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

Photo of Tina Trudeson and Jim Nally

Tina Truedson (left) and Jim Nally, co-owners of Salt Creek Catering

Credit: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

October 11, 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.

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.
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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