Recreation of a 19th century experiment inside a 3D virtual reality theatre

For her honors thesis project, Beatrice Steinert set out to recreate a 19th century experiment by the embryologist Edwin Grant Conklin, to collect, study, and sketch the embryonic developmental stages of Crepidula fornicata, commonly known as the slipper snail.

Crepidula fornicata, commonly known as the slipper snail.

The 22-year-old Steinert, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says the project drew on both her fascination with how organisms grow from a single cell to complicated beings and methods of how we visualize the process.

Steinert’s mission was a path chartered into the unknown. She knew what she wanted to do, but found no instructions to follow. Her advisor’s research focuses on fruit fly embryos, which bore little similarity to those of the marine snail.

Rather than retreat, Steinert blazed her own trail, something she learned to do during her RI EPSCoR 2014 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at RISD Nature Lab. That project — Can novel representations of living marine plankton foster public interest in and understanding of marine ecosystems? — also came without a defined set of outcomes.

“We were being asked to approach these organisms and tools used in science, but with no preconceptions of what we were supposed to get out of it or what we were supposed to see,” recalls Steinert. “That was a really important part of my being able to ask a wide range of questions and to break down my own assumptions of how science works and what it means to be a scientist.”

The fellowship was unlike anything she had encountered in science labs, where students are typically instructed precisely on how to proceed with preordained steps in order to generate specific results. Steinert and Noah Schlottman, also a Brown student, worked under the mentorship of Neal Overstrom, Jennifer Bissonnette, and Senior critic Rafael Attias.

“The experience allowed me to realize that I wanted to be able to see these microscopic organisms in different ways, and it gave me the opportunity to freely explore various possibilities,” Steinert adds. “The whole point of the project was how to communicate with people, and how to get them to care if they have to interact with something from a distance. This required us to be creative about how we presented information about these organisms. It also made us realize that the key was finding a way to communicate why we ourselves cared about them.

It allowed me to fully tap into my own curiosity, which is a huge part of being a scientist. Now, when I look at something under a microscope or more generally in the world around me, I have so many questions and get excited about figuring out the best way to see and understand it. That whole summer was really important in embedding that excitement in me as a scientist and also as an artist.”

The unchartered territory for the young scientist served her well with her slipper snail project.

She first had to figure out how to collect the Crepidula, keep them alive in the lab, and obtain embryos from them. She had to maneuver the embryos out of their egg sacs, stain them, affix them to slides, and study and make images of them at each stage of development.

“There is limited literature on Crepidula and no instructions on how to move embryos around and switch them in and out of solutions,” Steinert says. “I had a big problem with the embryos sticking to plastic pipette tips, so I switched to using glass Pasteur pipettes. For several procedures, I had to heat them up over a flame to get a thin opening.”

Initially, she sought to use the same tools and techniques as Conklin, who documented the different developmental stages with detailed notes and hundreds of sketches, but she ended up with a hybrid of methods both old and new.

Beatrice Steinert uses the control stick in the Brown University YURT to move an image of a snail embryo.

The confocal microscope allowed Steinert to collect images from the embryos, spitting out a stack of images in different sections that could be digitally compiled into a model for viewing in the YURT, a dark room with a domed ceiling and curved walls. Once inside and wearing special glasses, Steinert demonstrates how she can press buttons on a control stick to manipulate a 3D embryo, flip it over, walk around it, and even go inside.

“One of my goals was to try to make the data and the ability to see it more accessible,” she says. “Visualizing embryos in the YURT allows you to more intuitively understand what is going on, how cells in the embryo are arranged, and to see things you might not be able to otherwise. And, you can compare models to see how cells have moved or what an experimental manipulation has changed.”

At the same time, Steinert says she wanted to explore the YURT as a model for teaching developmental biology, a field that demands visual spatial skills and grasping the intricacies of the development process: “Embryos are complex and are constantly transforming, so it can be difficult to see them. You need to see them from all perspectives, too, and at different stages of development to really understand what is going on. With a microscope, there is a barrier between you and the embryo. In the YURT, you can just pick it up and turn it around and look.”

As it turns out, there is not as much of a distinction between science and art as people might imagine, Steinert concludes; both are ways of seeing and communicating and require hands-on, material engagement to figure out the best way of achieving this.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle / RI NSF EPSCoR

The complete article can be found here.

Snail embryo at the stage of about 25 cells. The blue dots are the nuclei.
Snail embryo at the stage of about 100 cells.
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