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

Collage of people exercising in various ways for the GetFit competition

Clockwise from top: 1) Neha Bokil's BollyX dance fitness class. 2) Alexia Richards at the end of the 2018 Cape Cod Marathon. 3) "Medals" for top finishers in 4th floor GetFit. 4) Yi Liu with his dog.

April 30, 2020

Tags: Bartel LabCheeseman LabCorradin 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.

GetFit: Walk, Run, or Dance to the Finish

On the 4th floor of Whitehead Institute, scientists have found a unique way to cope with the rainy period of early spring — a competition where teams of eight try to exercise the most minutes. It’s a hotly contested race within the larger GetFit competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which community members log their weekly exercise totals for 12 weeks. And it has helped a sizable part of the Whitehead community cope with social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s been fantastic,” says Neha Bokil, a graduate student in the lab of Institute Director David Page and captain of a team called “Cut and Running.” “It definitely gives me motivation to stay active and a way to stay active. I think that during times like this, it can be hard to be motivated to move and get out. I think it’s really nice to have this way not only to get exercise but also to connect with people.”

Bokil’s team name, like many others in GetFit, is a science pun—in this case, on a genomics protocol called CUT&RUN. Her team, which includes David Page, competed against six others on the 4th floor this year. 

People were already engaging in a wide variety of activities to meet their weekly GetFit goals: from running to boxing to dance fitness classes. But social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people getting even more creative. Bokil was recently certified as an instructor for BollyX, dance fitness classes that are Bollywood style. “Since everything in-person got shut down, I’ve been leading virtual dance fitness classes,” she says. “That takes up a lot of time: learning the choreography, practicing it before actually teaching the class, and then the class itself. That’s been my go-to exercise.” 

Lab Materials Assistant Elena Popkova participates in Bokil’s classes three times per week. “It’s good to see people, especially on Saturday morning,” she says. “It’s good to get some endorphins going and see everyone smiling.”

A clip from Neha Bokil’s online BollyX dance fitness class. Courtesy of Neha Bokil

“It’s the competition that makes it fun, but it’s also a way for us to spend time together that’s not lab-based,” Bokil says. 

Marine Krzisch, a postdoc in the lab of Whitehead Institute Founding Member Rudolf Jaenisch, captains a team called “Rage Against the PCR Machine.” Their social distancing exercise includes home boxing workouts, running apartment stairs, basketball, badminton, Bhangra dancing, running with dogs, yoga, biking, weights, and chasing down family members absconding with Oreos, to name a few.

Over the years, the 4th floor game has evolved house rules separate from the larger MIT GetFit challenge — which called for a separate online scoreboard and weekly email updates in sports reporting form, produced by Alex Godfrey, a graduate student in the Page lab. One important rule affects how team exercise totals are scored. Each week has a goal for total minutes— for example, 300 minutes per person. If an individual logs more than 300 minutes, then the additional minutes only count as 1/3 of a minute for the team. This weights full team participation more strongly than one individual exercising a lot. But individuals still compete against each other with their unweighted totals for the individual rankings, so the heavy hitters aren’t discouraged from big totals. 

Godfrey and Popkova help organize the 4th floor game. Several years ago, the Page lab began an internal GetFit competition with three teams. While it was a vibrant contest, the players wanted to raise the stakes. Last year, Popkova, Godfrey and others from the Page lab recruited colleagues from the 4th floor. Teams from the Sive, Cheeseman, and Jaenisch labs joined in the fun, with relatively equal proportions of technicians/staff scientists, graduate students, and postdocs participating—with some lab alumni and family members taking part, too.

“All of a sudden, everyone was meeting their weekly goals,” Godfrey says. “Our teams were doing extremely well across MIT as well, because it just made it a little more exciting.”

“They wanted to be motivated, and competing against people you know is more motivating,” says Krzisch. She and her Jaenisch lab mates quickly became a considerable force on the weekly scoreboard in 2019. Part of her motivation was logging more minutes than Page lab postdoc Lukas Chmatal, an ultramarathon runner. “I tried really hard because my goal was to beat Lukas, and I did,” she says. “I was walking a lot as well, because my bike was broken.”

Krzisch won first place on the 4th floor for her individual time last year, receiving a cardboard “gold” medal. And her team won an award from MIT GetFit for its name: “I Work Out Because My Experiments Don’t” — earning them gift certificates to a local restaurant. 

