Undergrad charts own path in scientific quest
For her honors thesis project, Beatrice Steinert set out to recreate a 19th century experiment by the embryologist Edwin Grant Conklin, to collect, study and sketch the embryonic developmental stages of Crepidula fornicata, commonly known as the slipper snail.
Beachgoers typically spot the species’ arched shells — often stacked on top of each other — along the Rhode Island coast.
The 22-year-old Steinert, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says the project drew on both her fascination with how organisms grow from a single cell to complicated beings and methods of how we visualize the process.
“Before the widespread integration of photography into the field, if you wanted to study embryogenesis, the process by which organisms transform from a single fertilized egg into their adult form, you had to be able to draw to see development,” Steinert explains. “Drawing was crucial for recording various stages and played a huge role in observation itself.”
She literally followed in Conklin’s footsteps, first during her internship last summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., where he conducted his study, and then taking a trip for archival research to Princeton University, where Conklin was the first full-time head of the biology department. There, she found many of Conklin’s notes and drawings for his study of Crepidula embryos.
Steinert’s mission was equal parts complicated and a path chartered into the unknown. She knew what she wanted to do, but found no instructions to follow. Her advisor’s research focuses on fruit fly embryos, which bore little similarity to those of the marine snail. She faced many unanticipated challenges, the least of which was mastering the dexterity to work with such small, delicate objects.
Yet, rather than retreat, Steinert blazed her own trail, something she learned to do during her RI EPSCoR 2014 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at Rhode Island School of Design. The project — Can novel representations of living marine plankton foster public interest in and understanding of marine ecosystems? — came without a defined set of outcomes.
“We were being asked to approach these organisms and tools used in science, but with no preconceptions of what we were supposed to get out of it or what we were supposed to see,” recalls Steinert. “That was a really important part of my being able to ask a wide range questions and to break down my own assumptions of how science works and what it means to be a scientist.”
The fellowship was unlike anything she had encountered in science labs, where students are typically instructed precisely how to proceed on preordained steps and generate specific results. Steinert and Noah Schlottman, also a Brown student, worked under the mentorship of Neal Overstrom and Jennifer Bissonnette at the RISD Nature Lab.
“The experience allowed me to realize that I wanted to be able to see these microscopic organisms in different ways, and it gave me the opportunity to freely explore various possibilities,” Steinert adds. “The whole point of the project was how to communicate with people, how to get them to care if they have to interact with something from a distance. This required us to be creative about how we presented information about these organisms. It also made us realize that the key was finding a way to communicate why we ourselves cared about them.
“It allowed me to fully tap into my own curiosity, which is a huge part of being a scientist. Now, when I look at something under a microscope or more generally in the world around me, I have so many questions and get excited about figuring out the best way to see and understand it. That whole summer was really important in embedding that excitement in me as a scientist and also as an artist.”
However, arriving at that perspective took adjustment. At first, Steinert recalls, the open-ended nature of the project was unnerving and caused moments of anxiety: “We wondered, what are we supposed to do with these things? Where do we start?”
The uncertainty and unchartered territory for the young scientist served her well with her slipper snail project.
She first had to figure out how to collect the Crepidula, keep them alive in the lab, and obtain embryos from them. She had to maneuver the embryos out of their egg sacs, stain them, affix them to slides, and study and make images of them at each stage of development.
“There is limited literature on Crepidula and no instructions on how to move embryos around and switch them in and out of solutions,” Steinert says. “I had a big problem with the embryos sticking to plastic pipette tips, so I switched to using glass Pasteur pipettes. For several procedures, I had to heat them up over a flame to get a thin opening.”
The embryos had to be kept in liquid, so Steinert experimented with a basket design to dip them, but the embryos wound up sticking to the mesh. Instead, using the thinned glass pipette, she managed to suck out liquids, yet leave the embryos.
Then, when she started imaging the embryos with a confocal microscope, she found they were too thick for the lasers in the microscope to completely get through. She wanted images of the entire embryo, but could only get half. She created a way to mount the embryos between two coverslips, which hold the specimen in place, building a bridge between them so as to not crush the embryos, imaging one half before flipping it over to image the other half. This gave her two sets of images that could be paired and made whole.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Steinert notes.
Initially, she sought to use the same tools and techniques as Conklin, who documented the different developmental stages with detailed notes and hundreds of sketches. But, she ended up with a hybrid of methods both old and new. She sketched and took notes, and her advisor, Professor Kristi Wharton, Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry, steered her to the YURT virtual reality theater at Brown’s Center for Computation and Visualization (CCV).
The confocal microscope allowed Steinert to collect images from the embryos, spitting out a stack of images in different sections that could be digitally compiled into a model for viewing in the YURT, a dark room with a domed ceiling and curved walls. Once inside and wearing special glasses, Steinert demonstrates how she can press buttons on a control stick to manipulate a 3D embryo, flip it over, walk around it, and even go inside.
Although the YURT boasts methods unimagined in Conklin’s time and mind-blowing in ours, the outcome of Steinert’s images hews to her historical leanings and the once intertwined disciplines of science and art. The pairing, she says, allows her to share her love of and fascination with embryonic development along with the educational opportunities borne from better visualizations.
“One of my goals was to try to make the data and the ability to see it more accessible,” she says. “Visualizing embryos in the YURT allows you to more intuitively understand what is going on, how cells in the embryo are arranged, and to see things you might not be able to otherwise. And, you can compare models to see how cells have moved or what an experimental manipulation has changed.”
At the same time, Steinert says she wanted to explore the YURT as a model for teaching developmental biology, a field that demands visual spatial skills and grasping the intricacies of the development process: “Embryos are so complex and are constantly transforming, so it can be difficult to see them. You need to see them from all perspectives, too, and at different stages of development to really understand what is going on. With a microscope, there is a barrier between you and the embryo. In the YURT, you can just pick it up and turn it around and look.”
As it turns out, there is not as much of a distinction between science and art as people might imagine, Steinert concludes; both are ways of seeing and communicating and require hands-on, material engagement to figure out the best way of achieving this. The end goals may differ, she notes, but the process of doing both is similar.
For the long term, Steinert says she is not sure where her journey will lead. After graduating at the end of May, she will start her job as a research technician, something she can see herself doing for the next few years. She will work on a study in Professor Wharton’s lab at Brown on developmental genetics, utilizing fruit flies to investigate genetic mutations associated with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Story and photos by Amy Dunkle | RI NSF EPSCoR