Beyond the Lab Bench: A Look at the Traditions That Make Whitehead Institute Unique

Collage of various pets of people at Whitehead Institute

December 10, 2019

Tags: Bartel LabCheeseman LabLi LabLourido LabPage LabReddien LabSabatini LabSive LabWeinberg Lab

There’s more to Whitehead Institute than meets the eye. Its labs carry out world-class biomedical research, but the people here also find ways to pursue their other interests and make Kendall Square a more colorful place. In our ongoing series #BeyondtheLabBench, we’re collecting some of those colorful sides of the Institute to give you a sense of what life here is like.


The Pets of Whitehead Institute

Considering that researchers at Whitehead Institute devote their working hours to probing the mysteries of the biological world, it’s no surprise that many scientists and staff are also animal lovers.

The Institute has, in fact, served to connect pets needing a home to a new family. Christine Hickey, assistant to Founding Member Robert Weinberg, has a golden-doodle (a golden retriever-poodle mix) named Finley.

Sabatini lab manager Edie Valeri says that she met Finley shortly after starting her job here and “fell in love.” Hickey helped Valeri find Finley’s three-month-old half-brother, who Edie named Chancellor—Chance for short.

Collage of Edie Valeri's dog Chance, a golden-doodle

Chancellor (“Chance”)
Photos: Courtesy of Edie Valeri

Soon, though, Chance got into some trouble. He ate a poisonous toad that burned his esophagus. Valeri rushed Chance to Angell Animal Medical Center, where veterinarians performed emergency surgery to bypass his esophagus and insert a feeding tube.

Valeri had to feed Chance through the tube and keep it clean. “This was a 24-hour watch,” she says. “I was only about six months into the position here and was really nervous about asking David [Sabatini] about keeping my dog at work. However, David was super understanding and supportive.”

Chance began coming to work every day, typically hiding under Valeri’s desk. Many Sabatini lab members pitched in to help feed and walk him. Chance recovered and, 10 years later, is now 100 pounds and can’t fit under Valeri’s desk. 

“He’s healthy, happy, and well-loved,” Valeri says. “Working at Whitehead helped me to find the love of my life.”

A number of people at the Institute have adopted pets from shelters. Cheeseman lab postdoc Ally Nguyen adopted a street dog from India through a rescue dog program in New Jersey. Administrative Lab Manager Jorge Adarme of the Page lab adopted Lily, a four-year-old Shih Tzu, from a shelter in Louisiana. He and his wife had been trying to adopt a puppy for eight months before getting a call about Lily from a friend of his wife’s.

Collage of Jorge Adarme's dog Lily, a Shih Tzu

Lily through the years
Photos: Courtesy of Jorge Adarme

“Lily is kind of spoiled,” Adarme says. “There are dog pajamas in my house. She did not like them.” Lily is very energetic and friendly, leading many to think she’s still a puppy.

After adopting Lily, Adarme found out that Shih Tzus are a very smart breed. “It took just a day to house train her,” he says. Lily is able to roll over, dance with her hind legs, shake, and high-five. But the strongest sign of her intelligence, Adarme explains, has been her ability to train every member of his family to do “whatever she wants and make sure that they know that she is second in command.” 

Pets help people stay balanced—and sometimes they help out with work in unexpected ways. Sabatini lab postdoc Izabella Pena’s cat Mike has a science-communication-themed Twitter account, @MikeScienceCat. “Everybody in the lab knows him,” says Pena.

A Twitter post from Mike the Science Cat

A Twitter post from Mike the Science Cat: "Grant approved! The first equipment for my kitty lab arrived today! I'm doing experiments with it now. #MikeScienceCat #experiments"

Other times, animals playfully undermine what their humans are trying to do. Institute Member Sebastian Lourido has a six-year-old Shiba Inu named Kafka, as a reference to Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore.

“Shibas are very stubborn, very independent, very lupine,” Lourido says. “She sometimes gets this glimmer in her eye, and you know it’s going to be difficult to retrieve her. And then I’m chasing her around the neighborhood. It then becomes a game to her, but I’m trying to get to work.” Lourido has a secret weapon, though: “Her weakness is cheese. I keep some string cheese with me when I’m walking her.”

