My Moment in the Scientific Spotlight

It may be true that "he who can, does; he who cannot, teaches." But I at least have a token of what might have been possible for me in science research, had I chosen to go down that path. A path for which I now know I was singularly unsuited.

One of the high points of the college biology class I teach comes when, for a moment, I get to shine the spotlight on myself rather than the subject matter. During the first week of every semester, I dust off some old photographs, take center stage in my classroom, and hold them up for my students to see. They are pictures of a tiny worm taken through a microscope. The students are mildly interested in its anatomy and habits until, warming to the denouement I have come to love, I explain to them that the worm is a new, never-before-described species. And then, once I have their eager eyes, I reveal to them that I am the discoverer.

For the rest of the semester they are mine.

It all started when I was working on my master's degree back in the early 1980s. I fell in with a professor whose expertise lay in flatworms - some of the smallest multicellular organisms on earth. What's more, he descended to an even more intimate level of scrutiny by studying the worms with an electron microscope capable of magnifying their tissues hundreds of thousands of times.

Electron microscopy is, in a way, less a scientific than a surreal pursuit, like trying to spin a garment out of cobwebs. The animals my adviser worked with are so small that they can be handled only indirectly.

First of all, they have to be embedded in small plastic blocks that look like gumdrops so you can get your fingers around them. Then they are sectioned on the edge of a diamond, the shavings floating off on a small lake of distilled water like autumn leaves. The only means of handling these ultrathin sections - their thickness is measured in molecules - is to push them about with an eyelash. But not just any eyelash: The delicate hair must come from a child not older than a toddler, in this case the professor's one-year-old son.

Is this not magical?

Lastly, the sections must be scooped up from below with a tiny copper grid held by fine-tipped forceps.

To make a long story short, while my adviser was a world-class expert at these painstaking procedures, I discovered myself to be the bull in the china shop. Never before had I come up against anything for which I lacked such feel. It was a blow to my self-image that took a long time to overcome: I had never failed at anything, and here I was struggling for bare mediocrity.

Very early in my career as an electron microscopist I considered abandoning ship at first opportunity, but I didn't want to let my adviser down. So I pushed myself ever onward, botching the specimens, mis-mixing the plastic for the blocks, cutting poor sections, and, when I lacked for a child's eyelash, skewering my sections with one of my own.

And then, in the depths of my despair at ever seeing a master's degree, I accompanied my adviser on a field trip to a spot on the southern coast of Maine: It was time to collect some more worms.

IT was the height of summer, and the tide had gone out under a brilliant sun. We waded out into a narrow channel and took some samples of sand in about a foot of water. Returning to the lab, I did the one thing I had become fairly competent at - separating the animals from the sediment and observing them under the microscope.

I soon found a worm I had never seen before: reddish, elongated, and with a curious tail bristle. I showed it to my adviser, who made a rare departure from his normally reserved bearing. "Oh no!" he exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding!"

In the next moment he informed me that I had found a new species. A new species. At that point I had been at work on my master's for 2-1/2 years, and now, for the first time, came a flush of success.

What I needed to do to stake my claim to the species, he explained, was to prepare it for electron microscopy and publish a detailed report of its anatomy. That would entitle me to name it - and append my own name - in the manner of the great taxonomists of history.

I all but needed to be fanned. I would get to name it!

Provisionally, we agreed to call the animal Paratomella rubrichaete (undescribed species), a name that denotes its relationship to some already-described species in the same group. Once I had done the microscopy, my name would slip neatly between those parentheses.

The microscopy. I had only three specimens, lying in state in plastic blocks. I set to work with diamond and eyelash - and ruined two blocks right off. I did get enough good sections to do preliminary work and finish the degree, but fear of failure prevented me from touching the third. The result was that I didn't have enough material to adequately describe the new species. But the most important and immediate need at that point in my life had been filled. I left the laboratory life and went off to teach.

As it turned out, I loved teaching and am still at it with a furious head of steam. What's more, I have those photographs of my worm and use them to prove to my students that discovery often lies in one's backyard. They, so sweetly accepting, think much of me for this and lump me - the erstwhile and humble worm biologist - in with the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Albert Einstein. I accept their admiration for the gift that it is, knowing that in my desk drawer lies a small block of amber-colored plastic whose contents once taxed my every nerve.

Someday I'm going to classify that worm.

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