely quoted as having advised that an experimental scientist working in a model organism should have “a feeling for the organism”. Wise words indeed. For us this includes knowing all the times that the work ‘fly’ is mentioned in Shakespeare’s works! This list was compiled by one of my undergraduates, now Chief Bioscientist at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Dr. Jayatri Das.

Fly. good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Macbeth iii 3, 17
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Hamlet iii 3, 97
Fly this place. King Lear ii 1, 22
Light, ho, here! Fly, brother. King Lear ii 1, 34
I have but killed a fly.
“But?” How, if that fly had a father and mother?…
Poor harmless fly….
Pardon me, sir, it was a black ill-favour’d fly.
Titus Andronicus ill 2, 59-77
Fly, and make your peace with Caesar. Antony and Cleopatra iii 11, 5
Bid them all fly. Antony and Cleopatra iv 12, 15
And, fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee. 2 Henry VI ii 4, 55
Slaves of chance and flies of every wind that blows… Winter’s Tale iv 4, 551
‘Fly pride,’ says the peacock. Comedy of Errors iv 3, 81
How will you live?
As birds do, mother.
What, with worms and flies?
Macbeth iv 2, 32
The great man down, you mark his favorite flies. Hamlet iii 2, 214
What has he done, to make him fly the land? Macbeth iv 2, 1
Our valor is to chase what flies. Cymbeline ii 3, 42
Plague him with flies. Othello i 1, 71
That we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies…. Romeo and Juliet ii 4, 34

LGBTQ+ Look up tables (LUTS)

In the ASCB LGBTQ+ Committee’s celebration of Pride 2023 I created a series of pride flag-based lookup tables to recolour your favorite grayscale images. Instructions and LUTs can be downloaded here. Tag with #LUTs2Love and TAG the committee @celllgbtq so we can find your artwork!

Here’s an  example using an immunofluorescent image of a fly embryo to start with:

Thought for the day

I have collected a selection of quotes or ‘laws’ of science that either make a point, are funny, or reflect the general frustration of being a scientist and working in a lab. I have generally shown these at the start of a class period. Feel free to download and use these and/or send me more for the collection.

Thomas Laboratory coat of arms. The lating motto is ego debeo non somnus in ablay congressus
The logo for the US National Science Foundation
Inclusive science version of a 100% Sign (100percentsign.org)
Logo for the Penn State Rainbow Science Network