R.V., Chemicals, science equipment, blue gloves, and a busy lab crew…, for many “Breaking Bad” fans, this scene sounds oddly familiar. Believe or not, this was how Kerney lab as well as Kerney lab’s collaborator  spent their 2015 spring break. Unlike the characters of “Breaking Bad”, we were not making drugs, but participating in our “west meats the east” co-culture research experiment.

Walking through the ancient forest is like Alice exploring her wonderland – so much unknown excitement!

Launched by Dr. Ryan Kerney and Jasper Leavitt ’15, this co-culture experiment aims to study what will happen if we swap the algae from Northwest salamander (Ambystoma gracile) embryo with the algae from the Northeast salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) embryo during their early embryonic development. Therefore, one of the major purposes of this trip is to collect adequate Northwest salamander embryos for the experiment.

Ambystoma gracile (AKA: the northwestern salamander) mainly inhabits the northwest coast of North America, hence the name northwestern salamander.
Egg mass of the northwest salamander. The salamander eggs usually form a egg clutch that is coated with clear-looking, firm jelly on the outside to protect them. Did it ever occur to you that these beautiful eggs look like the bubbles in the bubble tea?

Of course Kerney lab has our own ways of doing trips! We rented a R.V., which not only was our living space at night, but also our lab space during the day. The R.V. also functioned as our mobile vehicle when we needed to travel as well as our kitchen and dining space when we needed to eat – it was as convenient as you want it to be. If you are wondering how much of a lab can be made from a R.V., you would be very surprised. Fluorescent microscope, dissecting microscope, full range of chemicals, pH meter, salinity meter, dissecting tools, centrifuge tubes, and even waste disposal were all equipped in this tiny R.V, crazy… isn’t it?

Busy crew inside the “mobile lab”.
Similar to when doctors take out water samples from pregnant mother to test the living conditions of the babe, here we also take out the fluid surrounding the salamander baby inside the egg capsule to to chemically analysis the aquatic environment in which the embryo lives in.

You might be curious about how this trip itself went. I would say, the trip was absolutely incredible! During the seven-day trip, the crew have traveled across the entirety of Oregon state and Washington state and the furthest place we reached North was Bellingham, WA. Under states permits we collected and fixed salamander embryos from seven sites, including natural parks, local ponds, and the backyard of a few newfound friends.

Grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, and the little young boy were all working hard to find help us find salamander eggs in their backyard!
To express our gratitude to the family for helping us for the salamander egg hunt and offering us the delicious dinner, we invited the family into our “mobile lab” and fired up the florescent microscope to show them some cool stuff about science.

What was the most unforgettable memory for me from this trip? I would definitely say the amazing scenery and the friendly people we’ve met. Not only did we cold hike through the ancient temperate rain forests, but we also saw snow-capped volcanoes, coasts, and some old train trails in northwest. Thanks to this amazing trip, the Pacific Northwest was, is, and will always be a true wonderland from the bottom of my heart. In a simple phrase, the trip was truly “breaking good”!

Picture of our Pacific Northwest collection crew. From left to right: Jasper Leavitt ’15, Huanjia Zhang (myself), Kyle Weis, Ryan Kerney, and John Burns.

Read more about the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and its symbiosis relationship with green algae.