Hands-on HPS at the Marine Biological Laboratory

by Daniel Liu, Hanna Lucia Worliczek, and Michelle Lynne LaBonte

How much science does a historian of science need to know? Some of us come in with PhDs in the sciences, some become artificially uninformed (à la Latour’s Laboratory Life), and the remainder of us learn on the fly. With the current emphasis on the analysis of scientific practice and the scientist’s encounter with material objects, as well as the continuing emphasis on tools and instruments, more historians are participating in the laboratory experience as a way of gaining analytical insight that supplements archival, written sources.

Last November 13–17, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, with generous financial support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the National Science Foundation, hosted the three of us (Michelle, Dan, and Hanna) for a one-week microscopy workshop, “The Life Cycles of Microscopic Imaging in Biology.” The MBL McDonnell Initiative, run by Kate MacCord (MBL), Jane Maienschein (Arizona State University and MBL), and David Mark Welch (MBL), aims, in the McDonnell initiative’s words, to bring “history and philosophy of science and the life sciences together to transform discovery.” We—two graduate students, one postdoc—are all students of the history of advanced twentieth-century microscopy, and only one of us had expertise in anything beyond basic, high school classroom-level microscopy.

The workshop was conceived and organized by Karl Matlin (University of Chicago and MBL) and Kate MacCord, to explore the possibilities of “doing HPS in the laboratory” with two goals. First, to “determine if close interaction of historians and philosophers of science and active laboratory investigators influenced how each group thought about their own work.” And second, to “explore microscopic imaging in biology, an old field that is rapidly developing because of new technological innovations.”¹ We worked in conjunction with scientists in their laboratories, experts from the Central Microscopy Facility, and librarians of the MBL for four days, trying to see if three historians of science could ask novel questions about the history and practice of microscopy.

Many readers of this Newsletter know what these MBL study sessions are like: a small group of historians and philosophers talking together, studying together, eating in the MBL cafeteria together, and crashing in dormitories. What we learned in four days would have taken each of us individually weeks, if not months, and a small fortune in laboratory equipment to achieve.

The workshop began with a crash course on post-Abbean (ca. 1872) physico-mathematical theory of optical microscopy by Louis Kerr (MBL) and Jim McIlvain (Carl Zeiss): overviews of dark field, phase contrast, differential interference contrast (DIC), several varieties of fluorescence microscopy, Airy scan, and TEM (Tunneling Electron Microscopy) and SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy), as well as several new optical techniques and systems such as Köhler illumination, infinity-corrected optics, wide field deconvolution, wide field apotome, and single-photon imaging. And this was just day one! For all of us, the speed and depth of experience gained by this hands-on training was well worth it.

Figure 1.

Michelle and Dan spent time in the labs of Tomomi Tani and Rudolf Oldenberg—two MBL scientists who work primarily on developing new optical instruments and software for processing image data. One of Rudolf’s postdocs, Mai Tran, obtained some fresh, gravid sea urchins for Michelle and Dan to extract eggs from; then, Michelle and Dan were given free rein to use two of the lab’s (older) polarization scopes, each of which was connected to current software. What was eye-opening was the degree of contrast control current hardware and software allows, compared to what was available only fifty years ago: from relatively simple histogram manipulation (similar to curves manipulation in Photoshop) to the LCD-based polarizing LC-PolScope universal compensator hardware Ruldof invented in the 1990s (Figure 1). Even more physically impressive was the microscope and laser illumination setup Tomomi built in his lab. (It was a remarkably warm place to be in November, heated as it was by a bank of computer equipment and a mini-fridge-sized laser generator.)

At one point, Tomomi off-handedly remarked that the fundamentals of light microscopy have remained stable for the last 150 years; this was certainly not the impression you’d get looking around the laboratory, even if the building itself is just over a century old. Although the basics of forming a light path through a specimen may have remained the same, just about every accessory and device around the light path has been continuously altered and updated. The result is a visible accretion of skills, equipment, and techniques, as well as a clear division of labor. Here, the division is not necessarily between the inventors and users, but between scientists working at the cutting edge of microscopic technique and the skilled technicians like Kasia Hammar (MBL), who might be responsible for making images from specimens using a wide range of available, often older instruments.

Since Dan was particularly interested in specimen preparation technique, Kasia showed him some of the newer and older rotary microtomes used for thin-sectioning plastic-embedded specimens, before imaging by TEM. While thin sectioning is nothing new, computer-controlled serial sectioning has recently made it possible to construct three-dimensional TEM images of entire cells and tissues. This technique today is automated, but data-intensive, and serves as a reminder that, historically, using two-dimensional micrographs to reconstruct a three-dimensional picture was difficult and labor-intensive.

