Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Biology (Page 1 of 19)

Game-Changing App Explores Conservation’s Future

In the first week of February, students, experts and conservationists from across the country were brought together for the second annual Duke Blueprint symposium. Focused around the theme of “Nature and Progress,” this conference hoped to harness the power of diversity and interdisciplinary collaboration to develop solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Scott Loarie spoke at Duke’s Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center.

One of the most exciting parts of this symposium’s first night was without a doubt its all-star cast of keynote speakers. The experiences and advice each of these researchers had to offer were far too diverse for any single blog post to capture, but one particularly interesting presentation (full video below) was that of National Geographic fellow Scott Loarie—co-director of the game-changing iNaturalist app.

iNat, as Loarie explained, is a collaborative citizen scientist network with aspirations of developing a comprehensive mapping of all terrestrial life. Any time they go outside, users of this app can photograph and upload pictures of any wildlife they encounter. A network of scientists and experts from around the world then helps the users identify their finds, generating data points on an interactive, user-generated map of various species’ ranges.

Simple, right? Multiply that by 500,000 users worldwide, though, and it’s easy to see why researchers like Loarie are excited by the possibilities an app like this can offer. The software first went live in 2008, and since then its user base has roughly doubled each year. This has meant the generation of over 8 million data points of 150,000 different species, including one-third of all known vertebrate species and 40% of all known species of mammal. Every day, the app catalogues around 15 new species.

“We’re slowly ticking away at the tree of life,” Loarie said.

Through iNaturalist, researchers are able to analyze and connect to data in ways never before thought possible. Changes to environments and species’ distributions can be observed or modeled in real time and with unheard-of collaborative opportunities.

To demonstrate the power of this connectedness, Loarie recalled one instance of a citizen scientist in Vietnam who took a picture of a snail. This species had never been captured, never been photographed, hadn’t been observed in over a century. One of iNat’s users recognized it anyway. How? He’d seen it in one of the journals from Captain James Cook’s 18th-century voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

It’s this kind of interconnectivity that demonstrates not just the potential of apps like iNaturalist, but also the power of collaboration and the possibilities symposia like Duke Blueprint offer. Bridging gaps, tearing down boundaries, building up bonds—these are the heart of conservationism’s future. Nature and Progress, working together, pulling us forward into a brighter world.

Post by Daniel Egitto

 

 

How A Zebrafish’s Squiggly Cartilage Transforms into a Strong Spine

A column of green cartilage cells divides into an alternating pattern of green cartilage and red vertebra

Our spines begin as a flexible column called the notochord. Over time, cells on the notochord surface divide into alternating segments that go on to form cartilage and vertebrae.

In the womb, our strong spines start as nothing more than a rope of rubbery tissue. As our bodies develop, this flexible cord, called the notochord, morphs into a column of bone and cartilage sturdy enough to hold up our heavy upper bodies.

Graduate student Susan Wopat and her colleagues in Michel Bagnat’s lab at Duke are studying the notochords of the humble zebrafish to learn how this cartilage-like rope grows into a mature spine.

In a new paper, they detail the cellular messaging that directs this transformation.

It all comes down to Notch receptors on the notochord surface, they found. Notch receptors are a special type of protein that sits astride cell membranes. When two cells touch, these Notch receptors link up, forming channels that allow messages to rapidly travel between large groups of cells.

Notch receptors divide the outer notochord cells into two alternating groups – one group is told to grow into bone, while the other is told to grow into cartilage. Over time, bone starts to form on the surface of the notochord and works its way inward, eventually forming mature vertebrae.

X-ray images of four zebrafish spines

Meddling with cellular signaling on the notochord surface caused zebrafish spines to develop deformities. The first and third image show healthy spines, and the second and fourth image show deformed spines.

When the team tinkered with the Notch signaling on the surface cells, they found that the spinal vertebrae came out deformed – too big, too small, or the wrong shape.

