Friday Harbor Laboratories

UW undergrads delight in rare marine research opportunity

Thursday, May 6, 1999

By Ruth Schubert
Seattle P-I Reporter

Crouched over kelp, UW senior Tom Kang relates the plant's features to lab partner Mike Morris, left, and fellow researchers (rear, from left) Catherine Vogel, professor Richard Strathmann and Carrie Martin.
Mike Urban/P-I

Cattle Point juts out from the southwestern curve of San Juan Island, a landscape of sandy bluffs rooted in algae-slick rocks.

Nine University of Washington researchers, clad in hip boots, scramble over the outcroppings and wade through the tidal pools. Under the lightly clouded spring sky, they're searching for the sesame-seed-size egg masses of the Lacuna  sea snail.

They stretch a yellow measuring tape through the most promising pools and pull up samples of the black, brown and green algae that carpets the rocks in a mottled shag.

"Hedophyllum, Phyllospadix, Ulva," one woman calls out as she places each plant variety in a separate Zip-Loc bag.

This is a rare scene in the San Juans.

Not because UW researchers are there -- the University has had a research laboratory on San Juan Island since the turn of the century -- but because the scientists in the field are undergraduate students.

This is the first school year in many decades that the UW has opened its Friday Harbor Laboratories to student "research apprentices." Thirteen are participating in the trial year of the program.

"I've loved marine life since I was little, and I always wanted to be a marine biologist," said Margaret Grace, a sophomore from Dartmouth who took time off to participate in the UW's apprenticeship program, even though Dartmouth won't accept the course credits.

"If I decide to go into biology for a career, then this is way more valuable than a couple of course credits," she said.

The apprentices are mostly from the UW's Seattle campus, with a scattering of students from UW Tacoma and out of state.

With minimal publicity for the new program, the labs fielded 39 applicants for the current research apprenticeship. For those accepted, it's a great deal. Students pay regular undergraduate tuition and receive a $1,500 stipend to help offset the costs.

They spend a full quarter living and working at Friday Harbor Laboratories. Schedules follow the tides. Labs are open around the clock. And entire days are focused solely on research.

Far beyond the lab work most undergraduates do -- repeating experiments that have been done a thousand times before -- these apprentices delve into questions that have yet to be answered.

"You get to the frontiers of knowledge pretty fast," said Richard Strathmann, a zoology professor and assistant director of the labs. "So, they're creating knowledge, rather than just receiving it."

In Strathmann's group, the students are exploring how the female Lacuna  snail chooses where to lay her eggs. Another group of six apprentices is studying the diversity of marine life in the region.

In the process, the students will learn the basics of original research: coming up with a defined research question, developing an experiment to answer it, collecting specimens in the field and analyzing the results.

It's a small group, but Dennis Willows, director of Friday Harbor Laboratories, has proposed expanding the program to about 160 students a year, with research teams working in three- to 12-week stints.

He has applied for money from a special competitive fund. The UW's provost and president will decide this summer which applicants get the money.

Willows' obvious enthusiasm for the apprenticeships is driven in part by personal experience.

Fresh out of college in 1963, he spent a rare summer at Friday Harbor dissecting barnacles. One night, a "big, beautiful sea slug" that lived in the lab died. At his mentor's suggestion, Willows opened it up and discovered the largest brain cells in the animal kingdom.

Using electrodes he was able to map the function of individual brain cells in the nervous system, a discovery that has had broad implications for the study of all manner of animal brains.

"Cells are cells are cells are cells," Willows says. "Your brain cells, my brain cells and the brain cells of that sea slug. Once I stick an electrode in them, you can't tell the difference."

That post-college summer in the lab was his "metamorphosis."

"I've felt for a long time the university has underutilized that transformational experience," Willows said.

Back in Strathmann's lab, the apprentices dump the contents of the bags into shallow metal pans, carefully examining each leaf for small brown snails and egg masses.

Strathmann designed the project to match his own expertise so he can effectively guide the students, but in a relatively unexplored area.

Along with the group project, the apprentices are working on individual experiments, each exploring a different aspect of the Lacuna's  egg-laying behavior.

Grace and her partner plan to introduce predators into a tank of snails that are laying eggs to see if it affects where the female deposits the egg masses.

Tom Kang, a senior majoring in zoology, shows off a 2- by 4-foot tub. It is rigged with Plexiglas, a black plastic-covered box and tubes spitting out sea water.