Sebastian Lourido and his dog, Kafka, a Shiba Inu

Sebastian Lourido and Kafka
Photo: Courtesy of Sebastian Lourido

Lourido studies Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is transmitted from cats to humans. That hasn’t affected his decision not to have a cat, though, he just prefers dogs. But lab members Emily Shortt and Ben Waldman both have cats.

Shortt, the Lourido lab manager, adopted two cats from Michigan as barn kittens. “They moved with us to Massachusetts when they were three months old — just imagine driving kittens for 16 hours,” she says. “Miko, the striped cat, is mischievous and smart; he opens cabinets and tries to turn doorknobs. Lily is just in it for the snuggles, feline or human.”

Collage of Emily Shortt's cats, Lily and Miko

Lily (left in top photo) and Miko
Photos: Courtesy of Emily Shortt

Some at Whitehead Institute have less common creatures. Nicholas Polizzi, administrative lab manager for the Cheeseman and Reddien labs, began caring for some aquatic pets that once belonged to a Cheeseman lab member who passed them on to Polizzi after she began medical school. Among them is a suckermouth catfish named Dyson and an axolotl named Montgomery. Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are a species of amphibian that lives its whole life in an aquatic, gill-breathing form, without going through metamorphosis. Montgomery is lively and curious about visitors, making his way over to their side of the tank to inspect them more closely.

Collage of Montgomery the axolotl

Montgomery the axolotl

Montgomery once had an axolotl tank mate named Geoffrey. Unfortunately, the pair had to be separated when Montgomery bit off one of Geoffrey legs. Fortunately, Geoffrey demonstrated the regenerative capability of the species by growing the limb back, but after the incident Montgomery and Geoffrey no longer shared a tank.

Technical Assistant Olivier Paugois, who manages the Sive lab’s zebrafish population of 2000-3000 individuals, also keeps his own fish. He enjoys trying to recreate the conditions in the fish’s native habitat, known as a biotope setup in the aquarium world. Paugois began doing this after he learned to free-dive in Brittany, France, when he was 15 or 16 years old. He would capture fish and try to incorporate shellfish and sediment from the ecosystem where he found the fish.

Olivier Paugois and his fish

Olivier Paugois and his fish

The tank at his desk hosts a small school of dwarf loaches (Ambastaia sidthimunki). Endangered in the wild but frequently bred for aquariums, the species is native to rivers in Thailand and Myanmar. “They like a gentle flow of water, not too strong,” says Paugois. His careful attention to their needs has allowed them to live to about 5-6 years old. “That’s pretty decent for a fish of this small size,” he says. At home, Paugouis keeps a tank of several cichlid species native to Lake Malawi in East Africa—a place with a famously high number of native fish species. “Fish diversity is really amazing once you dig below the surface,” he says.

Sabatini and his lab keep a saltwater aquarium that showcases coral diversity as well as several tropical fish. Administrative lab manager Danica Rili, who feeds the fish, says that the pulsing xenia coral, which constantly opens and closes to feed, is one of her favorites. The tank also has Devil’s hand, tree coral, toadstool coral, and green star polyps. The corals make a good home for the resident clownfish, coral beauty, and royal gramma.

Collage of the Sabatini lab saltwater aquarium, with images of coral and a clownfish

The Sabatini lab aquarium

While not everyone at the Institute has a pet, Lourido sees having an animal as typical of one type of path to working in biology. “Some people come to biology through medicine and an interest in disease,” he says. “Other people are interested in solving complicated problems and are pursuing intellectual puzzles. And some are naturalists that like to explore the natural world—and those are the ones that tend to have pets.” 

Animal companions help keep busy people tied to the world around them—and sometimes they just help their person step away from work and think about other things for a moment.

A Twitter post from Mike the Science Cat in which Mike is gnawing on a laptop that's displaying a grant application

Mike the Science Cat reacts to a grant application in progress.


The Caf: A Kendall Square Institution

For nearly 30 years, Salt Creek Catering — led by husband-and-wife team Jim Nally and Tina Truedson — has served Whitehead Institute with delicious food made in-house and reasonably priced. The Whitehead Cafeteria, affectionately known as “the Caf,” is a nexus of the Institute’s community as well as a culinary keystone for people working around Kendall Square. 