“These results demonstrate that the notochord plays a critical role in guiding spine development,” Wopat said. “Further investigation into these findings may help us better understand the origin of spinal defects in humans.”

Spine patterning is guided by segmentation of the notochord sheath,” Susan Wopat, Jennifer Bagwell, Kaelyn D. Sumigray, Amy L. Dickson, Leonie F. Huitema, Kenneth D. Poss, Stefan Schulte-Merker, Michel Bagnat. Cell, February 20, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2018.01.084

Post by Kara Manke

Growing “Mini Brains” To Understand Zika’s Effects

You probably remember what the Zika virus is because of the outbreak in 2015 that made global headlines.

microcephaly illustration

An infant with microcephaly (left) with a reduced head circumference, as compared to an infant born with a regular head circumference (right) Picture credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63278345

The serious nature of the virus was apparent when hundreds of infants across South America were born with microcephaly – a condition characterized by a very small head circumference as a result of abnormally slow brain growth.

The sudden outbreak of Zika in South America led to a panic of the possibility of spread into the United States as well as beyond – and thus, research into learning more about the disease mechanisms of Zika expanded. However, one of the problems in studying a disease like Zika is the difficulty of modeling a complex organ like the developing brain.

Until now, the current way to model the brain was with a brain organoid – a brain grown in a lab. Organoid structures attempt to mimic whole developing organs – however, current brain organoid technology required the use of a large spinning bioreactor to facilitate nutrient and oxygen absorption to mimic the function of the vascular system in our brains. Large spinning bioreactors are expensive to run and bulky—they require large volumes of expensive media that mimic brain fluid. The size and cost has meant that only a few organoids can be grown and studied at once.

Guo-li Ming, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Guo-li Ming, a professor of neuroscience from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to work on finding a way to solve this problem. She came down to Duke University last week to give a talk on her findings.  As she spoke, I could feel the minds of the audience firmly captivated by her words. It was truly fascinating stuff – Ming was actually growing brains in the lab!

The work began by finding a way to take the large spinning reactor that the existing brain organoid required and make it smaller. Three clever high school students working in her lab used a 3D printer and a small motor that involved spinning 12 tiny interconnected paddles within 12 small cell culture wells. Each of the wells contain a paddle that is spun by one gear.  All of the individual gears connect to a continually rotating central gear driven by a motor.

Bioreactor schematic

The Spin bioreactor. Source: http://www.cell.com/cell/abstract/S0092-8674(16)30467-6

After many optimizations, the final design was called SpinW,  which ultimately required a mere 2 ml of media per well, resulting in a net 50-fold reduction in media consumption, as well as dramatically reduced incubator space. The large number of wells, combined with dramatically reduced cost of the apparatus and media consumption, allowed for optimal conditions to run multiple test scenarios with ease – essentially meaning that 12 “mini brains” could be tested at the same time.

The design of SpinW costed a mere $400, while the commercial design costs over $2,000, with the added burden of consuming 50 times more media. The success of the design only serves to prove that age doesn’t matter when it comes to great ideas!

A brain organoid infected with Zika virus. ZIKV envelope protein is shown in green; neural progenitor cells marked by SOX2 are shown in red; neurons marked by CTIP2 are shown in blue.
CREDIT: Xuyu Qian/Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Ming and her team used the apparatus to model the Zika virus’s impact on the brain.

The findings indicate that Zika works by killing off neural stem cells, as well as causing a thinning of key brain structures. One of the observations was that, by day 18 of Zika infection of a brain organoid, there was an overall decrease in size, which points to the link of Zika causing microcephaly. The Zika infection of early-stage organoids corresponded to the first trimester of human fetal development.

The brain is the most complex organ in the body, and one of the least understood. The work Dr. Ming and her team has done goes a long way towards helping us understand the way the human brain develops and works, as well modeling its reaction to things like viruses. It was a pleasure and honor to hear Dr. Ming talk to us about her work –I am eager to hear about further developments in this field!