The experiment, designed by Kang and his partner, was created to measure whether sunlight affects where the snails lay their eggs. One piece of Plexiglas is clear, the other filters ultraviolet rays, and the black box shuts the snails away from all light.

Kang applied to the program because he wanted a taste of what real researchers do. Beyond that, he found a close-knit group where he could work more closely with a professor than he thought possible.

"For such a long time I felt like I was in such a big university, with so little personal attention," Kang said. "I feel real, real fortunate to have been able to come up here."

The undergraduate research at Friday Harbor is hardly an isolated case.

In the fall of 1997, UW president Richard McCormick used his annual speech to the university to call for including more undergraduates in research and other hands-on learning.

The goal was to double the 300 undergraduates involved in intensive research work for credit or pay. In the last academic year, the number hit 653.

The university's list of research opportunities has gone from around 30 to 100. And this fall the course catalog will indicate which courses have a research component.

"What faculty and the administration are doing is paving the way," said Debra Friedman, associate provost for academic planning. "We're tapping into what I believe is a latent interest on the part of students to be involved in this exciting research."

Tomorrow the UW will host the second annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, created to highlight student projects.

Using Friday Harbor Laboratories to bring more scientific inquiry into the lives of undergraduates is a natural.

The UW taught the first marine biology classes at Friday Harbor in 1904, at what was then called the Puget Sound Biological Station. It was a site rich in diverse marine animals and plants, and was deemed perfect for research and as a summer training camp for teachers.

The station quickly outgrew its 4-acre plot south of town, and in 1921 U.S. President Warren G. Harding gave the UW a 484-acre military preserve.

Early undergraduate apprentices include George Hitchings, who in 1927 spent time at the labs measuring sea water chemistry. He co-authored the published report and went on to become the only UW undergraduate alumnus to later win the Nobel Prize.

More recently, the labs have offered undergraduates five-week summer courses. In the spring quarter, 20 students are let into an infamously intense 16-credit sequence on marine botany and zoology.

The lab site is a remarkably untouched tract of Douglas fir interspersed with the occasional cedar or madrona tree. Glacier-carved rock pushes through along the shores, covered with a thin veil of yellow and green moss. Deer nibble from the bushes around the residences. Now and then a black fox saunters through.

The handful of faculty and graduate students who spend most of the year at Friday Harbor wear marine biology shirts of the inside-joke variety the way Dead Heads wear tie-dye.

Willows has a work shirt with "Institute on Intelligent Systems" embroidered over the pocket, a reference to a Microsoft-sponsored conference that explored what sea slugs can teach computer designers. Strathmann's T-shirt from the Third International Larval Biology Meeting in Melbourne, Australia, features a larval fish eating Tazmania.

The decades-old dining room, where the undergraduates go for both meals and classes, is a timbered hall with a pingpong table at one end, a piano at the other.

It feels a lot like camp. Many students want to come back.

After she took the "Zo-Bot" course last spring, Cynthia Catton was addicted to the close-knit community surrounded by water and islands.

"Last year I was trying to think up some crazy, wild scheme for how I could get back up here this year," said Catton, a senior majoring in zoology. "They thought it up for me."

Catton is now a research apprentice, delving into the mysteries of sea worms. Armed with a flashlight and a turkey baster, Catton has spent many nighttime hours sucking specimens from the waters off the lab's dock. She has collected 41 different Polychaeta, a class of many-footed worms.

As part of the research group studying marine invertebrate biodiversity, Catton has her own table and microscope in Lab 1.

Shelves and sills are lined with jars of marine specimens, and tanks in the center of the room hold all manner of sea life, from flowery anemones to ribbonlike worms.

This group is working to improve the lab's dusty, old collection of specimens, cataloging what's there and adding to it. As they bring new animals back to the lab, they learn how to identify species and even find a few that aren't in the books.

"We can go out on the dock and collect animals and have no idea what they are -- despite the fact that there's been a research lab here for 70, 80 years," said Bruno Pernet, the postdoctoral researcher who is advising the students.

Catton, for one, has seen her comfort with research grow, from the frustrating first weeks when she had no idea what she was looking at.

"I think it would be really great to have more people come up here and experience this," Catton says.

UW administrators apparently agree. At least Friedman, the vice provost for academic planning, does.

"What's happening up at Friday Harbor Laboratories is the gold standard," she said.

P-I reporter Ruth Schubert can be reached at 206-448-8130


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