Thursday, April 5, 2012

Visiting Darcy Kelley's Xenopus Lab

Darcy B. Kelley's Xenopus Lab from Ahjin Kim on Vimeo.

On April 5th, 2012, the students in Eben Kirksey’s graduate course “The Anthropology of Science” visited the lab of Darcy Kelly at Columbia University. 

After wandering around the maze of the Columbia campus, riding up two elevators in two buildings, we located the lab. Our small class filled a seminar room where we held our discussion. Dr. Kelley quickly opened up and talked freely about Xenopus frogs and her research. “It seemed immediately clear that Darcy Kelley had a sincere affinity for this species,” wrote Charlie Nichols, one student in the class.  “Indeed, as she spoke to our class she held a toy, a rubber frog, in front of her on the desk. She talked about the politics of procuring frogs for her research, the qualities that make Xenopus an ideal candidate for her academic inquiries, and defended Xenopus against allegations that it has threatened the livelihoods of other amphibians.”

Fifty million year old fossils of Xenopus have been found, according to Dr. Kelley.  She speculated that this adaptable frog will outlive the human species.

Dr. Kelley traces her personal connection to Xenopus frogs back to her early interests in hormones and sexual differentiation. After studying bird song at the beginning of her career, as a post-doctoral researcher, she she began working with frogs because it is “easier to take the whole system apart and figure out how it works.”

After speaking with us for around 40 minutes, Dr. Kelley showed us the frog room. She warned us before we went in that “it’s not too thrilling. They all look alike.” The frogs were stored in clear plastic tanks on metal shelves. In contrast to the sunny seminar room, this room was windowless.  With a concrete floor it resembled a small storage closet. A mechanical hum—the whir of machines, maybe an air conditioning unit—washed the room in sound. A sheet of paper entitled: “Frog Care Procedures” was taped to the door with instructions on how to care for a sick frog: “Isolate and place on bottom shelf” followed by a phone number for reporting the sick frog. Also, the care procedures instructed, in the case of death: “Separate tank, spray it with bleach.”
There were around eleven species of frogs in the room as well as a chimera that Dr. Kelley had made by fusing two embryos together. She picked up a wriggling frog for us to examine, inviting us to touch his slime, promising it felt like “velvet.” Despite her comment that the frogs all looked alike, she spoke affectionately to and about the frogs, calling one “sweetie.”  Cooing to the chimera frog, she remarked: “She’s so big!”  And concluded “these guys are in very good shape.”

The full interview is available on SoundCloud