Post by Thabit Pulak

Hearing Loss and Depression Are Connected

Jessica West is a PhD candidate in sociology.

Jessica West, a PhD student in sociology at Duke, has found that hearing loss creates chronic stress but that high levels of social support – from family, friends and others – can help alleviate depression. Given that hearing loss is a growing social and physical health problem, her study suggests a need for increased vigilance regarding hearing loss among older adults, West said.

Her study was published in the November issue of Social Science & Medicine and is available here.

Here, West discusses her research.

Your research examines the correlation between hearing loss and depression. That seems a logical connection: why study it in the way you did?

Despite how common hearing loss is, it is actually quite understudied. A handful of studies have looked at the relationship between hearing loss and mental health over time, but the results from these studies are mixed: some find a relationship between hearing loss and more depressive symptoms, while others do not. On top of the mixed findings, most studies have been based overseas, and studies based in the U.S. have tended to use state-specific datasets, like the Alameda County Study, which drew from Oakland and Berkeley, CA.

I use the Health and Retirement Study, which is nationally representative of adults aged 50 and older in the U.S., and therefore more generalizable to the U.S. population.

I frame hearing loss as a physical health stressor that can impact mental health, and that social support can alter this relationship by preventing a person from experiencing stress or reducing the severity of a reaction to it. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first paper to link hearing loss to health outcomes in this way.

What might surprise people about your findings?

More than one-fifth of the people in my sample have fair to poor hearing (23.12% or 1,405 people in the first wave). Hearing loss is really common in the U.S.

Also, I found that social support is most beneficial in easing the burden of hearing loss among people with significant hearing loss. Overall, this suggests that hearing loss is a chronic stressor in people’s lives and that responses to this stressor will vary by the level of social resources that people have available to them.

What does ‘social support’ mean in real terms? What can the family and friends do for a person with hearing loss to help them?

For people with hearing loss, it’s important that they feel able to lean on, talk to, and rely on family, friends, spouses or partners, and children. And going a step further, people with hearing loss need to know that these important people in their lives truly understand the struggles they face. What this means is that people with hearing loss can benefit quite a lot from having a network of people that they feel comfortable discussing things with or reaching out to when needed.

Do people with hearing loss have adequate mental health resources or care available to them?

My research shows that social support is really important for people with hearing loss. One suggestion I make in my paper is that audiologic – or hearing — rehabilitation programs could include educational training for significant others, like spouses or friends, to emphasize the importance of supporting people with hearing impairment. Audiologists, primary care physicians, family, and friends are all key resources that could be targeted in such rehabilitation programs.

 What is your next project related to hearing loss?

 I am currently working on several projects related to hearing loss. In one, I am looking at the relationship between an individual’s hearing loss and his/her spouse’s mental health outcomes. Few population-based studies have examined the relationship between hearing loss and spousal mental health longitudinally, so I hope this study will shed light on the experience of spousal disability within marriages.

Another project I am working on looks at hearing loss from a life course perspective. In other words, I am looking at people who self-reported hearing loss before the age of 16 and seeing how their hearing loss influenced their marriages, academics and careers. A better understanding of how early life hearing loss influences later life outcomes has implications for earlier identification of hearing loss and/or the use of assistive technology to help people remain socially, academically, and economically engaged.

CITATION: West, Jessica S. 2017. “Hearing Impairment, Social Support, and Depressive Symptoms among U.S. Adults: A Test of the Stress Process Paradigm.” Social Science & Medicine 192(Supplement C):94-101.

 Read the paper 

Guest post by Eric Ferreri, News and Communications

Researchers Get Superman’s X-ray Vision

X-ray vision just got cooler. A technique developed in recent years boosts researchers’ ability to see through the body and capture high-resolution images of animals inside and out.

This special type of 3-D scanning reveals not only bones, teeth and other hard tissues, but also muscles, blood vessels and other soft structures that are difficult to see using conventional X-ray techniques.

