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Experiences in Integrative and Comparative Biology

Planting a Seed

Richard Satterlie, SICB President-Elect

Frank Hawkins Kenan Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology
Center for Marine Science
University of North Carolina at Wilmington

My fifth grade teacher, Miss Steinberg, gave Marilyn Monroe a run for her money, at least in my mind. And I credit her with planting the seed for my journey into marine science. She planted another seed for me, but the endocrinology of a fifth grade boy is another story.

I don't remember much from that time, but one event stands out in a general, hazy way. Miss Steinberg had the courage to take a full class of pre-teens on a field trip to McClure's Beach on the Northern California coast. I remember nothing of the bus trip, which was a couple of hours each way, and I don't remember the specifics of what animals and plants were pointed out that day. In fact, the entire event went into a deep sleep for me, and I can only recount it in small snippets that pull me back to Miss Steinberg and McClure's Beach, real or imagined.

Rich Satterlie at Friday Harbor in the summer of 2008

But a seed was planted there. I'm sure of it, even though it didn't germinate and grow right away, like the other seed she planted. In my retrospective mind, it was more like the seed of a desert plant, with an ultra-hard seed coat that requires several scouring trips down flooded washes during summer thunderstorms, tumbling along the gravel and rock to etch a soft spot for moisture penetration.

In other words, nothing happened after the field trip. I had no special aptitude or interest in Biology through junior high and high school. And only when my community college basketball experience revealed that I was not major college transfer material did I turn to academics as something more than a good way to meet girls. For the first major scratch in my seed coat, I acknowledge my Human Anatomy and Physiology teacher at Solano Community College, Mr. Bert Jacobson. From him, the material made sense to me, and his encouragement kept the seed tumbling. Still, though, Marine Biology remained hidden, just as the young college ladies pushed Miss Steinberg to my deepest memory vault.

The seed encountered a deep gash when I was accepted and enrolled at Cal State Sonoma, just an hour commute from my home in Vallejo. Gas was $0.299 at the time, and I had a brand new 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. By luck or some special Miss Steinberg karma, I was assigned to an advisor named Dr. Colin Hermans (who is well known to SICBers). He and Dr. Joe Brumbaugh took me on a journey of marine invertebrate zoology that gave me a strange sense of déjà vu. I have to admit that Miss Steinberg never entered my mind throughout that time, but with some of the species names, I just felt the kind of connection that allowed me to instantly embed the name in the most accessible regions of my memory-like one trial leaning. Cryptochiton stelleri, Acmaea digitalis (that's what it was called back then), Anthopleura elegantissima. These names were alive to me as soon as they were read or said. And I thought I was just a good student.

These two instructors/scientists/friends tumbled that seed better than a whole season of desert flash floods. If my footprints were to suddenly turn red, the whole of Bodega Head would be solid crimson. Beware stomping the phoronid beds, and watch for a little glisten to see the polyclad on the bottom of the rock. The learning was touching, seeing. Unfortunately for me, it was also drawing (sorry, Colin). But it was comparing above all. And from that teaching framework of comparison, another deep scratch formed in my seed coat. I became interested in the structure and function of invertebrate nervous systems, mostly the simpler ones. My earliest interest was in the flatworm brain, although I was fascinated by what cnidarians could do with my over-simplified conception of nerve nets.

Once again, that lucky rock in the stream bed put a big nick in my seed coat. I was accepted into grad school, in Jim Case's lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara. From there, and following the example of not only Jim, but also two grad student colleagues, Peter Anderson (now Director of the Whitney Lab), and Michel Anctil (University of Montreal), the final groove in the seed coat allowed penetration of the moisture known as research. My dissertation was on colonial coordination in octocorals and led to several publications, including one side project on a main thrust of the Case lab-bioluminescence.

Now, try growing a plant in the desert. With my postdoc at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and a subsequent tenure track job at Arizona State University, I became a Mountain Time Zone Marine Biologist. But an important taproot drove deep into the soil. Andy Spencer, my postdoc advisor, made sure I never saw the size of summer mosquitos in Edmonton. We packed up both summers for a trip to a pristine fishing village on the west coast of Vancouver Island-Bamfield Marine Station. There, he introduced me to the world of jellyfish neurobiology, and the taproot found water. From this experience, I was introduced to Friday Harbor Labs. In fact, that first summer there (the last of my postdoc), I found out how much a mentor is like a real father.

