04 September 2012

Nerd Camp, the full story

You know how sometimes, someone will be going on and on about how impossibly full their schedule is and how busy they are and after rattling off all of their appointments and commitments they’ll exclaim, “Oh my gosh, I’m exhausted just TALKING about it!

Well, that’s what happened to me last week. Just recounting my travels, just thinking back on all of it made me so tie-tiiiie. So I had to stop and just look at beach photos. Sorry about that.

But after a wonderfully relaxed long weekend – only my third weekend at home since mid-June! – I am back to feeling more human. Or at least, more blogger-ish. Which means I can finish telling you about my two weeks at Nerd Camp and then commence being a total homebody from here on out, both physically and mentally.

So, for starters. I’m going to assume that the vast majority of my readership (let’s say, five out of the six readers) have never been to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. That’s a logical assumption given that its only purposes as a town is 1) to run a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard for the wealthy touristy families, and 2) to give the Nerd Campers a place to drink and to purchase semi-fresh (at least, non-institutional) food and coffee. That’s it.

And thus, the main street of Woods Hole is just this.

No cropping. That’s basically it. Lots of tourists, about three restaurants/bars, a few shops selling trinkets and souvenirs I do not need, one small market/grocery, and a ridiculous number of parking lots for the ferry. Now you understand why I was concerned that if I forgot my toothbrush, there would be no way to buy a new one!

But just behind those shops?

Hey. I could make this a vacation, too!

When I arrived to Woods Hole, after a multi-leg journey including a car ride and a few buses to reach the place from New Haven, I dumped my bags at my dorm on the Nerd Campus several blocks away. Then I checked my watch, realized that lunch was long overdue, and purchased the most delicious Italian sub I’ve ever had in my entire life at the deli counter in the town’s only market. And then I spent forty-five minutes eating it, right here.

See, that’s one of the big draws for the Marine Biological Laboratory, aka Nerd Camp. You’re doing hardcore science twelve hours a day, but oh, the setting. It wins you over.

So while I did all my eating and sleeping in this dreary dormitory...

This was the view just to the right.

Another harbor! There are multiple harbors there. They maximize the shoreline.

I spent as much time outdoors as I could, but most of my hours were spent in this building:

Which housed our laboratory, where we spent our days in Zebrafish Boot Camp:

And that’s the other big draw for the MBL: the amazing scientific community and education. This is where I learned many of the techniques I’ll be using at my new job. See, my graduate work used worms to understand how our nervous system puts itself together, but now I’m using fish. And while the nervous systems of worms and fish and you and me are remarkably similar, the actual business of using fish to understand our nervous system was totally unfamiliar to me. That’s why I was at this course – to learn how to tell boy fish from girl fish, how to make baby fish, how to make baby fish that glow GREEN and RED, how to mess up their little nervous systems to learn from it, how to dissect out their fishy brains, how to study their fishy behaviors. Everything fish, all so I can be a good fish scientist now in my real job.

Because that was our reason for being there, we really did spend the vast majority of our time in lab. There were days when we started our day in lecture at 8:30, took an hour for lunch, learned a new technique in the afternoon, worked in teams throughout the evening to collect data with the new technique (while eating dinner in shifts), gathered around our laptops that night to create a presentation together, went to the bar at midnight to celebrate completing the presentation, slept a few precious hours, and got up the next morning to present our data to the faculty... at 8:30 AM.


At least there were windows for wistful daydreaming.

(Another harbor!)

And there was a bit of free time. Halfway in, we had a whole morning to ourselves, so some of my fellow nerd campers and I wandered down this road...

To that beach I showed you the other day!

There’s a reason why the Marine Biological Laboratory is located in little Woods Hole: the place is teeming with cool organisms. We visited the aquarium on campus, we snuck down to a private beach at night to see the bioluminescent dinoflagellates, we leaned over the pier to scoop up teeny quarter-sized jellyfish. And though I was there to learn about zebrafish, it was hard not to get excited about the variety of marine life... even the random clumps of seaweed on the beach.

And I wasn’t alone in my enthusing. See, just like for other summer sleep-away camps, I worried that I’d have trouble making friends, that I wouldn’t fit in with my fellow campers (twenty in the course plus at least that many faculty and teaching assistants), that people would be mean and I would feel stupid. And just like for other summer sleep-away camps, I found that I was actually among my new best friends.

How could we not be, after together we experienced...

... many, many late nights drinking pitchers at the Kidd
... learning how to mouth-pipette fish sperm,
... the drama and agony of co-designing a t-shirt,
... how many uses the cafeteria has for leftovers (“paella” and “frittata” abound),
... drinking beer and wine in the break room with the top faculty in our new field,
... decapitating and dissecting fish brains,
... buying groceries and wine juice boxes for a beach picnic on our day off,
... the student-faculty soccer game,
... recording our startle response as we popped balloons behind each other,
... throwing on our swimsuits at a moment’s notice when we had a free hour to spend at the beach,
... the lobster banquet, for which we all “dressed up” (by wearing clean clothes),
... sneaking down to “secret beach” in pitch black to swim in the bioluminscence,
... and so, so many cool new science tricks.

Totally BFFAEAEAE, you guys. KIT.

(credit to my fellow Nerd Campers for these three photos)