Researchers have been using the method, called diceCT, to visualize the internal anatomy of dozens of different species at Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF).

There, the specimens are stained with an iodine solution that helps soft tissues absorb X-rays, then placed in a micro-CT scanner, which takes thousands of X-ray images from different angles while the specimen spins around. A computer then stitches the scans into digital cross sections and stacks them, like slices of bread, to create a virtual 3-D model that can be rotated, dissected and measured as if by hand.

Here’s a look at some of the images they’ve taken:

See-through shrimp

If you get flushed after a workout, you’re not alone — the Caribbean anemone shrimp does too.

Recent Duke Ph.D. Laura Bagge was scuba diving off the coast of Belize when she noticed the transparent shrimp Ancylomenes pedersoni turn from clear to cloudy after rapidly flipping its tail.

To find out why exercise changes the shrimp’s complexion, Bagge and Duke professor Sönke Johnsen and colleagues compared their internal anatomy before and after physical exertion using diceCT.

In the shrimp cross sections in this video, blood vessels are colored blue-green, and muscle is orange-red. The researchers found that more blood flowed to the tail after exercise, presumably to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to working muscles. The increased blood flow between muscle fibers causes light to scatter or bounce in different directions, which is why the normally see-through shrimp lose their transparency.

Peer inside the leg of a mouse

Duke cardiologist Christopher Kontos, M.D., and MD/PhD student Hasan Abbas have been using the technique to visualize the inside of a mouse’s leg.

The researchers hope the images will shed light on changes in blood vessels in people, particularly those with peripheral artery disease, in which plaque buildup in the arteries reduces blood flow to the extremities such as the legs and feet.

The micro-CT scanner at Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility made it possible for Abbas and Kontos to see structures as small as 13 microns, or a fraction of the width of a human hair, including muscle fibers and even small arteries and veins in 3-D.

Take a tour through a tree shrew

DiceCT imaging allows Heather Kristjanson at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to digitally dissect the chewing muscles of animals such as this tree shrew, a small mammal from Southeast Asia that looks like a cross between a mouse and a squirrel. By virtually zooming in and measuring muscle volume and the length of muscle fibers, she hopes to see how strong they were. Studying such clues in modern mammals helps Kristjanson and colleagues reconstruct similar features in the earliest primates that lived millions of years ago.

Try it for yourself

Students and instructors who are interested in trying the technique in their research are eligible to apply for vouchers to cover SMIF fees. People at Duke University and elsewhere are encouraged to apply. For more information visit https://smif.pratt.duke.edu/Funding_Opportunities, or contact Dr. Mark Walters, Director of SMIF, via email at mark.walters@duke.edu.

Located on Duke’s West Campus in the Fitzpatrick Building, the SMIF is a shared use facility available to Duke researchers and educators as well as external users from other universities, government laboratories or industry through a partnership called the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network. For more info visit http://smif.pratt.duke.edu/.

Post by Robin Smith, News and Communications

Post by Robin Smith, News and Communications

Kathleen Pryer: A Passion for the Little-Loved Fern

Most people don’t see in ferns the glory and grandeur of the mighty angiosperms — the flowering plants — but to those who can, ferns may seem like the only thing you could spend your time researching.

Fei-wei Li, Kathleen Pryer

Kathleen Pryer, with former graduate student Fei-Wei Li. (Duke photography)

Kathleen Pryer, a professor of biology at Duke, is an example of one of these people who found their calling in ferns. But she didn’t know it would be ferns from the beginning.

As an undergraduate, she had thought she wanted to be an animal behaviorist, having read books by Jane Goodall, so she enrolled in McGill University in Montreal (she’s Canadian by the way) in the animal behavior program and didn’t end up taking a single botany course until her senior year.  For her final project she worked with snails, a starkly slow endeavor, she thought. Slower even than ferns. After getting her degree in animal behavior, she decided she wanted a masters working with plants, but before jumping right in with only one class’ worth of experience with plants, she worked as a technician for a budding ecologist.  While working there, the ecologist’s wife, who did her masters on ferns, took her on a trip to the annual meeting of the botanical society of America in Blacksburg, VA, a 13-hour trip.

