Students in Rachel Fink's class used classic cinematographic techniques, such as speeding up natural events (time lapse) and filtered lighting, to make films--but they aren't the kind you'd find at your local Blockbuster. For one thing, they boast titles like Sea Urchin Embryos: A Vegetal View of the Developing Gut and Keratocyte Locomotion. Then there are the "stars" of the shows--sea urchin embryos and two-headed flatworms. Scenes feature fluctuating abstract shapes and high-contrast patterns.
No, these filmmakers weren't imitating Fellini but, rather, were immersed in flagellae. The biology majors created the movies in The Cellular and Molecular Basis for Development, a course taught last fall by Fink, associate professor of biological sciences. A selection of the movies, each of which captures cellular processes, was posted on Mount Holyoke's internal computer network.
"It has been one of my dreams to have students make and 'publish' these movies," says Fink, who has been at the forefront of video microscopy (making time-lapse movies with a video camera attached to a microscope) since the field's inception about fifteen years ago. "Many science students feel they work in a world that is not easily shared, because it's too technical. With the Web, they can sit in their dorms and show their work to friends."
Fink realized her "dream" through a collaboration with Kathryn Sandretto '01. The two attended training sessions last year funded by an Andrew Mellon Foundation grant to the College to encourage the development of Web-based curriculum projects. While Fink addressed curricular matters, Sandretto concentrated on learning the nuts and bolts of putting the videos on the Web. Sandretto, a student in the class, is a big fan of the movies.
"Making these time-lapse videos helped us understand more about how development works," Sandretto says. "With pictures, it's easy to look at one image and then to see another and to know that they're related--but not really to grasp that they are the same organism at different stages. With videos, you watch the transformation occur; you have evidence before your own eyes that the first and the last stages are the same animal." Classmate Cynthia Bruno '01 echoes Sandretto's sentiments: "For one lab, I chose to graft the heads of two hydras (a small freshwater relative of the jellyfish) together and to watch for regeneration. I was able to make a time-lapse video of my two-headed hydra over the period of a day. It was amazing to watch the progression without the strain of sitting in lab for many hours."
In addition to helping students gain an understanding of such cellular processes as division and locomotion, the videos have enabled them to share findings. Says Sandretto, "When we work in the lab, we typically only get the chance to see our own work. Now, I can hop on the Internet and take a look at my classmates' videos." Class members also logged on to a forum to "chat" about lab experiences. Faced with a reluctant hydra, Sandretto let others know about her success via the forum. "I couldn't get my hydra to eat, so I put one in a drop of water with a brine shrimp, so the two were smushed up next to each other. The hydra finally ate the shrimp. So, if your hydras aren't eating, you can force-feed them."
Says Fink, "I could have given lectures on all the processes that the students captured in their videos, but they were a lot more invested in what they were learning because they made the movies. Lab wasn't confined to a schedule. They could be in lab anytime--with a click of a mouse."
Click here to view the students' cellular development movies.