Mutant pizza?: (Clay) object identification in graduate students

By Cheyenne Tait- In lab, one day last week somehow turned into “arts and crafts” day. It was complete with creative disagreements, the mixing of primary colors, the smell of modeling clay, and colorful stains on graduate student hands. It also resulted in a mini-lesson on object identification, which is conveniently one of NICE lab’s main themes. Let me explain.

Hinal and I have been working on a project that involves staining regions of the fly brain with a fluorescent dye-antibody conjugate. After much trial (and even more error) this process eventually produced results! But we now need to line up our individual stains with a PDF atlas of the fly brain that was created a few years ago, so that we can actually name which structures stained with our newly working protocol. Although this atlas is a fully rotatable PDF, capable even of showing cross-sections of the brain at specific angles, it rapidly became a complex task because each brain has its own individual differences. The stained brains can’t just be simply overlaid on top of each other, and we never expected they could.

But we also didn’t expect it to be this hard. Almost jokingly, we suggested making a clay model of the brain that we could pick and pull apart and deform in specific ways, by hand. In desperation, last week we decided to just go for it. It was harder than we thought it would be, but after a while Hinal and I thought we had a model that looked pretty good.

Demolishing that opinion, in record time, a few of our labmates drifted past the table where our model was proudly displayed. “Is that a mutated slice of pizza?” one of them asked, laughing. “I think it looks like some multicolored mountain, on an island,” said the other. Laughing.

Our labmates misidentified the mysterious clay object on the table. Probably unsurprising, as they didn’t have the prior experience with the fruit fly brain that we had. They also did not seem to take in the entire context of the situation – it’s highly unlikely that in the middle of the work week two graduate students would take the time to make random things out of clay. Perhaps if the young children who visited last week to learn about insects were back again, playing with clay would make sense. The time and place, the context for making clay pizza was all wrong.

It’s most probable that our fellow NICE lab members were joking with us. Indeed, after we protested, they admitted that yes, it was a passable antennal lobe of a fly. But maybe it also says something about what’s going on in the graduate student brain: that they identified a mystery object as pizza (food!) or a mountain on an island (exotic vacation!), objects that, in that moment, they just couldn’t have.

Of course, to Hinal and I, it could never be anything other than the fly brain. Currently the clay model sits on our desk, waiting for further, more scientific, interpretation than “mutant pizza” and “weird mountain”.

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