Portrait of scientist Tessa Montague standing next to an aquatic tank. A spray of black ink shoots onto her lab coat from off-camera.
Target practice: In her quest to understand the neural basis of cuttlefish camouflage, Tessa Montague occasionally gets inked (re-enacted here using washable tempera paint; no cuttlefish were involved).
Photography by Jennifer Karady

Leaving lasting marks with Tessa Montague

When the postdoctoral fellow is not deconstructing cuttlefish camouflage and dodging ink squirts in the lab, you can find her teaching neuroscience courses in correctional facilities, mentoring high school biology students in Ghana and helping to launch DNA experiments into space.

Tessa Montague’s first attempt at studying cuttlefish camouflage is forever etched into her memory — and her clothes.

She was about to start her postdoctoral fellowship in Richard Axel’s lab at Columbia University. She had just built her first tank, an opaque plastic tub with a glass window on the bottom. She planned to place various patterns under the glass to explore how dwarf cuttlefish, Sepia bandensis, can mirror those designs on their mottled skin.

But as soon as one of the credit-card-sized cephalopods swam over the glass, it shot out of the tank — possibly alarmed by its reflection, Montague says — spraying her head to toe with its jet-black ink before it plopped onto the floor.

Montague’s subsequent experiments have been decidedly less murky. Since that inaugural inking incident, she and her colleagues have established a cuttlefish breeding program, sequenced the organism’s genome and transcriptome, described its stages of embryonic development and created 3D maps of its brain and internal organs. They have developed a digital tank to test camouflage in a form of virtual reality and are engineering transgenic lines and adapting existing miniature microscopes for use underwater to explore how cuttlefish conjure up their deft disguises.

Outside her own laboratory confines, Montague helps to facilitate other transformations: She teaches undergraduate neuroscience courses at local correctional facilities, runs biology workshops for high-school students in Ghana, and mentored a student in the United Arab Emirates who launched a DNA experiment into space.

“I’m a big believer in the power of education, and that people should have second chances,” Montague says.

The Transmitter spoke with Montague about her work to decipher cuttlefish camouflage, her various educational efforts, and how she contemplated a career as a CIA agent.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Transmitter: What “big question” drives your research?

Tessa Montague: I’m interested in how the brain creates an internal representation of the visual world. Cephalopods recreate their surroundings on their skin during camouflaging, by changing the color, pattern and texture of their skin. Their skin display is controlled by motor neurons projecting from their brain. So their skin creates a manifestation of the neural activity in their brain, and it shows us the animal’s visual perception of the external world. We’re using this camouflaging behavior to tease apart how the physical world is represented in the brain.

The most exciting part of the project is that it requires the intersection of so many disciplines. Our team includes an artist, an aquatics expert, a computer scientist, an imaging specialist, a neuroscientist and me, a molecular biologist. We need all this expertise to understand cuttlefish at the ecological, neurological, behavioral and molecular level. I love this melting pot.

Montague and collaborator Daniella Garcia-Rosales reviewing long strips of high contrast patterns used in a camouflage experiment.
Pattern generators: Montague (left) collaborates with Daniella Garcia-Rosales (right), an artist and designer by training, to build multimedia tanks that present different patterns (either on fabric or E-ink screens) to the cuttlefish.

TT: How do you describe your job at cocktail parties?

TM: I find it important to explain the concept of basic research to members of the public. The foundation for our understanding of cancer progression came from Paul Nurse, Tim Hunt and Leland Hartwell discovering how the cell cycle works in yeast and sea urchins. Most people wouldn’t think that a sushi ingredient taught us about cancer, but those scientists discovered principles that are central to almost all living things.

In my own work, we’re using camouflage to understand visual perception. We’re not just studying cuttlefish because they’re cool — even though they are. They’re giving us insight into fundamental principles about how brains process visual information.

TT: What have you learned so far?

TM: When we started studying them, we thought they only changed their skin patterns to camouflage. But once we started observing more closely, we realized that they show many different aspects of their rich lives on their skin. They have a visual vocabulary that they use for communication. When they’re interacting socially, they may broadcast their internal states. They appear to have a pattern for aggression — “leave me alone” — and they respond to predators with a pattern that seems to be a physical manifestation of fear. They also create undulating waves across the skin in some contexts, but we haven’t figured out what it means.

TT: What contexts?

TM: Some of them come to the front of the tanks when you enter the lab. They look like begging puppies. They put undulating waves across their skin when they’re watching you.

Gloved hand feeding a cuttlefish a small shrimp in a glass tank.
Visual vocabulary: In addition to blending in with their surroundings, dwarf cuttlefish may also broadcast their internal state on their skin.

TT: Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?

TM: No, when I was a teenager I wanted to be a CIA agent. I was pretty serious about it and got a blackbelt in kickboxing, which is an important skill to have. But when I was 17, I applied to a summer research program at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and it changed my life. I ran amok in the lab and fell in love with the idea that you could find something out that no one else knows.

TT: Who has been an important inspiration or mentor?

TM: During that summer I worked with Malcolm Logan. Even though I was a young and naive teenager, he took me seriously. He set me on a trajectory of loving biology and the process of discovery.

My doctoral mentor, Alex Schier, and postdoc mentor, Richard Axel, have had a massive impact. They both have a strong sense of what’s interesting and important, they don’t sweat the small stuff, and they encourage big, creative thinking. I’m not sure anyone else in the world besides Richard would have let me start such a big, ambitious and expensive project. I wish more mentors would trust their mentees, like Alex and Richard have trusted me. That’s something I’ll take forward with me as I start my own lab.

TT: What inspired you to teach neuroscience courses at correctional facilities?

TM: I got involved through a partnership between Columbia’s Center for Justice and a nonprofit called Hudson Link, which gets professors and postdocs to teach in prisons so that incarcerated people can earn credits toward a degree. I found out about that organization through a professor at Howard University named Stan Andrisse who was formerly incarcerated. He gave a talk during the pandemic about his pathway to getting out and becoming a professor.

Bard College has a similar prison education program, and their measured statistics are pretty convincing. The national rate of recidivism is about 50 percent, but those who have graduated from the Bard program return to prison at a rate of only 2 percent.

TT: What is it like to teach in that setting?

TM: I partnered with fellow Columbia postdoc Shai Berman to develop and teach the course. We taught it last semester at the Taconic Correctional Facility for women. We had to create the entire course from scratch and teach it all on a whiteboard without any technology. The advantage is that no one was distracted by their phones, so we had a really dedicated class.

We couldn’t find any textbooks that were broad enough for our class and their various educational backgrounds, so we wrote our own mini textbook. It has 13 chapters, because we had 13 classes. Later this year we plan to teach the course at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

TT: What other sorts of outreach and teaching do you do?

TM: A few years ago, I worked with a high school student in the UAE on a competition called Genes in Space, and she won. She proposed a DNA amplification experiment, and her experiment was sent to the International Space Station — we watched it launch, and then we analyzed the results when it came back.

And in March last year, a graduate student named Nancy Sey and I went to Ghana to run workshops that teach high school students about DNA and genetics. We just received funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to make the Ghana trip a more official program. In the coming years we’re hoping to expand to other countries across the African continent.