Aequorea victoria
Andy dropped me off at Friday Harbor with the expectation I would work on the neural control of swimming in an extremely abundant hydromedusa, Aequorea victoria (the original source of GFP, by the way), which is not available in numbers at Bamfield. While there, my wife who helped collect animals, brought in a strange looking planktonic critter with a simple question, "What the heck is this?" Re-enter my Sonoma State background. "A pteropod mollusc," I replied. "Put it in the tank and I'll look at it later." That later sent my roots deeper.

Clione limacina
Finished with the Aequorea prep that day, I put the pteropod under the scope, took two pairs of forceps and "unzipped" the body wall. A ring of pigmented ganglia greeted me, with large neurons that gave come hither winks. I had an electrode handy, and the first cell I penetrated was a motoneuron that had a rhythmic firing pattern in phase with wing movements. I hurried back to my wife and asked if she could find more of the little beasties, and the Clione limacina preparation was born. I spent the rest of the summer working on Clione, doing just enough on Aequorea to make progress. However, when it came time for Andy to return to Friday Harbor, I was frozen with the "wait until your father comes home" sense of dread. I was supposed to be working on jellyfish.

When I picked up Andy from the ferry, I had a sweat stripe down my back that penetrated my car seat. His first question, of course, was about the work. To make a long story short, I showed him the Clione data, and we both spent the rest of our time at Friday Harbor as molluscan neurobiologists.

Looking back, I think any decent scientist should be able to recognize the potential in various available preparations, and be willing to make a switch when a more favorable opportunity comes along. This thinking was instilled by Jim Case, with his encouragement of side projects, and cemented by Andy's acceptance of the Clione work. Both Jim and Andy were good dads.

As a postscript, my recent move to the University of North Carolina Wilmington has brought a dream to fruition. I finally have a research laboratory in a marine lab (the Center for Marine Science, about seven miles from the main campus). I'm still making the annual pilgrimage to Friday Harbor, however, I have used the special UNCW opportunity to re-activate my jellyfish work to go along with the Clione projects.

I don't know if our memory for long-past events improves with age, or if our flagging memory just grasps at whatever is available in our deepest synapses. But these days, I find myself thinking about Miss Steinberg and the importance of her field trip to McClure's Beach back in the fifth grade. I can imagine how, later in my education, even the most complex scientific names came to me after a single mention, like they were old friends. And I see Miss Steinberg's slight overbite drawing her tongue into an hypnotic lisp as she pointed and said, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus." And with all that, she really did give Marilyn a run.


Graduate School (dissertation plus bioluminescence)

1978 Satterlie, R.A., and J.F. Case. Neurobiology of the gorgonian coelenterates, Muricea californica and Lophogorgia chilensis. I. Behavioural physiology. J. Exp. Biol. 79:191-204.

1978 Satterlie, R.A., and J.F. Case. Neurobiology of the gorgonian coelenterates, Muricea californica and Lophogorgia chilensis. II. Morphology. Cell Tiss. Res. 187: 379-396.

1979 Satterlie, R.A., and J.F. Case. Development of bioluminescence and other effector responses in the pennatulid coelenterate Renilla kollikeri. Biol. Bull.157: 506-523.

1980 Satterlie, R.A., P.A.V. Anderson and J.F. Case. Colonial coordination in anthozoans: Pennatulacea. Mar. Behav. Physiol. 7: 25-46.

1980 Satterlie, R.A. and J.F. Case. Neurobiology of the stoloniferan octocoral Clavularia sp. J. Exp. Zool. 212: 87-99.

Postdoc (selected, with Andy Spencer)

1979 Satterlie, R.A., and A.N. Spencer. Swimming control in the cubomedusan jellyfish Carybdea rastonii. Nature 281: 141-142.

  1. Spencer, A.N. and R.A. Satterlie. Electrical and dye-coupling in an identified group of neurons in a coelenterate. J. Neurobiol. 11: 13-19.

1981 Spencer, A.N. and R.A. Satterlie. The action potential and contraction in subumbrellar swimming muscle of Polyorchis penicillatus (Hydromedusae). J. Comp. Physiol. 144: 401-407.

Initial Clione references (first two with Andy Spencer)

1985 Satterlie, R.A, M. LaBarbera and A.N. Spencer. Swimming in the pteropod mollusc Clione limacina. I. Behaviour and morphology. J. Exp. Biol. 116: 189-204.

1985 Satterlie, R.A. and A.N. Spencer. Swimming in the pteropod mollusc Clione limacina. II. Physiology. J. Exp. Biol. 116: 205-222.

1985 Satterlie, R.A. Reciprocal inhibition and postinhibitory rebound produce reverberation in a locomotor pattern generator. Science 229: 402-404.