Godfrey’s weekly updates keep people motivated and season the action with commentary. Here’s an excerpt of the week 8 recap:

“In our team competition, Thor's Workout Routine from the Sive Lab (2,299 weighted min.) is in 1st place, maintaining its narrow lead over Cut and Running from the Page Lab (2275 w. min.), while 99 Problems from the Jaenisch Lab (2,100 w. min.) is holding on to the 3rd place spot by an even narrower margin over Mostly Harmless from the Page Lab (2,096 w. min.). But with four more weeks and a little extra time on our hands, it's still anyone's game!”

The competition started in February before social distancing measures for the COVID-19 outbreak. When remote work began, Godfrey wasn’t sure how things would go, but soon he was pleasantly surprised.

“Most people are still really engaged and logging lots of minutes,” Godfrey says. “I didn’t really know how it would go, but it’s been pretty amazing to see that even though we’re all apart, almost everyone is still participating and taking it seriously.” For his own part, Godfrey ran 26.2 miles on April 20th, in place of the postponed Boston marathon. 

Krzisch, a boxer, says that the shutdown of non-essential businesses has taken a toll on her minutes and her team’s rankings. Since boxing and fitness gyms have all closed, she has shifted to running and doing online workouts at home. “My minutes have decreased by 50 percent, but I’m still doing things,” she says.

But fellow Jaenisch lab postdoc Emile Wogram, captain of “99 Problems But Workout Ain’t One,” has a different perspective. “Now with coronavirus we have a lot more problems, but actually, I think GetFit makes it easier for us to cope with it,” he says. 

Wogram cares for his 10-month old son in the mornings and works in the afternoons, when his wife takes over childcare. “With my son, it’s more entertaining to stay at home, even,” he says. “It never gets boring. And for GetFit, he wants to be entertained, so I sometimes count the minutes that I try to teach him soccer in the living room.” Wogram also racks up minutes when he walks with his son in the stroller to help him get to sleep.

Wogram’s teammates tend to do yoga or weight lifting at home, as well and walking and running. “Everybody works out more now than before,” he says. “I think it’s a good way to stay sane while trapped inside.”

A crucial part of GetFit is that all types of exercise count, Wogram adds. “It’s so important to keep in mind that it’s a fun competition,” he says. “People that go outside for a walk to participate in GetFit— of course that counts. It’s more about doing something together, especially in these months when the weather is bad and it’s cold. For three months, more or less, people are united by counting minutes, competing, and making fun of or challenging each other. And of course, there is our GetFit Party when all is over."

“People are getting more creative with how they do their minutes,” Popkova says. “One person on our team is taking online classes to become a yoga teacher. People have a little more time for exercise, even if it’s indoor exercise. And we all need to stay connected!” Popkova has recently begun teaching some exercises to her parents in Russia over video chat because they have been getting bored.

This year’s GetFit competition ended on April 27. “Thor’s Workout Routine” won the 4th floor match, placing 15th out of 495 teams on the MIT scoreboard. They were followed by “Cut and Running” in second and “99 Problems But Workout Ain't One” in third. For the individual competition, Lukas Chmatal placed first, Neha Bokil placed second, and Justin Chen placed third.

In previous years, the GetFit participants would cap the season with a celebration that included an award ceremony. The top teams receive handmade gold, silver, and bronze “medals,” as do the top-ranking individuals. This year, they’re contemplating a video hangout, with an in-person party at a later date.

Looking towards future years, some have their eye on expanding the competition once more.

“I guess some people want to do competitions between different floors and create really strong teams—the most active people on 4th floor versus the most active on 5th floor,” Popkova says.

“Personally I think it would be really successful as a building-wide competition, with maybe a $5 buy-in,” Godfrey says. “Then you could have more exciting prizes and see some really fun competition. It would be a bigger organizing task, but if someone wants to take it on, I think it would be really successful.” 

Beyond the end of the competition, Popkova says it’s important to stay active. “Even if you do low-impact exercise, it’s one way to feel connected to other people, get your blood flowing, your endorphins kicking, and feel like you’re not alone,” she says.

Written by Conor Gearin


Getting Distance: Runners at Whitehead

The challenges of completing a research project are often compared to a marathon. But it’s not just a metaphor: many biologists are distance runners. Whitehead Institute researchers often look to several miles along the Charles to sort out how to solve a problem—or just to take a break and get out in nature.