“We make everything from scratch — the cookie dough, the croutons, the bread, the salad dressing, the marinades — everything’s from scratch, and it’s affordable,” says Truedson. “You just don’t see that around anymore.”

Truedson and Nally bring impressive culinary training to bear on their mission. Truedson, the head chef for the team, studied at Le Cordon Bleu London and spent time catering in Chicago, working at parties for celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Dustin Hoffman, and Daryl Hannah. Nally got his start managing for Stouffer Restaurant Corporation in Chicago.

Nally and Truedson’s connection with the Institute started in 1985, when they catered the annual holiday party with a Central Square-based company, Seasoned to Taste. The success of the event led Whitehead Institute to invite Seasoned to Taste to run daily food service in the cafeteria. Through the late 1980s, Nally and Truedson catered at the Institute off and on before coming back to stay in December of 1990. They purchased the catering business the year afterward, renaming it Salt Creek Catering, after a river outside of Chicago.

Image of clipping from Whitehead Bulletin
The Whitehead Bulletin reports on Nally and Truedson’s appointment to run the cafeteria in November 1990
Image: Whitehead Bulletin

The culture of Whitehead Institute was different in the 1990s mainly because of how much smaller it was then, says Nally. “Things were more loosey-goosey back then,” he says. “Before they put the new wing on, all the labs ate down here together. I knew everyone in the labs.” Originally, the annual summer barbecue took place in the parking lot where the new wing is now located. That was also where Nally would often see Whitehead Institute Founding Member Gerald Fink playing basketball with postdocs with a hoop at the back of the building.

Culinary options around Kendall Square were scant in those days besides the F&T Diner, located where the outbound MBTA Red Line stop is today. “There was nothing else around here at the time,” says Nally. “The Broad Institute was a parking lot. The Residence Inn and Starbucks weren’t there, it was just a gas station. You could see to the river from here.”

The scarcity of restaurants, combined with the high quality of the Caf’s freshly made food, made Whitehead Institute a lunchtime destination for people working in the area. 

“It’s very amusing,” Nally said of people from outside coming to eat at the Caf. “You get a lot of MIT faculty and staff here.”

“We’ve met people in other cities and even other countries, and when they find out we work at Whitehead, they’ll tell us about how they thought the food there was great, or that they’ve heard about it from afar,” says Truedson. “And we don’t advertise at all, it’s just word of mouth.”

Photo of Whitehead caf staff from 2000
Salt Creek Catering in 2000. Truedson and Nally are back row, third and second from right, respectively.
Image: Melissa Lawrence/Whitehead Institute

While Truedson and Nally periodically add new items to the menu — the Caf recently switched from almond milk to oat milk — they focus on keeping things consistent while serving 400-500 people every day in a short amount of time. 

“Food is so unpredictable,” says Truedson. “Cooking equipment is unpredictable. We’ve had things break down in the middle of parties. The key is having a great operation — being super organized. We can do it all blindfolded at this point.”

“This is like putting on a Broadway play every day,” says Nally. “You can’t take too many chances with food because if you fail, people don’t come back. It doesn’t matter what we did yesterday — at 11:30 the curtain goes up and the food has to be hot, has to look good, has to taste good.”

Photo of Tina Truedson grabs some coffee
Tina Truedson grabs some coffee as the team prepares for lunch service
Image: Conor Gearin/Whithead Institute

Classic dishes at the Caf include chicken parmesan, baked salmon, and the Chang burger. The salad bar, featuring homemade dressings and fresh greens, is also popular. The team recently began serving the Beyond Burger, a plant-based burger alternative. 

For scientists and staff at Whitehead Institute, the Caf is a place to make connections. “Jim really has gone out of his way to get to know people, and to talk to them about things that don’t necessarily have to do with food,” says Truedson. Nally and Truedson have catered weddings for researchers and have known many of the scientists throughout their careers.

Given the number of international researchers at the Institute, when Nally meets someone from one country, he tries to help connect them with other people from the same country. “It can be hard to meet people from different labs, so I try to let people know if there are other researchers from their home country,” he says. 

