For a second there I had titled this post “To the edge and back.” How incorrect that was. I was not at the edge, but flung so far over that it was difficult to make it back. I went over the edge, turned around and blew it to smithereens. The most difficult task I’ve encountered since returning from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is explaining the experience to outsiders. The only people I think that could quite understand are those that have been there.
How can you possibly explain something that changed your life so fundamentally? Especially when most people don’t understand what you were doing there in even the basic sense. I’ve received responses such as “You did experiments until 2:00 AM, that must have been horrible” and “well, it probably wasn’t the best time of your life”. Both sentiments that are so far from the truth.
On my flight to JFK I began to read my laboratory manual for the course. I hadn’t looked at in depth until then. I began to feel overwhelmed. Initially I felt I had done most of the techniques outlined in the manual. Upon closer investigation I realized I had never even read about most of the experiments. In my program (the Comparative and Molecular Biosciences program), there are not many people studying bacterial genetics. In fact, most investigators study comparative medicine, which sets me apart as one of the only bacteriologists. This means that, for the most part, many of my peers don’t understand my experiments. Maybe at some basic level, but not at a level of complexity to really critique them. At ABG, I realized I would be among the best scientists I had ever met. For the first time, I felt out of my comfort zone; I was no longer an expert, or the only expert. This was one of the crucial points that made ABG such a great experience. I learned, for the first time that I could thrive when I was a little fish in a big pond. I learned to no longer be intimidated by those who may be more intelligent or talented, but to embrace it. In my mind this was the single most important point in my development as a scientist.
Upon arriving at CSHL, I immediately felt something; this was an extremely special place. Walking the halls of the various buildings one quickly realizes that they can not hide from the accomplishments of the former scientists who called CSHL home. Delbrück, Luria, Hershey, McKlintock, Watson and Crick just to name a few. Walking in their footsteps is an eerie feeling. You get the feeling that they were there, doing the same basic thing that you were, just at a different time. Being on the same level, even at some minuscule scale, was an extraordinary realization.
The course I took is called Advanced Bacterial Genetics. It is a derivative of the Phage Course. In the mid-1900’s a group emerged who were studying genetics. Due to the lack of tools it was impossible to study genetics in complicated organisms such as humans or mice. This group studied bacteriophage – the viruses that infect bacteria. They were simple (in hindsight) and easy to study. This group was the Phage Group, led by Max Delbrück, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize. The Phage Group established the Phage Course at CSHL, which was taught for years until it was later named “Advanced Bacterial Genetics”.
Shortly after arriving, I got set up in my room and found the dining hall. I would be staying at Hooper Hall. One of the oldest buildings on campus, Hooper was originally a single family home built in the 1850s. It was converted to a dorm on the 2nd level and two family apartments (for more permanent guests) on the first floor. My room, number 5, overlooked the harbor. It was small; only a bed, desk and closet. The dining hall was located in Blackford Hall. The food was famously mediocre. A famous cartoon drawn in the 1950’s by one of the Phage Group depicted CSHL as conducting their own experiment evaluating malnourishment of the students. One of the most difficult things was “forcing” yourself to amongst the chaos of everyday operations. There was no way to get food outside of the dining hall hours. Sometimes it was difficult to gauge how hungry I was while we were so busy throughout the day.
The living conditions were a key factor in how I got completely l wrapped up in the parallel universe that is CSH. You don’t have to do anything else but thing about science. You don’t have to cook, clean, or drive. My life shrunk down to a 3 block stretch of Bungtown Road. My head was so full of ongoing experiments, new concepts, and new friends that I literally lost touch with time and space. There was no longer any difference between the days of the week. Not in any negative way, in the best way possible.
And then there were the people…
I really believe that we had a unique group. I was surprised how well we got along. I will miss the level of intellectual stimulation that comes with having such a strong group like we did at Delbrück. We had an incredible time and it will be fun to see where we all end up as time goes by.