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Back to school – in June

01 October 2012

By Elise Lamar, PhD

Summer is relaxing with friends, diving into a good book or maybe getting down to the water to do some fishing. That’s exactly what a contingent of investigators at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research does when they seek cooler climes to recharge and gain some perspective. Rather than beach chairs and light reading, these folks pack the cooler with agar plates and grab a hot new lab manual before they head out the door. Recognized as experts in their fields, they have been invited to train young scientists from all over the globe.

Each year, several Stowers investigators team up with colleagues from academic institutions worldwide to organize or teach renowned summer courses at two world-class seaside laboratories: the Marine Biological Laboratory located at Woods Hole in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a research institute on Long Island, New York.

These are picture-postcard spots. But instead of picnicking on the beach, faculty and students put in twelve- to fourteen-hour days crammed with lab and lectures, with maybe a Sunday off. They may be intense, but for most participants, CSHL and Woods Hole training courses are life-changing and career-altering experiences.

Kicking back at Cold Spring Harbor

Stowers Assistant Investigator Sue Jaspersen, PhD, was one of three instructors who ran this summer’s CSHL Yeast Genetics & Genomics course. Long before flying east, she planned labs, invited distinguished yeast geneticists as guest speakers, wrote experimental protocols, shipped boxloads of Stowers-made agar plates to Long Island and devised free-time activities for sixteen graduate students and postdocs.

Once there, Jaspersen and her colleagues worked around the clock to teach students how to conduct, and think about, yeast genetics experiments. A typical day during the three-week course started off with “Marching Orders” for the day, followed by lectures until lunch, and continued with lab work that could last until midnight and was interrupted only by dinner and a guest speaker late in the afternoon. Jaspersen herself ran five experiments, among them, “Characterization of Auxotrophic, Temperature-sensitive and Osmotic-sensitive Mutants”—a genetics classic that has been taught every year since the CSHL yeast course premiered in 1970. Others sounded more intuitive, such as “Looking at Yeast Cells” (an imaging experiment) and “Dr. Evil,” in which students were tasked with deducing the mystery gene damaged in mutant yeast.

Why would Jaspersen—in the early years of a demanding career—devote such energy to tasks that won’t form the basis for her next paper? Simple. “Teaching is one of my greatest responsibilities,” she says. “By training students to conduct well-designed experiments and address important questions, I make sure the next generation will continue doing rigorous science.”

Crepidula, cerebratulus and squid

Over in Woods Hole, Stowers Investigator Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, PhD, co-directed the Embryology course along with his colleague Richard Behringer, PhD, from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Every year, this six-week course gathers twenty-four young developmental biologists who learn to manipulate classic model systems such as fruit flies, frogs, zebrafish and mice, and explore new ones, such as Sánchez Alvarado’s specialty, the flatworm planaria.

The Embryology course has a deep history: It was first taught in 1893, a mere five years after the establishment of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. And it is no accident that this grandfather of summer biology schools began by the sea. Many of the first animal models studied, like sea urchins and jellyfish, were not ordered from a biological supply company but pulled right out of the sound.

This summer—119 years later—was no different. For the marine model organism module (on the syllabus: “crepidula, cerebratulus and squid,” aka slipper limpets, ribbon worms and, well, squids), student volunteers went fishing for comb jellyfish, induced them to spawn in the lab and collected embryos at various stages of development. The goal: to carry out the first characterization of its “transcriptome,” meaning the entire battery of genes that regulates its embryogenesis.

Sánchez Alvarado, who coincidentally launched his career by collecting flatworms out of a Barcelona fountain, plans to pioneer an emerging model organism every summer. “Ours is not only a teaching exercise,” he says. “Our goal is to practice discovery research as we teach what is known about developmental biology. The hope is that the data, knowledge and understanding obtained from these understudied organisms can be brought together and published in a comprehensive, comparative paper authored by the students and faculty who participate on this multi-year project.”

Like their CSHL counterparts, Woods Hole students work 24/7. Days and nights are filled with lab work and talks, many by guest lecturers drawn from a Who’s Who of developmental biologists. At bench sessions that go on past midnight, students inject genes into embryos, learn microscopy or hone homemade tools to manipulate embryos. “We don’t force students to do work,” says Sánchez Alvarado. “They do it because they want to.”

