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William Sachson

Nematodes and Homemade Cookies

posted August 5, 2016

All good things must come to an end, including my internship at the Stanford Biodiversity program. I wish that I could keep working but it’s time to go back to high school. I’ve learned so much, met people who share my passion for science, and gotten a lot of research done so I’m very happy.

We spent the last few weeks creating our projects for the American Geophysical Union, which we’ll present this winter. My project was: Origins of Nematode Parasitism in the Families Strongyloididae, Rhabditidae, Plectidae and Diplogasteridae. The project addressed the relationship between the environment that the ancestor of a parasitic species of nematode comes from and how that determines whether its size will increase or decrease. Using the data we input this summer, we found that there is a wide variety of situations in which environmental transition, such as moving from land to water, affects the size of nematodes. In the case of Rhabditidae and Diplogasteridae, these two closely related families took opposite evolutionary paths. Diplogasteridae was able to take advantage of new resources of parasitism by moving from being free-living in soil into being a parasite in soil and both ocean and fresh water and thus grew larger in each environment. Rhabditidae on the other hand was stuck being a parasite in its own soil environment, so it grew smaller in a transition from free-living to parasitism. I really enjoyed refining my idea, working with my great research partner Kelvin, and seeing the final product printed out as a huge poster. On the last day of the internship, we presented our results to a group of Stanford faculty and students and answered questions about our work. It was the kind of real-life experience that challenges all your skills but is fun and energizing at the same time.

William Sachson in front of his poster

In addition, we visited some former interns from the Biodiversity program who are now working in other types of internships at Stanford. We saw in their projects how nitrogen is measured from sediment samples to understand how the nitrogen cycle worked in the past; how some fungi form symbiotic relationships with almost any plant they find; ways to culture mutant bacteria to look at genomes; and how radioactive particles affect the environment. We also took a trip to the working farm on Stanford’s campus where interns were learning how to care for plants and investigating how they affect and are affected by the ecosystem. They gave us some extra onions they had grown, which ended up in a seriously good Pad Thai at our program’s potluck lunch.

I’m so fortunate to have spent two summers here. All of the other interns are hardworking and easy to hang out with, even when we played cards and I lost (often). I’ve spent eight weeks with the perfect mix of lab work and data entry, working in the field digging up fossils, attending seminars that taught me about different branches of science, and eating delicious baked goods fresh from our supervisor Noel’s kitchen. I will take with me all the skills I’ve learned including R coding, writing a scientific article, and a far greater understanding of biology, geology and ecology. I can see the possibilities of working in paleobiology as a career, with many thanks to Noel Heim, Jennifer Saltzman and Jonathan Payne. I’ll always follow what’s going on in the Paleobiology lab. Let’s keep in touch!

Five weeks have passed...

posted July 19, 2016

Five weeks have passed since I came back to work for Drs. Heim, Saltzman, and Payne, and it’s been great to re-engage in the lab with the perspective of last summer already under my belt. Even so, every day I learn something new. In addition to our regular lab work, we have had lectures on the social evolution of ants and other Hymenoptera (Daniel Friedman, PhD Student), nature vs. nurture argument with birdsongs (Nicole Creznza Gr PhD), and many others. I am so grateful that I was able to come back and work at Stanford one more time.

Most recently, our Biodiversity division of the Young Investigators Program took a road trip to Pinnacles National Park, where we camped out and investigated the local geology. All we had to do was pull over to the side of the road, climb a hill, and it seemed as if the fossils were making an active effort to escape the rock! We found so many Brachiopods, Bivalves, and Crabs that I had to limit myself to a few fossils to bring home (I debated bringing home a small boulder, but it would not fit in my bag). On the second day, we hiked up to the Pinnacles themselves, where we saw the fault that created the beautiful landscape.


We have just begun to develop our research projects for final presentations at the end of this program, which also can be presented in December at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. When I started cataloguing nematodes for Stanford, I saw that many closely related nematodes, even those within the same genus, had adapted to very different lifestyles in the same environment (variations of parasitism or free-living). I thought it would be interesting to study the evolutionary tendencies of parasitism within the nematodes that I’m cataloguing. I’m curious to find out what factors influence the occurrence of parasitism, as there are some pretty bizarre examples. Some families appear to have descended from a small free-living ancestor, but have almost half of their species as parasites over three times as large as their free-living cousins! With the huge amounts of data all the interns have been collecting, I’ll get my results very soon (I hope). I cannot wait to present my project to the Stanford program and this winter to students and scientists at the AGU. I’m champing at the bit to get as much work done as I can!

Stanford 2.0

posted June 28, 2016

I was fortunate enough to work in the Stanford Paleobiology lab all last summer and, for the past two weeks, I have been reacquainting myself with the Biodiversity internship. It is as much of a joy to work here as it was last year. We started off by touring the campus and facilities and then went straight to work with our new data collection sample set. This year we are cataloging nematodes, and we even trekked around campus to look for samples. So far we have managed to find a few close to our lab.

