On Being A Sponge
When my major presentation to the International Reading Association in Indianapolis ended, a gaggle of women rushed at me grinning….all talking at once saying….”Could you be away… far away for three weeks in a row?”
“Yes, I could,” I answered.
“Do you scuba dive?” asked another.
“I can learn,” I answered, grinning. “Where are you?”
“Guam,” they chorused, and we made plans to plan, and I made a mental note to find classes to learn to scuba dive.
When the Asia-Pacific rep from my publisher heard I would be in the South Pacific, she asked, “Could you include ten extra days on the island of Palau? We need a keynote speaker to inspire their school year and do writing workshops for teachers.”
Again, I said, “Yes,” grinning.
A few months later, I landed on Palau, and had a great time with the teachers and staff of Palau schools. With another week on Palau to explore this South Pacific paradise, I looked for and found a terrific guide. After a few days of showing me the island, he said, “You’re so curious about nature, would you like to meet some scientists on the island doing research for the Coral Reef Research Foundation?”
Before I could say, yes, he pulled the jeep into an archway of palms near a dock and in minutes we were in a lab and I was shaking hands with the husband-wife team of scientists. They explained their work, the lab, asked about my natural science writing, and suggested I visit the clam farm on the island. My questions brought me back a few times, and the night I had to leave on the only plane out, at 3:30am, we had a very late dinner to say good-bye, and I flew from Palau back to Guam for my three weeks there.
A year later, I got an email from the wife part of that team, saying without preamble…… “Carolyn….You have to do this….It is as if they invented this for you…It is a weekend conference called ”Author…Illustrator…Scientist”….at the Marine Biological Laboratories, the MBL, in Woods Hole, MA. Here’s the number…go…..go…..go…it is perfect for you…..and let me know how it was.”
I cancelled my weekend visit with my dad, flew to Boston, took a bus to the Cape, and soon was seated in an old MBL auditorium, with fold up wooden seats, fascinated by the first scientist with the challenge of explaining his life’s work in one hour…Three days passed like summer showers…….each hour more intriguing than the one before. I scribbled notes… my sketches streaks of lightning hitting my pages… as one idea pierced another.
As the conference ended, the director took me aside saying, “It was easy to see you loved this conference…With your enthusiasm you would be perfect for one of our summer fellowships. Please apply for the Science Writer’s Fellowship, for a month of work with scientists next summer. I will send you the application requirements. The fellowships are awarded in the spring.” I was thrilled to be asked, and did apply. In spring, while participating in a painting seminar at Ghost Ranch, a phone call from the director told me one of the Science Writing Fellowships was mine and asked if I would accept….. and it took all my self control to not scream, “Yes!”
Out I went that summer, to shadow any of the scientists who had agreed to be interrupted, by the curious writers attending. There were classes…….one strand of cell biology, another of ecology. Since I write about natural science, I chose the ecology strand………..The month whizzed by, as we took field trips to study estuarine issues in a nearby salt marsh, discussed the pressing problems of our world as the scientific community and academics were very aware of climate change, and listened to brilliant lecturers from NIH, Harvard, and MIT.
My insatiable curiosity pulled me into the work of the cell biology people whose professors encouraged my interest. One day the lead professor said, “I signed up the use of the big microscope for us this afternoon, so I want you to go over to the Resource Center, that building across the street, find the biggest tank… net one of the Woods Hole squids …. bring it back in a bucket.”
You would think a foot long squid, swimming in a tank 20’ across and four feet deep with hundreds of other squid would be easy to net, but it took me a lot of tries to get one, and…get it into the bucket. As I walked back to the lab, sea water sloshing out of the bucket onto my feet….the squid thrashing around, trying to escape, I finally made it.
In moments the professor handed me a very small scissors, saying, “Behead it and watch out for the beak and remember, they squirt black ink………” With help and determination, I did it. We removed the spinal cord, extracted the spinal fluid, created slides, and took them to that microscope that filled a room and watched cells divide in real time. Breathlessly I watched cell universes, I had only seen drawn in pages of old science books, become real life…..that made me gasp at the astonishing beauty……
As we cleaned up the lab and closed it for the day, the professor asked… “Are you working on something right now? Did they ask you to bring something to work on?”
“No,” I said. “No….The director pointedly said, ‘Do not bring any work. We want you to remain open to what is happening here. We have lots of brilliant people doing lots of brilliant work, however, many cannot communicate what it is they do. We hope you will find a fascination and perhaps explain to the world, what the scientist cannot. So we want you to just observe and absorb.’
“So……here I am. Just here observing and being a sponge.”
“Well, may I say,” said the professor grinning, “I have never met a better sponge.”
A few days later, standing in line in the cafeteria overlooking the harbor, a friendly couple asked me to join them for lunch, and as I asked of their work, he said, “Bioluminescence….and would you like to spend this afternoon in our lab?”
“I would love that…yes,” I said, and then could barely eat as questions lined up in my mind. As we walked to his lab he was explaining bioluminescence in jellyfish and mushrooms and plants, and once in his lab he continued this subject that has fascinated me since I saw my first jellyfish at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, as a child……
He said, “Come with me…” and walked me to his big black deep sink….. took a dusty jar from a shelf above the sink, the yellowed label reading…. ‘Sea of Japan 1932’……removed its cork and spilled what looked like sesame seeds into my hands….
“Turn off the lights, please,” he asked his wife…….”Now water”…… and he sprinkled water from the tap into my palms saying…….”Rub your hands together….”
As I did, my hands turned as blue as the grottoes of Capri…. brilliant cobalt blue… and both of us grinning like children… He explained how he was working to prove how using the bioluminescence of jellyfish could be a tool for studying living cell proteins…
Days of fascination flew by and the month was at an end. How could I return to the Midwest after living in Woods Hole, land of fascination and the sea? But return, I did, and in a few months, I was offered another fellowship for the next summer….the entire summer……and a cottage to live in at #6 Devil’s Lane, Woods Hole, MA.
My migration route took me from a speech in Indianapolis… to professional development in Palau….. school visits in Guam…..back to the Midwest to write….and to Woods Hole, MA, to be a sponge………. An entire migration of personal generosity, for which I will be forever grateful. I am so grateful for he generosity of each person who took the time to send an email, make a call, give a suggestion, talk writer’s talk, teach neophyte me a bit about cell biology, praise my “sponge-ness,” turn my hands blue, and more than anything else, each person encouraged me to continue my exuberant intellectual curiosity to explore, discover, and write……..
…and that tall Japanese scientist who turned my hands blue that summer afternoon ……What became of him and his work?
“One Japanese and two American scientists have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for taking the ability of some jellyfish to glow and transforming it into a ubiquitous tool of molecular biology for watching the dance of living cells and the proteins within them.” By Kenneth Chang, Science, October 8, 2008.
“On Being a Sponge”
February 23, 2018
St. Louis MO