Photo of caf in 2019 during lunch
The Caf on a typical lunch day in September
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

The size of the Caf’s team has grown over the years to about 15-17 people on a normal day. The employees hail from all over the world, including Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Liberia, and Bhutan. Truedson says they try to help people towards their next career goal. “We’ve had kids come through, flourish, and move on,” she says. “We’ve had people go on to get doctorates in physical therapy or speech therapy, or even go into the movie business. We have someone studying for their CPA degree.”

On their free time, Truedson and Nally like to exercise. Truedson is a runner, and Nally is a biker. Over the years, they have raised over $20,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training in events such as Bike MS, the Boston Marathon, and the B2VT bike ride (formerly B2B) — a nearly 150-mile bike ride from Bedford, MA to Windsor County, Vermont. 

Truedson was once a semifinalist for the reality TV show Survivor. While she was working in the kitchen one day, Mark Burnett’s production company called to say they liked her three-minute application video and wanted to interview her in person with about 400 other semifinalists. In the meantime, she agreed not to tell anyone, even Nally. After the interview, the producers said she wasn’t a fit for that season, but encouraged her to apply again. 

For their own food choices, the couple likes leftovers and going out to casual local eateries. “I really like getting to know the staff at a restaurant,” says Truedson.

Off the Lab Bench and into the Dugout

Photo of 2019 Biohazards team
The 2019 Whitehead Institute Biohazards team photo

For over 30 years, Whitehead Institute has fielded a softball team in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Community Summer Softball league. Created in 1986, just four years after the Institute itself, the Biohazards have helped link past and former Institute personnel and provided a way for people to enjoy themselves outside the lab.

In its earlier days, the MIT league was quite large, with 10 divisions and about 70 teams.

One of the first organizers of the Biohazards in 1986 was George Daley — then a PhD student in former Institute Director David Baltimore’s lab, now dean of the faculty of Harvard Medical School. “We did have T-shirts and great team spirit, but not great hitting,” he says.

In the 1990s, the league tended to be more about fun rather than competition, says Chelle Riendeau, Senior Lawson Systems Administrator, former Biohazards captain, and former head umpire for the league. “There were a variety of skill levels. It was really about hanging out and having a good time,” she says.

2011 Biohazards with their championship trophy
The 2011 Biohazards with their championship trophy
Image: Courtesy of Chelle Riendeau

Now there are just 5 divisions and 30 teams, says current team captain Tom Volkert, director of Whitehead Institute's Genome Core. “Fewer people grow up playing baseball and softball now, so you’re going to have fewer players, fewer teams,” Volkert says. “But the remaining teams take the game a little more seriously.”

The Biohazards have had a number of strong showings in the playoffs in Volkert’s nearly 20-year run as team captain. “We’ve had some epic eras,” says Volkert. “You see these four trophies up there —” he keeps the championship trophies on a shelf in his office — “they’re from 2011 to 2014. We had a run of dominance there.” The ’Hazards had a rivalry with a team from the Broad Institute for a number of years, with a few dramatic showdowns. “Eventually we got to be friends, because we realized it was fun to have this kind of competition,” Volkert says.

The team has developed a core group of players, some of them on the roster as long as Volkert. “It’s a great way to have some continuity and some connection to the past at Whitehead,” he says. Nonetheless, Volkert is always looking for new recruits. “We still welcome anyone who wants to play, regardless of skill level,” he says. “We enjoy having them and working them into the game, teaching fundamentals.” The younger players also get to network with alumni that have moved on to new positions in industry or academia, he adds. 

Abe Weintraub hits ball
Abe Weintraub, alumnus of Whitehead Instiute Member Richard Young's lab, blasts a triple to
right field
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

The Biohazards of today are not your typical rec-league softball team, swinging for the fences at every pitch and not putting much effort into defense. “I probably spend way too much time thinking about strategy, but I do think it makes a difference,” says Volkert. “One of the key things there is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your players and putting them in a position where they can succeed. Softball is a beautiful sport in that you have ten different defensive positions out there, and each one is pretty different in the types of skills that it requires. There’s a place for everyone on the field.” 

