Slimy science

Simmons Associate Housemaster Steven Hall introduces slime.

Biological engineering assistant professor says mucus is cooler than you think.


The word slime doesn’t exactly bring to mind the idea of fun. It’s pretty safe to say that most of us would go out of our way to avoid any situation where we might get slimed — except maybe if it got us on a nationally broadcasted Nickelodeon show.

But, for Katharina Ribbeck — the Eugene Bell Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering — slime is not only fun, it’s educational. Ribbeck, a visiting scholar living in Simmons Hall, runs a lab that exclusively researches slime — or mucus, as it might be more scientifically known. Aside from her research responsibilities, Ribbeck, along with Assistant Housemaster Steve Hall, organizes the weekly residential scholar events for Simmons Hall. She has organized a student event based around a group discussion about the movie “The Departed” with MIT Chief of Police and former State Police Superintendent John DiFava; a swing-dancing lesson with the MIT Ballroom Dance Team; a yoga class; and many other student-focused activities. That’s how Ribbeck found herself hosting an event this past fall, that was near and dear to her — a celebration of slime.

Ribbeck brought along three graduate students from her lab to help her execute a comical and educational presentation that involved a puppet show about the protective functions of mucus in the body, a pool noodle demonstration of mucus-coated cilia trapping particles in the lungs, and an interpretation of the way mucus helps us relieve ourselves by using a PVC tube and a broom handle.

Ribbeck emphasized how mucus is not only vital to humans, but to other animals as well. One of the biggest gross-out highlight of the presentation was when she showed a video of a hagfish — a fish that secretes a giant wave of mucus to make it harder to grasp when it’s under attack.

She concluded her presentation with a bang — dumping a bucket of actual slime on the head of one of her graduate students while playing a slimy sequence from “Ghostbusters” in the background. With slime still dripping off of his head, Ribbeck’s graduate student joined his lab mates to take questions from the audience. The researchers explained how their work relates to everyday problems and that one of their areas of focus is the role mucus plays in cystic fibrosis — a genetic disease that causes an excess production of mucus in the lungs and digestive track and usually leads to early death.


Topics: Biological engineering, Campus buildings and architecture, Education, teaching, academics, Faculty, Residential life, Special events and guest speakers, Student life, Students

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