Readers of this blog know one of the highlights of this year and last has been the PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine. The presenters are always brilliant, interesting, and inspiring. This year I asked my daughter Skye (12) to read the speaker bios and let me know who she would like for me to be sure to meet. One of the two she requested was Sarah Fortune, a microbiologist from the Harvard School of Public Health. The Fortune Lab Sarah runs is dedicating to learning about Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which annually kills two million people.
When Sarah sat beside me in the Green Room at PopTech I told her about Skye and our love of science. Sarah then invited me to bring Skye down to visit her lab at Harvard. She insisted that visiting a “real” science lab would be a better experience even than spending the same time at the Boston Museum of Science. She could not have been more right.
After an exchange of emails to coordinate schedules, the date was set for last Thursday. Kirsten and the girls and I drove down to Boston and parked in the Brigham and Women’s hospital garage. To get to HSPH we walked past monolithic concrete buildings in which scientists were studying diseases such as cancer, diabetes and other issues relating to women and children’s health. One could practically quantify the funding of research based on the size of the buildings in which the research was taking place. The study of tuberculosis, Sarah told us, encompasses just three labs.
Kirsten and I got plastic visitor badges on which our names were printed. Pretty snazzy, eh? We waited a few moments for Sarah to come get us and bring us to her lab. After we put our coats in Sarah’s office she took us to the lab where we met graduate students and post-docs who were very kind and answered our many questions. They didn’t seem used to having visitors, which made us all feel more fortunate for the experience and grateful for their time.
Each scientist had their own work station, complete with beakers, tubes, bottles, flasks, hoses, centrifuges and all manner of colorful contraptions and containers and fluids. Some of the desks were very neat and organized, others chaotic and messy depending on the personality of the respective scientist. Standing in the Fortune Lab I wanted very much to be able to go back and pursue a career in science. I imagine it would be a very fulfilling occupation.
We spent a few minutes looking around and talking to the researchers before Sarah took us to see where they store and grow mycobacteria. The wall in the large room was lined with freezers that contain viles of mycobacteria. In the center of the room was a smaller room with a heavy door, much like a walk in freezer, but quite warm. In this smaller room there was a shelf on each side of the door, on which there were various machines that shook and spun many small viles of bacteria in a sugary solution. The constant movement was required so the cells would not settle in the viles and essentially smother each other. The heat was to promote growth.
The mycobacteria in this lab is a nonpathogenic mycobacteria, Mycobacterium smegmatis. This is used for safety; it will not make the researchers sick and, therefore, they do not need to wear the personal protective equipment as in the biosafety level-3 lab where they conduct experiments on Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The researchers are able to use both species as the “growth and division machinery is highly conserved1” between the two.
Another room contained a large microscope used to capture time-lapse video of the mycobacterium as they grow. The cells are placed into microscopic channels on special slides and either fed or administered antibiotics with tiny tubes. Because the cells thrive in a warm environment, the microscope has mounted to it a clear, environmentally-controlled enclosure. The microscope is connected to a computer on which the images are captured.
When we had finished learning about the microscope and the way mycobacteria is sometimes studied in this part of the lab, we were taken upstairs to the biosafety level-3 lab where scientists do experiments on the pathogenic Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Sarah had us all squeeze into the airlock ante-room where she showed us and explained the personal protective equipment scientists wear when handling the more dangerous TB.
Sarah was very generous with her time. I appreciate especially the attention she gave to the girls, who had many questions. Sarah is obviously passionate about what she does and understands the importance of inspiring another generation of young scientists. Skye asked her what got her interested in studying TB, and Hayley asked her where do they get the TB cells to study. Sarah patiently explained the answers to these any many other questions, including evolution and epigenetics.
Visiting Sarah at her lab at the Harvard School of Public Health was an absolute honor and privilege for which I am immensely grateful. We learned a lot and were inspired. We also gained an appreciation for the hard work being done to combat disease in the world in the Fortune Lab and many others like it.
This is a video of growing mycobacterium Sarah gave to me for this post. The dots are made by pulse labeling the cell wall with a fluorescent amine reactive dye.
1: Asymmetry and Aging of Mycobacterial Cells Lead to Variable Growth and Antibiotic Susceptibility – Aldridge|Fortune, Science, 15 December 2011
Be sure to watch Sarah’s PopTech presentations:
2010 ~> Sarah Fortune – Fighting TB
2011 ~> Fortune and Biewald: Crowdsourcing TB cell annotation
Why Tuberculosis Is So Hard to Cure– Kai Kupferschmidt, Science, 15 December 2011