Wednesday, 05 June 2013 20:00

The Seacoast of Illinois?

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  All seems calm at MBL's harbor on Eel Pond. All seems calm at MBL's harbor on Eel Pond. Photo courtesy of MBL - 

MBL Vote Moves Woods Hole Landmark Toward Deal with University of Chicago

Shakespeare famously set the shipwreck scene of The Winter's Tale in "Bohemia, a desert country near the sea," a geographical stretch unrivaled until the vote last Saturday by the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) Corporation, the scientific membership body that holds residual legal rights but no direct control over the MBL in Woods Hole, MA, to affiliate with the University of Chicago (UChicago). The seacoast of Illinois is now one step closer as the members' overwhelming vote of 158-2 gave MBL's Board of Trustees authority to negotiate terms with UChicago in a deal that would hopefully leave the 125-year-old MBL as a distinct institution but provide relief from its ongoing financial woes.

Like other independent research institutions, MBL had relied on its endowment to balance out the rise and fall of private donations and government grants but the 2008 financial meltdown severely undercut that strategy. Discussions with UChicago began last fall and in a January letter to the MBL community, MBL President and Director Joan Ruderman wrote, "Our overarching goal in considering a new affiliation is to preserve what is special about the MBL—its history, culture, and tradition of excellence in being a leader in biological discovery—while at the same time establishing a structural and organizational plan that will allow us to do so in a sustainable manner."

Thoru Pederson of the University of Massachusetts Medical School at Worcester is a member of the MBL Corporation. Pederson who is also the elected ASCB Treasurer greeted the Corporation vote with cheers. "The news here is that this step has been taken and the definitive agreement is still to be finalized," Pederson explained. The MBL Corporation no longer has day-to-day control over MBL but its overwhelming endorsement vote clears away the last possible obstacle for the MBL Board of Trustees who can now hammer out an accord with UChicago, said Pederson. "Even without MBL having its financial problems, this would be a excellent choice for an affiliation. This has legs. It can preserve MBL as an independent institution and give the University of Chicago something it wants."

Pederson says he expects MBL to continue its cooperative programs such as the Brown University-MBL doctoral degree and the joint library it operates with its Woods Hole neighbor, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). UChicago has its own affiliation track record with the Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermilab in Illinois.

MBL pursues two primary areas of research: basic biology and environmental science. In summer, the MBL scientific population increases with the arrival of over 1600 students, faculty, investigators, and science journalists while in the offseason, it maintains 270 year-round researchers and staff. MBL also runs special support facilities like the Marine Resources Department which stocks its renowned model organisms, the local squid and horseshoe crabs, which first attracted biologists to the fishing village in 1888. MBL's journal, The Biological Bulletin, dates from 1889.

MBL counts 55 Nobelists among those who have taught, studied, and experimented in Woods Hole. Legendary figures in modern biology associated with MBL range from Thomas Hunt Morgan (who shipped his Drosophila collection every summer from Manhattan to Cape Cod in barrels), Nettie Stevens, and E.B. Wilson to Keith Porter, Shinya Inoué, and George Wald. Recent MBL stars include Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, Ron Vale, Jim Spudich, Tim Hunt, and Avram Hersko.

Although ASCB has no formal connection with MBL, its summer programs especially the Physiology Course, have attracted generations of young ASCB members who returned as senior scientists to teach the course. Members of the ASCB Public Information Committee who taught the original Science Writers Program lab course (now the Logan Science Journalism Program) include Bob Goldman, Rex Chisholm, Bob Palazzo, and Kerry Bloom.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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