In Virginia, she went on a 2-day field trip through Virginia, led by fern expert Warren Wagner, finding ferns with 107 other people who were mad about ferns.

“It was just serendipity really.”

After that, the idea of ferns stuck, and she’s been working with them ever since.  She’s gotten the chance to name or rename many species of fern, and she created the genus Gaga, named after the singer.  Another new genus she found is soon to be named Mandela by her as well; a nice change from the usual names of “old white guys,” given to new genera, she said.

Through it all though, Pryer is most proud of a paper from 2001, which showed that all modern ferns originated from a central progenitor, showing that they aren’t as archaic as most people think. That paper made the cover of Nature, and has been cited hundreds of times since.

In the end, I guess it’s really hard to tell where you’ll end up.  If an aspiring animal behaviorist can jump to the world of ferns and make a successful career out of it, surely there’s hope for the rest of us too.  In the end, all that matters is if you’re doing what you love, and as for Kathleen Pryer, she’ll keep doing what she loves as long as there’s a “chair and a microscope” for her to sit at.

Isaac PoarchGuest Post by Isaac Poarch, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math

Morphogenesis: All Guts and Morning Glories

What is morphogenesis? Morphogenesis examines the development of the living organisms’ forms.

It also is an area of research for Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, Professor of Applied Mathematics, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Physics at Harvard University. On his presentation in the Public Lectures Unveiling Math (PLUM) series here at Duke, he credited the beginnings of morphogenesis to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, author of the book On Growth and Form.

Mathematically, morphogenesis focuses on how different rates of growth change the shapes of organisms as they develop. Cell number, cell size, cell shape, and cell position comprise the primary cellular factors of multicellular morphogenesis, which studies larger structures than individual cells and is Mahadevan’s focus.

Effects on tissues appear through changes in sizes, connectivities, and shapes, altering the phenotype, or the outward physical appearance. All these variables change in space and time. Professor Mahadevan presented on morphogenesis studies that have been conducted on plant shoots, guts, and brains.

Research on plant shoots often concentrates on the question, “Why do plant shoots grow in such a wide variety of directions and what determines their shapes?” The picture below shows the different postures appearances of plant shoots from completely straight to leaning to hanging.

Can morphogenesis make sense of these differences? Through mathematical modeling, two stimuli for shoots’ shapes was determined: gravity and itself. Additionally, elasticity as a function of the shoots’ weight plays a role in the mathematical models of plant shoots’ shapes which appear in Mahadevan’s paper co-written with a fellow professor, Raghunath Chelakkot. Mahadevan also explored the formation of flower and leaf shapes with these morphogenesis studies. 

Over twenty feet of guts are coiled up inside you. In order to fit these intestines inside the mammals, they must coil and loop. But what variables determine how these guts loop around? To discover the answer to this question, Mahadevan and other researchers examined chick embryos which increase their gut lengths by a factor greater than twenty over a twelve-day span. They were able to create a physical model using a rubber tube sewn to a sheet that followed the same patterns as the chicks’ guts. Through their observation of not only chicks but also quail and mice, Mahadevan determined that the morphogenesis of the guts has no dependence on genetics or any other microscopic factors.

Mahadevan’s study of how the brain folds occurs through MRI images of human fetal development. Initially, barely any folding exists on fetal brains but eventually the geometry of the surrounding along with local stress forms folds on the brain. By creating a template with gel and treating it to mimic the relationship between the brain’s gray matter and white matter, Mahadevan along with other researchers discovered that they could reproduce the brain’s folds. Because they were able to recreate the folds through only global geometry and local stress, they concluded that morphogenesis evolution does not depend on microscopic factors such as genetics. Further, by examining if folding regions correlate with the activity regions of the brain, questions about the effect of physical form on abilities and the inner functions of the brain.

