The Woods Hole Scientific Community

21 May 2020

The small village of Woods Hole, located on the south-eastern tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, USA, is a world renowned centre for basic biological and biomedical research as well as marine and environmental research. This is because four major research institutions as well as various smaller science associations and laboratories are located in and around the village. The biggest research institutions include The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The MBL and WHOI are private non-profit organizations whereas NMFS and USGS are both federal government facilities. These along with the Sea Education Association (SEA) and the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) constitute the Woods Hole Scientific Community, and together they comprise a world renowned centre for marine, environmental and biomedical research.

The Marine Biological Laboratory

The MBL was established in 1888. It was founded by scientists who believed that it would be more efficient to study some of the key processes in biology, such as neurobiology, cell and developmental biology, using simple marine animals than in more complex higher animals. Initially (and until the 1970s when a year-round programme was established) the MBL was only open during the summer months and scientists from all around the US and from other parts of the world would visit in June, July and August. They collected marine samples such as squid, horseshoe crabs and sea urchins, and ran experiments using them. Then, at the end of the summer, they’d pack up and head back to their home institutions. Today, the MBL is an international research centre affiliated with the University of Chicago, and the scientists who work there are mainly involved in basic research in biology, environmental science and biomedicine, and they still use simple marine models to investigate various aspects of human health and disease.

Each year, the MBL offers a broad range of courses and workshops during the summer months. When the courses were first introduced they were initially designed for training teachers how to teach biology. However, over the years, these programmes have evolved and now they are recognised as being some of the best you can take as a young scientist in order to develop and further your career in biosciences. The course directors and faculty are selected from leading universities and research institutions from all over the globe and are recognised experts in their particular field. The courses comprise a practical, laboratory-based component and a lecture-based component, and although the practical sessions are only open to those researchers who have been accepted on the course, the lectures are open to everybody. There are a wide range of Advanced Research courses provided by the MBL each year, but the main three, which run for several weeks each summer are the Embryology: Concepts and Techniques in Modern Developmental Biology course, the Physiology: Modern Cell Biology Using Microscopic, Biochemical and Computational Approaches course, and the Neurobiology: Mechanisms and Advanced Approaches course. Being accepted on these courses, however, is quite difficult as only a limited number of students are accepted each year. For example, the Neurobiology course only takes 12 students, whereas the Embryology and Physiology courses each take 24 students. For those who do get accepted on one of the courses, then mornings are spent in the lecture theatre with some of the top researchers in the field, and the afternoons and evenings are spent in the laboratories learning new techniques, and using the most modern and best equipment possible. This is because the manufacturers of the equipment like to lend it to the MBL so that the students can use it during the summer, then when they become independent scientists then there is a very good chance that they might buy the equipment that they used during the course.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

WHOI is a private, non-profit research and higher education centre, which was established in 1930 and its main focus has always been the study of all aspects of oceanography, including marine science and engineering. As a lot of the research conducted at WHOI was (and still is) conducted underwater, a number of highly sophisticated submergence research vessels have been built there. Perhaps the most famous of these is Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin, which was used by Dr Robert Ballard during his exploration in 1986 of the wreck of the RMS Titanic, which lies on the sea floor at a depth of ~3,800 m from the surface. In addition, in 2013, WHOI became the home of the HOV Deepsea Challenger, in which Director and Explorer, James Cameron made his solo dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, which at ~11,000 m is the deepest place on Earth.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)

The first scientific community in Woods Hole was the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, which was established in 1871 for studying the marine flora and fauna living in the pristine waters of Cape Cod. Today, this institution is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). It is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the scientists there conduct research on the conservation of marine species such as whales, corals and sea turtles, and they also investigate the status of commercial fish stocks, and whether fisheries are productive and sustainable.

The U.S. Geological Survey, Sea Education Association and Woods Hole Research Center

The USGS came to Woods Hole in the 1960s when its branch of Atlantic Marine Geology opened for investigations into the geology and geophysics of the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Since then the Sea Education Association (SEA) and the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), smaller, independent Woods Hole scientific institutions were established in 1975 and 1985, respectively. The SEA is dedicated to educating people about the importance of the ocean in our lives, whereas the WHRC tackles world-wide environmental issues.

Map of Woods Hole village showing the buildings of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the National Marine Fisheries Service.