“Science is a culture in which you tolerate delayed gratification, and that’s also very true for long-distance running,” says Whitehead Fellow Kristin Knouse, who has been a runner since middle school. “They enrich for the same personality. The person who’s going to go run 20 miles is doing it because after those 20 miles, you feel really good. You’re really in it for that end result. That’s also what draws and keeps us in science.”

Lukas Chmatal, a postdoc in the Page lab and an ultramarathon runner, described the phenomenon in statistical terms. “There’s a significant enrichment of runners among scientists,” he says. “I think that reflects that successful scientists are characterized by endurance and perseverance, which is what running embraces.”

Running has long been a part of the fabric of Whitehead Institute. Paging through back issues of the Whitehead Bulletin newsletter reveals past running teams from the Institute, including a group of 34 runners that placed 4th out of 500 in the 2001 Chase Corporate Challenge, a 3.5 mile race. The team included Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini and Cafeteria Manager Jim Nally.

Whitehead's Chase Corporate Challenge Team newspaper clipping

Photo credit: Whitehead Bulletin

Chmatal explains that being a runner has many benefits. “It definitely helps to get distance from an issue,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like you are too submerged in your thoughts about an issue, and running can provide that distance for a fresh view. Plus, when you run with someone else, you can get someone else’s perspective.”

Last year, Chmatal ran in the Boston marathon along with his lab mate, graduate student Alexander Godfrey. Chmatal set his personal record for the marathon with a time of 3:01. His other marathon routes had been flatter—Boston is a famously hilly marathon—so he analyzed his training to see what he did differently. 

“It was not my heaviest training in terms of the mileage or speed work,” Chmatal says. “I had many other training periods before with higher numbers. But what was standing out from last year’s training was the time I allowed myself to rest and recover after runs.”

Left: Lukas Chmatal finishes the 2019 Boston Marathon holding a Czech flag. Right: Chmatal runs an ultramarathon in the Swiss Alps. Photos: Courtesy of Lukas Chmatal

Left: Lukas Chmatal finishes the 2019 Boston Marathon holding a Czech flag. Right: Chmatal runs an ultramarathon in the Swiss Alps. Photos: Courtesy of Lukas Chmatal

Whitehead Institute researchers continue to band together to take on ambitious events. One relay race drew together members of several different labs for a 200 mile road race: the 2018 Ragnar Relay in New Hampshire, which begins in the White Mountains and goes all the way to the coast. Whitehead Institute Fellow Kristin Knouse began organizing a 12-person team to compete even before she arrived to begin her fellowship. The team name: Beaver Fever, after the M.I.T. mascot.

“When I was starting at Whitehead, I thought this would be a great way to bring labs together, have people get to know each other, and a great way for me to meet people,” Knouse says.

To make it through the 200 miles, each team member had to run three routes of 3-10 miles. After dropping off a runner for a route, the team van then had to make it to the next drop-off point at the right time.

“You have to be pretty strategic because you drop them off, they start running, and then you need to estimate how long it will take them to run so that you get to the next exchange point before they do,” Knouse says. “There are a lot of unknowns there. The running and driving paths are sometimes very different. They may run faster than you expect, or they might get lost along the way.

Elena Kingston, a graduate student in the Bartel lab, joined the team. “It was definitely challenging, because you don’t sleep that much,” she says. “You’re trying to perform at your peak without having rested. But it’s a lot of fun hanging out with a bunch of people in a van, alternating running and sleeping.” 

“There’s a kind of camaraderie that comes out of that shared challenge,” Knouse says. “It builds a lot of connections. Half the time we were talking about science and experiments, and half the time we were strategizing how to get ahead of the next team—or lamenting how miserable we were at 3 a.m., running in the dark, on no sleep.”

The 2018 Whitehead Institute team at the finish of the Ragnar Relay in New Hampshire. Photo: courtesy of Kristin Knouse.

The 2018 Whitehead Institute team at the finish of the Ragnar Relay in New Hampshire. Photo: courtesy of Kristin Knouse.

Opinions varied on whether it was fun to run on nocturnal mountain roads.

Sebastian [Lourido] had the time of his life running at night,” Knouse says. “But as I was running through several miles of New Hampshire backroads in the dark, the entire time I was thinking this is either going to be the end of me or it’s going to be a really cool experience. Now that I’ve survived, it was a really cool experience.”