  

     

Exercise is Good for Your Head and Might Fight Alzheimer’s

Recent studies have confirmed that exercising is just about the best thing you can do for your brain health.

Dan Blazer, MD is a psychiatrist who studies aging.

On Dec. 1 during the DIBS event, Exercise and the Brain, Duke psychiatrist Dan Blazer reported findings about the relationship between physical activity and brain health. After lots of research, study groups at the National Academy of Medicine  concluded that their number one recommendation to those experiencing “cognitive aging” is exercise.

Processing speed, memory, and reasoning decline over time in every one of us. But thankfully, simple things like riding a bike or playing pick up basketball can help keep our minds fresh and at their best possible level.

One cool thing a committee conducting the research did to advertise their findings was create keychains saying “take your brain for a walk.” There’s a little image of a brain with legs walking. They wanted to get the word out that physical activity has another benefit than just staying in shape — it can also support your cognitive health.

However, the committees are having a hard time motivating people to exercise in the first place. Even after hearing their findings, it’s not like people everywhere are suddenly going to get off their couches and hit the gym. A world with healthier people — both physically and mentally — sounds nice, but getting there is much more than a matter of publishing these studies.

And, as always, too much of a good thing can make it harmful. While there does seem to appear a potential “biological gradient,” where greater physical activity correlated with better outcomes, you can’t just run a marathon every day of the week and then ~boom~ aging hardly affects your brain anymore. You don’t want to do that to yourself. Just get a healthy amount of exercise and you’ll be keeping your brain young and smart.

One of the best parts about why exercising is so great for you and your brain is because it helps you sleep (and we all know how important sleep is). If you ever have trouble going to bed or are having disrupted sleeps, physical activity could be your savior. It’s a much healthier option for your brain than taking stuff like melatonin, and you’ll get fit in the process.

Regarding exercising and Alzheimer’s, a disease where vital mental functions deteriorate, studies have unfortunately been insufficient to conclude anything. But if getting Alzheimer’s is your worst fear, I’m sure staying active can’t hurt as a preventative. More research on this topic is being conducted as we speak.

When is the best time to start exercising, in order to reap the maximum cognitive benefits, you ask? Well, the sooner the better. As Blazer said, “exercising helps in maintaining or improving cognitive function in later life,” so you better get on that. Go outside and get moving!

Will Sheehan      Post by Will Sheehan

 

 

How We Know Where We Are

The brain is a personalized GPS. It can keep track of where you are in time and space without your knowledge.

The hippocampus is a key structure in formation of memories and includes cells that represent a person’s environment.

Daniel Dombeck PhD, and his team of researchers at Northwestern University have been using a technique designed by Dombeck himself to figure out how exactly the brain knows where and when we are. He shared his methods and findings to a group of researchers in neurobiology at Duke on Tuesday.

Domeck and his lab at Northwestern are working at identifying exactly how the brain represents spatial environments.

The apparatus used for these experiments was adapted from a virtual reality system. They position a mouse on a ball-like treadmill that it manipulates to navigate through a virtual reality field or maze projected for the mouse to see. Using water as a reward, Dombeck’s team was able to train mice to traverse their virtual fields in a little over a week.

In order to record data about brain activity in their mice as they navigated virtual hallways, Dombeck and his team designed a specialized microscope that could record activity of single cells in the hippocampus, a deep brain structure previously found to be involved in spatial navigation.

The device allows researchers to observe single cells as a mouse navigates through a simulated hallway.

Previous research has identified hippocampal place cells, specialized cells in the hippocampus that encode information about an individual’s current environment. The representations of the environment that these place cells encode are called place fields.

Dombeck and his colleague Mark Sheffield of the University of Chicago were interested in how we encode new environments in the hippocampus.

Sheffield studied the specific neural mechanisms behind place field formation.

After training the mice to navigate in one virtual environment, Sheffield switched the virtual hallway, thus simulating a new environment for the mouse to navigate.