Figure 2.

Meanwhile, Hanna spent time in the lab of Jessica Mark Welch, a specialist in the spatial structure of microbial communities and the methods used to study them. Hanna wanted to learn not only how microscopy images were created by Jessica and her lab, but also how they are selected, interpreted, and disseminated across the experimental process. Jessica and her postdoc Tabita Ramirez-Puebla invited Hanna to participate in the imaging process of an ongoing project on biofilms. Using confocal fluorescence microscopy—a serial image capture technique that captures a stack of optical sections and digitally reconstructs a single, three-dimensional image—they explored cuttlefish tissues and the associated colonizing bacteria. These had not been investigated before, and therefore represented a novel kind of microscopic sample. Hanna, Jessica, and Tabita examined them while acquiring images with the microscope, and discussed them in comparison with images of well-known samples, displayed side by side on the monitors of the imaging system (Figure 2).²

Through the auspices of this workshop, Hanna participated in a complex teaching process between an experienced researcher and her postdoc, where both theoretical knowledge and practical skills were being disseminated. Moreover, Hanna, Jessica, Tabita and Louis Kerr (who heads the MBL’s Central Microcopy Facility), discussed aspects of their work with images that often remained hidden from outsiders: the roles of beauty and affection, the artistic aspects of biological imaging, the selection of “representative images,” strategies to sell new knowledge to an audience, conflicts of those aspects with “pure science,” and interactions of all of the above with best practice standards in the scientific field. Notably, Hanna’s direct participation in the production of knowledge about bacterial communities and fluorescence microscopy leaned on her prior experience as a microbiologist. In this particular case, it was essential to have a common language to converse with scientists and to understand the biological questions that motivate the lab’s experiments.

The most striking aspect for Hanna, herself interested in historical practices of image interpretation and dissemination of visual knowledge, was to participate in this teaching process and to learn what motivates various decisions made during imaging and image interpretation, especially how thoughtful aesthetic aspects were weighed against scientific accuracy. Translating HPS theory into questions about what was happening at a particular moment allowed for a relaxed and thoughtful conversation, one that enabled a dissection of tacit and explicit knowledge applied to each step of knowledge production. As a result, Hanna gained a new analytical perspective on the dissemination of visual knowledge for her historical research project and a fundamental understanding of the modes of this process and the scientific and non-scientific motivations for decisions.

Besides the lab experience, we participated in a reading group, and archival research prior to and after the workshop. The last day of the workshop featured our own and our host’s reflections of the shared lab-experience and presentations by several guest speakers: Jutta Schickore (Indiana University, HPS), Laura Perini (Pomona, philosophy), and the team of Hari Shroff (NIH, bioengineering) and Patrick La Rivière (University of Chicago, biophysics). Other participants included Cathleen Schlundt (Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and MBL), Beatrice Steinert (Brown University), Yoshi Yoshida (University of Minnesota), and Talon Chandler (MBL and University of Chicago).

So what does an historian of science gain from an experience like this? We are not sociologists of science, and our goal was never to study the laboratory as such. What we left with is a sense of where microscopy is going, and a sense for the wide array of apparatuses and techniques that will be used going forward. It was an invaluable experience for all of us to witness and experience tacit practices interacting with stated aims, methods, and epistemic strategies. Listening to the MBL’s scientists and technical staff talk about “science in the making” also required us to partially leave aside our own historiographical or philosophical interest for some conversations. For the MBL scientists and technical staff as well, the workshop became an opportunity for them to decelerate their usual research dynamics in exchange for lengthy conversations about every step of their work, leading to reflections on their own scientific practices and modes of disseminating knowledge.

If such an experience conditions us as historians to look for different clues in the archival record, then the value of this workshop is clear. Besides the archival work two of us did in the MBL library, the whole place, in a way, was a living archive: a collection of technologies, techniques, and theories that are all still in use today—and in its living and adapting scientific personnel, much more than that.

Dan, Hanna, and Michelle would like to thank Kate, Karl, Jane, the generous financial support of the McDonnell Foundation, and the staff and scientists of the MBL for making the workshop happen.


¹ Workshop report, p. 1

² A short description of this method can be found on Jessica’s website and more detailed in Alex M. Walm et al., PNAS 2011, 108 (10) 4152-4157