Every Year, a New Beginning

Laura and Arthur Colwin
Laura and Arthur Colwin

Like many scientists who are devoted to MBL, the late Laura and Arthur Colwin were interested in the beginnings of things. The Colwins—who first met at MBL in the early 1930s, fell in love and married, and returned to MBL for nearly 70 years hence—carried out insightful research on the meeting of sperm and egg in the process of fertilization.

Their studies of new life in the acorn worm, a unique marine creature that bridges the invertebrate and vertebrate worlds, brought it to light as an important experimental animal. The Colwins would surely be pleased to know that acorn worm research continues at MBL today, including explorations of the very origins of vertebrate life.

Indeed, this research has been partly supported by the beneficence of Laura and Arthur, who passed away in 2007 and 2003, respectively. Seven years ago, the Colwins made an extraordinary gift to MBL to establish the Laura and Arthur Colwin Summer Research Fellowship Fund. Each summer, this gift expands the Colwins’ lifelong inquiry into cell and developmental biology by supporting several visiting researchers at MBL.

This past summer, the seven Colwin research awardees hailed from as far as Argentina and Italy and as close as Boston. Some worked independently in Rowe Laboratory, while others collaborated with MBL resident scientists all over the campus. All of them shared the Colwins’ curiosity about the fundamentals of life.

In the Bay Paul Center, for example, Colwin Awardee Harold Zakon, a prominent neurophysiologist and professor at The University of Texas-Austin, collaborated with MBL scientist David Mark Welch to study how a novel organ—the electric organ in the electric fish—might have evolved from ordinary muscle. One can almost imagine the Colwins asking Zakon eager questions about his work! Over in Rowe, Colwin Awardees Snjezana Rendulic and Ulrich Kuern of Stanford University explored the amazing regenerative powers of the sea squirt, which as an adult can rebuild its entire body from just a few blood cells in about 48 hours.

When Arthur and Laura first met at MBL, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale and she was a gradu-
ate student at the University of Pennsylvania. As Arthur once said about their early years together, “You know the old saying. Marriages are made in two places: heaven and the MBL.” After World War II, he and Laura continued to come to MBL nearly every summer. While not in Woods Hole, they continued their research and taught at Queens College of the City University of New York.

On the occasion of their endowment gift to MBL, the late Sheldon Segal, then chair of the MBL Board of Trustees, said, “Laura and Arthur epitomize the biological scientist whose career has been structured around summer research at the MBL. Their advances in the fundamental understanding of fertilization are lasting contributions for which they will be always remembered.”

Today, Laura and Arthur’s legacy lives on as MBL was the recent beneficiary of a transformational
bequest from the Colwin Estate. The MBL’s Board of Trustees is having thoughtful conversations on how to maximize the impact of their magnificent gift in pushing the boundaries of developmental biology.

Laura once expressed the wish that “our gift will enable many scientists to have the same wonderful experience of conducting summer research at MBL that we had over the years.” Indeed, every year it comes true.

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