They found that the formation of these new place cells uses existing neural networks initially, and then requires learning to adapt and strengthen these representations.

After identifying the complex system representing this spatial information, Dombeck and colleagues wondered how the system of representing time compared.

Jim Heys, a colleague of Dombeck, designed a new virtual reality task for the lab mice.

In order to train the mice to rely on an internal representation of passing time, Heys engineered a door-stop task, where a mouse traversing the virtual hallway would encounter an invisible door. If the mouse waited 6 seconds at the door before trying to continue on the track, it would be rewarded with water. After about three months of training the mice, Heys was finally able to collect information about how they encoded the passing of time.

Heys indentified cells in the hippocampus that would become active only after a certain amount of time had passed – one cell would be active after 1 second, then another would become active after 2 seconds, etc. until the 6-second wait time was reached. Then, the mouse knew it was safe to continue down the hallway.

When comparing the cells active in each different task, Dombeck and Heys found that the cells that encode time information are different from the cells that encode spatial information. In other words, the cells that hold information about where we are in time are separate from the ones that tell us where we are in space.

Still these cells work together to create the built-in GPS we share with animals like mice.

By Sarah Haurin

Panic in the Poster Session!

For their recent retreat, Regeneration Next tried something a little different for the time-honored poster session.

Rather than simply un-tubing that poster they took to the American Association of Whatever a few months ago, presenters were asked to DRAW their poster fresh and hot on a plain sheet of white paper in 15 minutes, using nothing more than an idea and a couple of markers.

Concerns were shared, shall we say, with the leadership of the regenerative medicine initiative when the rules were announced.

“People are always nervous about something they haven’t tried before,” said Regeneration Next Executive Director Sharlini Sankaran. “There was a lot of anxiety about the new format and how they would explain their research without charts and graphs.”

There was palpable poster panic as the retreat moved to the wide open fifth floor of the Trent Semans Center in the late afternoon. Administrative coordinator Tiffany Casey had spread out a rainbow of brand-new sharpies and the moveable bulletin boards stood in neat, numbered ranks with plain white sheets of giant post-it paper.

After some nervous laughter and a few attempts at color-swapping, the trainees and junior faculty got down to drawing their science on the wobbly tackboards.

And then, it worked! It totally worked. “I think I saw a lot more interactivity and conversation,” Sankaran said.

Valentina Cigliola

A fist-full of colorful sharpies gave Valentina Cigliola a colorful launching point for some good conversations about spinal cord repair, rather than just standing there mutely while visitors read and read and read.

 

Louis-Jan Pilaz

Louis-Jan Pilaz used the entire height of the giant post-it notes to draw a beautifully detailed neuron, with labeled parts explaining how the RNA-binding protein FMRP does some neat tricks during development of the cortex.

 

Delisa Clay

Delisa Clay’s schematics of fruitfly cells having too many chromosomes made it easier to explain. Well, that and maybe a glass of wine.

 

Jamie Garcia

Jamie Garcia used her cell-by-cell familiarity with the zebrafish to make a bold, clear illustration of notochord development and the fish’s amazing powers of self-repair.

 

Lihua Wang

Don’t you think Lihua Wang’s schematic of experimental results is so much more clear than a bunch of panels of tiny text and bar charts?

In the post-retreat survey, Sankaran said people either absolutely loved the draw-your-poster or hated it, but the Love group was much larger.

“Those who hated it felt they couldn’t represent data accurately with hand-drawn charts and graphs,” Sankaran said. “Or that their artistic skills were ‘being judged’.”

A few folks also pointed out that the drawing approach might work against people with a disability of some sort – a concern Sankaran said they will try to address next time.

There WILL be a next time, she added. “I had a few trainees come up to me to say they weren’t sure how it was going to go, but then they said they had fun!”

Post and pix by Karl Leif Bates, whose hand-drawn poster on working with the news office contained no data and was largely ignored.

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