Guest post: Lessons from a Riser Lecturer

Professor Paul Dayton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California spoke at the Marine Science Center on April 26. Photo by Kara Sassone.

Pro­fessor Paul Dayton of Scripps Insti­tu­tion of Oceanog­raphy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia spoke at the Marine Sci­ence Center on April 26. Photo by Kara Sassone.

April 26 marked the annual Riser Lec­ture at the Marine Sci­ence Center to honor Doc Riser, the founding director of the MSC. I’d had the event in my book for sev­eral months, but when it finally came upon us my schedule had been over­ridden with other junk, pre­cluding me from being able to make it up to Nahant for the after­noon. Luckily, the MSC has its own cohort of won­derful sci­ence blog­gers (aka grad­uate stu­dents that write about their work and other fun stuff here). I asked Lara Lewis, one of said blog­gers and a member of North­eastern pro­fessor Joe Ayers’ lab, to write about the lec­ture for our reading plea­sure here at iNSo­lu­tion. And here’s what she had to say:


Renowned UCSD ecol­o­gist Dr. Paul Dayton began the 27th Annual Riser Lec­ture by admit­ting he was a failure.

Kind of. More specif­i­cally, he shared an anec­dote about how the first exper­i­ment he con­ducted in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound failed. He thought he would see dif­fer­ences in sponge growth if he excluded preda­tors from the area, but he did not. Paul didn’t mind admit­ting to this “fail,” nor would most sci­en­tists because hon­estly the nature of sci­en­tific exper­i­men­ta­tion leaves so much room for “failure.”

In my mind, though, there are really two ways to fail: (1) an exper­i­ment truly does not work, or (2) the results are not as expected. The first is the most difficult—I’ve expe­ri­enced this trying to extract and amplify mRNA from single cells, and after testing the final product, “Sur­prise! No RNA!” (RNA, a mol­e­cule that helps trans­late genetic code into pro­teins, is so sus­cep­tible to degra­da­tion that the starting levels in a single cell make it really dif­fi­cult to end with a mea­sur­able product). There is no ‘result’ with these types of problems—you just need to revamp your pro­tocol until it works (or give up, but that’s no fun).

Paul Dayton expe­ri­enced the second type of failure. He rethought the problem, added some extra exper­i­ments, and was able to figure out the preda­tors didn’t eat enough sponge to see an effect on sponge pop­u­la­tions in that system.

Paul shared a lot of wisdom during his visit to Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center for the 27th Annual Riser Lec­ture and Dinner at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center. The Riser Lec­ture is an event people around here really look for­ward to because grad­uate stu­dents (like myself) have the oppor­tu­nity to catch up with each other between the spring semester and the start of the summer research ‘field season.’ It’s also great because a dis­tin­guished lec­turer is invited to give a talk on their work and the lec­tures are always excep­tional and highly entertaining.

I had the oppor­tu­nity to meet with Paul a couple times over the course of the day as well as attend his lec­ture on Friday evening. He shared some very amusing sto­ries about his adven­tures growing up near log­ging camps in the rural North­west and his time in McMurdo, Antarc­tica. Lets just say Paul isn’t afraid of a good prank. He also shared an impor­tant mes­sage about his “failure” and its tra­jec­tory over time.

Though his first exper­i­ments in the mid-​​60s didn’t run smoothly, they did estab­lish pre­lim­i­nary photo doc­u­men­ta­tion and sur­veying of the research sites. Flash­for­ward ten years and add in the work of other sci­en­tists from the McMurdo research sta­tion, and then fast­for­ward another thirty years and more work, and you have a lot of infor­ma­tion about the under­water ecosys­tems off of Antarctica.

After exam­ining pho­tographs from these ini­tial study sites and the type of organ­isms that grew on the exper­i­mental setups he’d left behind in the mid-​​60s, Paul real­ized that the land­scape of the study area was changing dras­ti­cally. The rel­a­tive pro­por­tion and type of sponge, urchin, and seastar species varied sub­stan­tially. Though the ocean floor con­di­tions (tem­per­a­ture, pH, sun­light) seemed stable at the time, the larger oceano­graphic influ­ences that fluc­tuate at long time periods (on decade-​​long cycles, even) were con­tin­u­ally changing the dynamics of this ecosystem.

While Paul’s work feels entirely dis­parate from mine, his real­iza­tion still led me to reflect on my own research on the crus­tacean ner­vous system. When I think of long-​​term fluc­tu­a­tions in the behavior and ner­vous system activity of an Amer­ican lob­ster, for instance, I really think about the organism devel­op­men­tally. The lob­ster is going to be sub­stan­tially dif­ferent in 2003 com­pared to 2013 if the lob­ster was a larva in 2003 and is now a repro­duc­tively active adult. It’s hard to judge these larger oceano­graphic influ­ences on an organism’s behavior when the organism itself is changing so dramatically.

We do know, how­ever, that these ambient con­di­tions (tem­per­a­ture, pH, sun­light) are bound to induce changes not only in food supply avail­ability and habitat, but also directly on the organism. Tem­per­a­ture, for instance, has far reaching impacts on crus­tacean behavior and ner­vous system activity. In some behav­ioral assays I con­ducted last year, we saw sig­nif­i­cantly dif­ferent tem­per­a­ture pref­er­ences for Jonah crabs accli­mated to dif­ferent tem­per­a­tures. We also saw dif­fer­ences in activity levels based on the ambient water tem­per­a­ture. More­over, other researchers have shown that ambient or sur­rounding water tem­per­a­tures can affect every­thing from neu­ro­mus­cular junc­tions and walking speed to molting and reproduction.

In other words, not only is an organism’s behavior changing as it grows devel­op­men­tally, it’s also changing based on its sur­rounding con­di­tions. And cer­tainly through the use of the McMurdo Sound pho­tographs and sur­veys, Paul and his col­leagues were able to under­stand that con­di­tions and species pop­u­la­tions can change dra­mat­i­cally over long time periods.

The take­home mes­sage is really to appre­ciate how many fac­tors play into cre­ating the world as we know it—populations of species rise and fall in cyclic periods ranging from the ephemeral ‘may flies’ to the decade or longer oscil­la­tions of Antarctic sponges. And species behavior will change with age, fluc­tu­ating habitat con­di­tions, and likely a whole host of other vari­ables we haven’t even begun to under­stand. Though we’re working to grasp how these fac­tors all inte­grate, to put it simply—it’s going to take a while.

And with regards to sci­en­tific failure and Paul Dayton’s sub­se­quent four decades of research, I think children’s book author Lemony Snicket sums it up prop­erly: “What might seem to be a series of unfor­tu­nate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”