Cell Studies Continue at the Lillie Library

Since the physical Library at MBL is closed, the Library staff has been working hard to get Woods Hole scientists the materials that they need to support their research. In addition, there are two graduate students form Arizona State University working in Woods Hole and making use of Library resources in different ways.

Some scientists are interested in making a cyborg cell, hybrid cells with living and artificial parts. Before you can make a cyborg cell, you need to be confident in your definition of a regular cell. Think of some familiar cells: a neuron is a cell that conducts electrical signals in your brain; Escherichia coli is a cell that can make you sick when it’s on your lettuce; a cancer cell is a cell that grows and divides abnormally. If all those different things are cells, what really counts as a cell? Is E. coli more of a cell than a neuron? What are the most important features of a cell if cells look and act so differently from one another? Saying exactly what a cell is is made more difficult by the fact that ideas about the cell and its features have changed throughout history. Those past ideas shape, often invisibly, what scientists think about cells today. In order to get a better idea of what a cell is, we need to look at what cells have been and why.  

One graduate student is on the case. Anna Clemencia Guerrero usually studies the history of biofilm research as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Arizona State University. Since August 2020, she has been studying the history of cell biology at the MBL. From a Library office, Anna spends her days hunting for important historical images of cells. Why images? For a long time, images were the only way that researchers could experience and learn about cells. With images, Guerrero can explore not only what researchers knew about cells, but how they knew and why they wanted to know. Why did scientists start looking at and drawing cells in the first place? What methods did scientists use to “represent” cells in images? Since images often become iconic, they tend to guide scientists’ future ideas and research. How did these image-driven ideas develop to lead us to modern ideas about the cell? How did image-driven ideas make modern scientists want to create cyborg cells? Along with her mentors, Jane Maienschein and Karl Matlin, and MBLWHOI Library Co-Director Jen Walton, Guerrero will eventually create an art installation for the MBL Lillie Library. This installation will explore the visual history of cell research, and how that history might inform modern-day research on creating cyborg cells. 

If you want to read more about the project, please visit: https://social.mbl.edu/maienschein-lab-receives-nsf-award-to-study-history-of-cell-biology-and-images. In addition to NSF funding, the historical work is supported by a grant from the Webster Foundation to Maienschein and Matlin.

The physical journal stacks hold a wealth of scientific literature going back to the eighteenth century. Digitizing journals has made it easy for scientists to access that information during the pandemic but it has also allowed researchers to look at the literature in new ways. Shane Jinson is a Ph.D. student in the Biology and Society program at ASU working with the Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative (GBCI) through the School of Life Sciences. Shane is using computational tools to analyze the Biological Bulletin corpus. The Biological Bulletin was published by MBL from 1900 to 2016 when it transferred to the University of Chicago Press. The Biological Bulletin has never limited their publishing to solely MBL’s research but was intended to cover a wide scope of science. Data analysis across a corpus journal using computational tools allows for the examination of both the content and the text over time opening up new lines of inquiry.

Shane has worked at MBL in a number of positions. He previously worked at MBL as a Research Assistant in the Mathger Lab. He has worked with the MBL Embryology Course as a coordinator and education assistant. Shane also gives fantastic tours of the Woods Hole Cemetery for the MBL courses. When it became clear that the fall semester was going virtual at ASU, Shane decided to come back to Wood Hole to be closer to family and his research. Shane’s research has several ongoing projects connected to Woods Hole using his abilities as a communication facilitator and historian combined with computational analysis to analyze research over time.

Image source: Sedgwick, William T. and E.B Wilson. General Biology. New York, H. Holt and Co., 1886 p.53.

by Jen Walton