Tom Volkert talking to team
Biohazards captain Tom Volkert gives the team some pointers
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

Keeping the opponents’ batters guessing is Volkert’s usual role on defense. His signature pitch: throwing it high so that the ball arrives at a steep angle but still within the strike zone. “People tend to really underestimate how important pitching is in softball — they have this impression that pitchers are just lobbing the ball,” he says.

Biohazards captain Tom Volkert throws a pitch.
Biohazards captain Tom Volkert throws a pitch 
Image: Courtesy of Chelle Riendeau

“We are so lucky to be able to play on these beautifully manicured fields that MIT gives us access to,” Volkert says. “On a hot summer evening, you can hear the din of the crowd from Fenway on game days. It’s just a really special opportunity to be out there.”

Volkert says that social activities like the Biohazards are an important part of a balanced life for researchers. “It really is important to get out of the lab and hang out with friends and even coworkers outside of a work environment, and this is a perfect opportunity for that,” he says. “It gets them out of the lab, gets them talking about things other than science, although science does seem to come up all the time — but that’s scientists for you.”

“It’s a good way to meet the scientists as someone that works in administration,” says Riendeau. “It’s nice to have that connection. It’s also a way for people from different labs to meet each other. It’s a good way to build community without the pressure of research.”

In the current season, the ’Hazards are entering the playoffs leading their division with a record of 7-2. The first playoff game is Monday night at 5:30 on MIT field 5A (near Burton-Conner House). The team has its sights set on the championship and adding a fifth trophy to its collection.


The Stories That Rocks Can Tell

Laura Resteghini with rock blanket
Administrative Lab Manager Laura Resteghini 
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

Whitehead Institute is known primarily for biology — but there’s a little geology going on behind the scenes, too. Laura Resteghini, administrative lab manager for the Bartel and Li labs, began collecting rocks in 2001 after hiking with a good friend in El Paso, Texas. She brought back three rocks and displayed them on her desk.  

Once people saw the nascent collection, they began contributing enthusiastically, hunting down interesting rocks for Resteghini far and wide. As the display grew, with the rocks resting on a fabric moss blanket, it became a way to connect with people as well as an outlet for amateur geology. “It’s a starting point to talk about where people have been around the world,” Resteghini says.

When someone visits and asks about the rocks, Resteghini can tell stories about almost every specimen. “This one is from the Appalachian trail,” she says, picking up a tan stone with large red spots. “One of our Bartel lab technicians who was here for a long time hiked the whole trail, so a bunch of us from the lab went out to hike with her for a 12-mile section one day.”

Resteghini remembers who brought each rock and its region of origin, which is often far from Cambridge. She has cave rocks from India; granite from Scotland; a volcanic rock from Jeju Island in South Korea; a small stone from Cambridge, UK; and four crystals from Bryce Canyon in Utah.

Picture of Resteghini's hand holding a piece of granite from Scotland
Resteghini holds up granite from northeastern Scotland 
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

“I like rocks quite a bit,” she says. “It feels very grounding to have them here. And it’s fun when someone who knows something about geology will know what’s in the rock and help me learn about that.”

 Library Services Manager Dave Richardson has a different take on rock collecting. Rather than accumulating rocks from all over, he has built up a collection from near his family’s place on the coast of Maine.

Library Services Manager Dave Richardson
Library Services Manager Dave Richardson 
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

“They’re all from the ocean,” he says. “They’ve all been sculpted by water in some way or another.” By looking at the varying hues and the different forms created by erosion, Richardson’s collection shows off how diversity can exist even at a small scale.

Photo of Richardson’s collection of rocks from coastal Maine
Richardson’s collection of rocks from coastal Maine 
Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

Richardson’s rocks once were on display outside the library. They now mostly reside in his office, catching the light on the windowsill over Galileo Galilei Way. As with Resteghini, Richardson says his collection has been the starting point for conversations.

“You get to know scientists personally here, in contrast to working in a big university library,” he says. It was easier when researchers would visit the library to look at print copies of journals, he says, but the small size of the institute still makes it feel tightly knit.


Written by Conor Gearin

Whitehead Institute is a world-renowned non-profit research institution dedicated to improving human health through basic biomedical research.
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