Lab Blogs

Groundwork

a black bear in the distance of an estuary

A black bear forages in the estuary. Photo: Lauren Henson.


As modern scientists, we frequently deal in abstraction. We are separated from the species and ecosystems we study often by hundreds of miles, bureaucratic bubbles, cloistered campuses, and the machinations of innumerable statistical analyses whirring silently away in the electric flatness. And despite this physical and psychological distance we expect to learn an intimate language, not spoken to or for us, the whisperings of bees and bears and bison. 

I research the second of these three, for most of the year from the climate-controlled comfort of a lab. I study the DNA of these bears and devote much mental energy to linking my abstract, everyday activities to something tangible, to the soft exhalations of a bear in a damp estuary, long ago. 

I begin by thinking about the point of contact between the bear and me, a wisp of hair waving expectantly on a wire. Such a fragile, small thing like the graze of a finger, barely perceptible against the vibrant forest floor. Within one hair, the majority of cells have undergone cornification, the wave of differentiation and hardening that results in cells without a useable nucleus. If we are fortunate enough to obtain a full unbroken hair we are only guaranteed a handful of cells at the base, each with a tiny spinning galaxy of a nucleus, many generations of bears immobilized in perfect miniature. 

Within this nucleus, the molecular serpentine sinew of DNA is comprised of the signatures of bears that, despite rolling seas, snow-clad mountains, barren autumns, and the slow stalking of man, survived. Here are the teachings of mothers, the flaxen coats of daughters, the imprint of the cupped hands of a resource-rich landscape. Looking at a seemingly endless pattern of four deceptively simple letters, we become a silent observer of first crossings of treacherous waters and generations of trepidatious encounters on salmon streams. 

There is necessity in connecting the invisible to the visible, from me transporting clear liquids between sterile tubes to the invisible ancestry of unknown ursids and back to a full, realized bear and her mother and her mother’s mother shaking snow from her coat in an estuary chilled by the outstretched foot of a glacier. There is a thin thread between this bear and me and to ground my science I run my hands along it, to remind myself of its form and the quiet folding and unfolding of time between my fingers and a wisp of a bear on a wire. 

By Lauren Henson, PhD student