Intern taking photo of computer screen
The Ongoing Quest for Nematodes
Beautiful Fossilized Whale Vertebrae

Yesterday we went on a field trip to New Brighton Beach to look for clamshell and whalebone fossils, and the beach was covered in them! The fossils we found originated in the Pleistocene, roughly 5 million years ago, when sea levels were much higher and a large area of the today’s coast was underwater. So today you would not likely find modern whale specimens at this place.

The internship has only been two full weeks and I’m already having the best time! I can’t wait to see what new things are down the road, and all the great things I’ll learn this summer.

A Summer Well Spent

posted August 07, 2015

I can’t believe what we’ve accomplished over the past eight weeks — cataloging hundreds of prokaryotes and fossils, developing and presenting our own original ideas, and learning about paleobiology from fossils that we collected in the field. It has been an incredible experience and I’ll miss hanging out with everyone in the program.

For about three weeks, we’ve been working hard to complete our final projects for the History of Life Program. My research partner and I hypothesized that the lifestyle and ecology of an organism (or “ecospace”) have a major effect on body size. We found evidence to support that ecospace does in fact play a role in body size determination. One good example of the difference in size being influenced by life modes can be seen in the case of the blue whale versus its relative the killer whale. The blue whale is the largest recorded animal on the planet and this is because it evolved to be a filter feeder, a very efficient mode of obtaining energy. As it began to grow larger, the blue whale's metabolism per gram decreased so that the energy it consumed would instead be put to work in gaining body mass. In comparison, the killer whale has a very active lifestyle, hunting prey in order to obtain food/energy. This constant activity means that the killer whale depletes its energy extremely quickly, allowing no extra energy for increasing its body size. This difference in evolving body sizes for the same class of animal suggests the importance of varying life modes in marine settings, and based on the data analyzed we were very encouraged by our findings. It would be great to do some more investigating in this area.

We also spent some time outside the lab these past few weeks and took a two-day camping trip to the Pinnacles National Forest here in Northern California. We learned a lot about what fieldwork is really like, whether we were focusing on a well-known fossil dig site or just stopping on the side of a road and pulling fossils out of crumbling rock that looked promising. It also became a lesson in perspective as well, because it made me grateful for the air-conditioned lab that I worked in for the majority of the summer.

I have learned so much in this internship, not just about paleobiology and R coding but also how to work in a challenging academic field. Each day I was able learn from people who are passionate about what they do and are making new scientific discoveries. This Internship has been a real eye-opener, and I cannot wait to come back next year to continue the research of Dr. Heim and Dr. Payne.


Bivalves vs. Brachiopods

posted July 15, 2015

I’ve been at the History of Life Internship for over four weeks, and even halfway through I still find each day to be as exciting as the first. Just this week, we began collecting data on Brachiopod fossils, which are relatives of Bivalves with bilateral symmetry and a lophophore (a feeding and breathing organ). They are interesting animals to study, even in comparison to the Paleozoic fossils from the Burgess Shale we’ve also been recording. What’s fascinating about fossils from the Burgess Shale is that they are some of the oldest and most diverse fossils from the Paleozoic. It’s hard to believe how crucial one place can be for a field, and the Burgess Shale is still one of the most significant sites for Paleozoic research. Moving on to modern marine environments, we took a field trip to Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Research center. After weeks of looking at pictures and articles, it was nice to start doing some tactile work with living organisms, something I’ve looked forward to. The field trip really opened my eyes to how interesting it is to be a scientist. The people at Hopkins are so dedicated to their work and they clearly enjoy it. And now we get to do some work for ourselves, because we just chose our research topics. We are doing actual research for our original ideas and I’m energized and ready to do this project.

After two weeks working in the Stanford History of Life Program...

posted July 04, 2015

After two weeks working in the Stanford History of Life Program, I still find every day as exciting as the first. I am spending my summer living out the old adage, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”. I’ve always enjoyed learning about evolution and the prehistoric world, and now I’m fortunate enough to get a look at how paleontologists and paleobiologists actually work. My fellow interns share the same interests and are a really good group. It’s a privilege to be here, and I’m happy to contribute.

Our goal is to sift through hundreds of reports from microbiologists (and later on, from paleontologists) recording data concerning body size evolution of marine organisms for the most part (bacteria, arthropods, gastropods, brachiopods, and other assorted marine invertebrates). We take the data from these reports and enter them into Excel spreadsheets for Stanford’s file on body size. These data points will provide further support for a larger body of work concerning Cope’s Rule, the theory that predicts increased body size in organisms over time. Think of it as the inverse of Moore’s law, where organisms get larger over time as the environment improves, opposed to semiconductors getting smaller with improved technology. At the moment we are focusing on bacteria and their sizes, environmental tolerances and metabolisms.

For the majority of our working day, we catalogue organisms’ body sizes, look over fossils and discuss recent scientific articles on biology and paleontology. The highlight of the program so far was the field trip to Half Moon Bay on June 26th , which was an absolute blast. I did not know there were so many fossils in Half Moon Bay. It was such an enlightening experience. We saw prehistoric whale bones fossilized in the sedimentary rock within the cliff. We also saw fossilized beds of hundreds of shellfish, mostly small bivalves. The erosion of these fossils turned the shells into beautiful patterns in the rock. All in all, I’m so glad to join the History of Life internship program, and the summer has barely started.

Sedimentary face