The team finished 19th out of 453 teams, completing the 200 miles in 25:43:45. 

Of course, most running takes the form of routine runs on local paths. Kingston prefers to run in the morning. “If I don’t run before I come to work, the day can get kind of carried away,” she says. “It puts you in a clear headspace for the day, and then you can focus on your work.”

Cambridge is a nice place to be a runner, Kingston says. “I run along the Charles River,” she says. “What’s nice, especially as a woman runner, is that at most times of day there’s a good number of people there, so you never feel totally alone. That can be kind of challenging during the winter with snow. During some snowstorms I’ve run laps around M.I.T.’s campus, because they’re really good at shoveling the sidewalks.”

The Bartel lab features a number of runners, and they often run together in the Cambridge half marathon and other local road races.

Michael Stubna, a graduate student in the Bartel lab, understands the importance of remaining consistent while training.  “Even before I intended to become a scientist, running has been something I’ve quantified,” Stubna says. “I have a number of notebooks that detail every training run I’ve done since December 2009, along with graphs and statistics and whatnot—so it’s something I’ve always treated very seriously.” He has carried on the same format as his father’s running log from the ’70s and ’80s.

A graph of Michael Stubna’s training runs (in km) each week from June to December 2018. Inset: Stubna competes in a 5K race in summer 2019. Photos: courtesy of Michael Stubna

A graph of Michael Stubna’s training runs (in km) each week from June to December 2018. Inset: Stubna competes in a 5K race in summer 2019. Photos: courtesy of Michael Stubna

Stubna raced in college track and cross country. He now competes with the Greater Boston Track Club. “Boston has a very mature competitive club running scene,” he says. Stubna’s favorite events are track races of 3K, 5K, and 10K. The focus on track running has given him a precise sense of pace. 

“The most important thing I’ve learned to do in competitive running is to judge pace,” he says. “If you told me to go on a track in 70 seconds versus 72 seconds, I could do that. For the longer races, that’s even more important. There’s a very fine line between starting too quickly and too slowly.”

That sense for pace translates well into structuring one’s progress through a research project. “Whether you’re completing a postdoc or a PhD, it’s certainly better to have a marathon mentality and not a sprint mentality,” Stubna says. “And those are definitely the qualities that being a distance runner can instill in you.”

Stubna’s lab mates have come up with a unique test of his speed. “Because I’m trying to stay in competitive running shape, people in my lab have proposed a relay race in which I run one mile on the track versus eight of them running 200 meters each,” he says. “I think I’m going to get destroyed, but I’ll try to run a mile in 4:45 and see what happens.”

While training for events takes time and commitment, beginners can reap the benefits of running, too. “Running is the easiest sport to get into late in life,” Kingston says. “If you didn’t play a sport growing up but you want to start getting active, running is a great way to do that. It gives you a lot of flexibility. You can fit in a run whenever you have the chance.”

“It’s a time when it’s just you, with yourself,” she adds. “You have the ability to think things through, to be outside, and if you want to just shut your mind off. All of those things are helpful. At times, I’ve used running to think through a problem, but I’ve also used running to just be out in nature and not think about work.”

The mental and physical health benefits of running have become even more important during social distancing amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Kingston says. “It’s probably the thing that’s keeping me sane right now,” she says. “But it also feels even more like a luxury or privilege right now—the fact that I’m still healthy and can go out for a run seems more special.” Early morning runs have been helpful in avoiding peak times for crowds, she says. To cope with working at a desk rather than the more dynamic lab environment, Kingston recommends alternating 50-minute work periods with 10 minutes of moving around at home.

"Running is a great opportunity to get mental and physical distance from your local environment and thought processes,” Knouse says. “It really helps me to clear my head and open my mind to new things. Most of my ideas for projects and experiments come to me when I'm a few miles into a long run."

“Although many certainties I took for granted have changed for me in the last couple of weeks, regular running outside is not one of them, at least not yet,” Chmatal says. The Boston marathon, now postponed, had been the focus of his training, but he continues to log his mileage to stay grounded. “The importance of being outside (socially-distanced) and getting some fresh air while exercising has never felt so urgent,” he says. “It seems to me that every runner I pass while running these days outside has it written on their face.”

Written by Conor Gearin

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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