If his students are like Stowers scientist Paul Kulesa, PhD, he’s right. Kulesa, who was a speaker and instructor this summer at a Light Microscopy course at McGill University in Montreal, recalls a six-week course where, as a student, he learned to use a confocal microscope to study wound healing using Xenopus tadpoles. “I would stay up all night refining the chamber, labeling cells, and making sure manipulation time was short, because cells moved very dynamically to close the wound,” he says. “Over consecutive late nights I joined the ranks of ‘confocal zombies.’” Kulesa now directs the Imaging Center at the Stowers Institute.

Paul Trainor, PhD

No need to raise your hand

Lectures at these courses are hardly didactic. Instead, intense interchanges among and between students and faculty are expected. Some are structured, like the one-hour discussion between students and faculty that follows immediately after each morning session and the short “Show and Tell” feedback sessions for the Embryology course students, or the all-day “Data Fest” that closes the yeast meeting. But important contacts are also made over a beer or during late nights in the lab.

Stowers Associate Investigator Paul Trainor, PhD, says these interactions flourish in part because, as on real summer vacations, people are far from the pressures of home and work. Apparently, even the superstars catch the sociability bug. “Visiting faculty often stay much longer than their teaching obligation requires because they like to discuss their science openly and get feedback,” says Trainor, who in July hopscotched between CSHL and Woods Hole to instruct three classes, including the Embryology course mouse module. “The students are not yet encumbered by established dogma so they ask questions you wouldn’t expect.”

Dogma may also be scarce because students and faculty are diverse. “These courses gather groups of students from all over the world who are dedicated, motivated and love science,” says Stowers Associate Investigator Tatjana Piotrowski, PhD, who co-led the Embryology course zebrafish module with Elke Ober, PhD, from the Medical Research Council in London. “Nothing is more stimulating than working together with people who share the same interest.”

Piotrowski took the course in 1995 when she was a graduate student and said it profoundly influenced her career path. There, she also met another student, Sánchez Alvarado, whom she later married, proof that science fosters lifelong relationships. 

Exhausted but knowledgeable

Stowers Investigator Ali Shilatifard, PhD, has been jointly teaching the Eukaryotic Gene Expression course at CSHL with other leading experts in the field since 2003. This year, the Gene X course, as it is commonly known, marked its twenty-fifth anniversary, hosting sixteen students eager to learn the nuts and bolts of gene regulation in organisms (including mammals) whose chromosomes reside in a nucleus, known technically as eukaryotes.

Shilatifard and his colleagues create a new curriculum every year, convince colleagues with chromatin star power to fly out as guest speakers, and write the lab manual—no small feat in a field moving so fast that last year’s manual is obsolete.

Over three weeks, the students familiarized themselves with eighteen different molecular approaches to manipulate DNA, RNA and proteins to understand how genes get switched on and off. “If they were back in my lab it could take them months to master just one of these techniques,” says Shilatifard. “The students leave the course exhausted but knowledgeable.”

Possibly adding to the exhaustion was the event that caps the course—a relay race run by students from concurrent courses while balancing stacks of agar plates stinking with old yeast and bacteria colonies. This year’s event pitted Jaspersen’s class against Shilatifard’s. Although Yeast has a history of trouncing Gene X—the two courses are always held at the same time—fortunes were reversed when Shilatifard signed on as a coach. Since then, Gene X has won five out of the last six competitions. This year, however, team Yeast rallied and reclaimed the title of plate race champion. “This teaches them the value of hard work,” says Shilatifard proudly. “Plus, the spirited competition provides a welcome release from long hours in the lab.”

But the real triumph, Shilatifard says, is when he sees students who came in with little knowledge of chromatin biology leave feeling like experts. “In the beginning of my career, somebody taught me,” he says. “Now, it’s my scientific duty to give back to the community.”

The desire to give back is a sentiment echoed by all mentors, including Stowers Investigator and Dean of the Stowers graduate school Scott Hawley, PhD. For twenty years Hawley has taught various courses in the US, the UK, India and China. This summer he traveled to England to organize a Drosophila Genetics and Genomics course in Cambridge.

It is an honor to pass knowledge to successive generations,” says Hawley. “When your student establishes their lab and becomes a terrific scientist, it feels good to think the course played some small role in the process.”

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