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

Whitehead Institute Biohazards team photo

August 12, 2019

Tags: Bartel LabLi 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.


Off the Lab Bench and into the Dugout

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.
Wholly independent in its governance, finances, and research programs, Whitehead shares a close affiliation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology
through its faculty, who hold joint MIT appointments.

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