Friday, April 21, 2006
in an Old Whaling Village
By ROGER MUMMERT
Published: April 21, 2006, NY Times
AT the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, James D. Watson gave the first public lecture describing the double helix as the structure of DNA. Barbara McClintock found corn genes jumping from place to place on chromosomes. Richard Roberts discovered split genes and RNA splicing. And if they or any of the other Nobel Prize winners who gathered in Cold Spring Harbor in the 20th century wanted a break from lab work, they could roam across the lawn among charming cedar-shingled houses and gaze out over the water.
Visitors can still do that — and stroll around the village of Cold Spring Harbor, on the North Shore of Long Island, as well, checking out the
shops, lovely Victorian houses and the harbor itself, which was once used by whaling ships.
Or, in public tours, they can look over the shoulders of scientists in the laboratory and learn about DNA in an education center.
At first look, there is little sign that cutting-edge scientific work is taking place on the harborside grounds of the laboratory, a nonprofit research and educational institution that was founded in 1890 as an extension of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. It occupies the site of the former Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Company, and many of the shingled buildings, which date as far back as the 1830's, were once devoted to processing whale parts and refining whale oil. Now, with swans bobbing in the harbor, Volvos in the parking lots and Birkenstock-shod pedestrians clomping along the narrow pathways, the lab's campus brings to mind a tree-shaded small college.
On a Saturday in March, Peter Sherwood, a geneticist and director of research communications at the lab, led a group of just two (other expected visitors had failed to show up) through several labs — many named for scientists who worked at Cold Spring Harbor — moving from one to another on connecting outdoor walkways. The visitors ambled past microscopes, computers and benches, stopping as Dr. Sherwood explained the kinds of questions under investigation. Things were quiet, but hardly deserted. Many of the experiments in progress are conducted around the clock, and while the grounds are less populated on weekends than on weekdays, there is no shortage of activity during weekend tours.
"You will find scientists here at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night," said Jeffrey Picarello, director of public affairs for the lab.
At the Demerec Laboratory, named for Milislav Demerec, a former Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory director and a leader in genetic research, Dr. Sherwood described a gene-finding technique called ROMA. Developed at the lab, it is used to profile the entire human genome with the aim of uncovering DNA differences between tumors and healthy tissues.
In the Marks Lab, named for the philanthropists Edwin and Nancy Marks, a scientist tickled the whiskers of a sedated live mouse to observe its brain waves through a sensitive microscope that makes use of laser scanning. It was designed and built at the lab.
Dr. Sherwood told his listeners that Cold Spring Harbor uses only small animals in its studies — mice, rats, fruit flies, worms and tadpoles — and said that the lab does no genetic engineering of foods or embryonic stem cell research.
Cold Spring Harbor has provided a nurturing work environment for seven Nobel Prize winners. Dr. Watson, who received a Nobel Prize for his work with Francis Crick on the double helix, directed the lab from 1968 to 1994 and now serves as chancellor and lives on the campus. Because of his belief that scientists thrive when surrounded by art and beauty, Dr. Watson was responsible for obtaining many of the sculptures and other artworks in the lab's buildings and on the grounds. The lab also sponsors lectures and cultural events that are open to the public.
After the tour, there is time to shop at DNA Stuff, in the basement of Grace Auditorium, where science devotees can equip themselves with books on genetics (for adults and children), double helix neckties and James Watson bobbleheads.
From there, it's a short drive to the village center, where the Dolan DNA Learning Center, the public educational arm of the lab, operates in a former grammar school. An hour exploring "The Genes We Share" exhibit is an engaging crash course on how DNA governs human traits and evolution. As the tour makes clear, this is a breakout time in genetic research, with accelerated opportunities growing from the completion of the sequencing of the human genome (all three billion letters of it) in 2003 and other recent discoveries.
VISITORS are invited to look at photos of human faces and asked to ponder why people vary in appearance and behavior when 99.9 percent of our genetic information is identical. A display on cave paintings and human migrations describes the interaction between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals — a topic that analysis of genetic mutations and frozen ancient remains now allows geneticists to explore, along with paleontologists.
Another display explores the claim by a woman named Anna Anderson that she was actually Anastasia Romanov, a daughter of the last czar of Russia. A DNA sample from a hair found in one of her books is compared, through computer analysis, with DNA provided by Prince Philip of Britain, who descends from the same royal blood line as the Romanovs. The facts of the case are laid out in a display at the center. Deriving a definitive answer (no hint given here!) requires signing up for a Saturday class at the center or doing some homework online.
Just when you're feeling smart (or not), you may bump into a gaggle of high school students — selected for high academic performance in their schools — spilling out of a class in genetics or molecular biology.
Even scientists like a change of pace, and what better way to find one, after a day of hard work learning scientific concepts, than with a little shopping? The 19th-century buildings on Cold Spring Harbor's Main Street now house antiques shops, boutiques and a smattering of the real estate offices that spring up around prosperity like cultures in a petri dish.
At Kellogg's Dolls' Houses (49 Main Street), Ned Kellogg sits behind the counter creating intricate dollhouses, some of which are small-scale copies of houses on the street. Also on the small scale is the Mouse House (No. 85), an upstairs miniboutique with mouse-themed children's books and knickknacks. Other shops include one devoted to Native American crafts and another selling handmade "ugly dolls," with a folkloric look. The Huntington Antiques Center (No. 129), with multiple galleries, is a good place to wander.
For a seafarers' repast appropriate to Cold Spring Harbor's past as a fishing and whaling town, you can have a lobster roll lunch at Bedlam Street Fish & Clam Company, or buy a seafood dinner at a table with a harbor view at a restaurant whose name announces its address: 105 Harbor.
If You Go The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (1 Bungtown Road at Route 25A; 516-367-8455; www.cshl.edu) is on the North Shore of Long Island about an hour east of New York City. It offers free 90-minute tours, each with a maximum of 30 people, Monday through Saturday, generally at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.; by appointment only. Parking is free at the laboratory campus in lots marked for visitors.
The Dolan DNA Learning Center (334 Main Street , 516-367-5170) is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. (Main Street is also known as Route 25A.)
Bedlam Street Fish & Clam Company (55 Main Street, 631-692-5655) is a lively bistro with doors that swing open onto the street. 105 Harbor (105 Harbor Road, 631-367-3166) specializes in seafood from a raw bar and a wood-fired grill.