Course


What happens when graduate students in biology are given the freedom to play, dabble in new fields, launch into the unknowns of genuine research, not worry about getting “good” results?

In the case of the MBL Physiology course, one outcome has been—paradoxically—an extraordinary level of new knowledge and publications generated by student-and-faculty teams.

In the Dec. 21 issue of Science magazine, several scientists who have directed the Physiology course detail their winning formula for instilling in students the passion for and ability to conduct “real research,” as lead author Ron Vale of University of California, San Francisco, describes it.

The article presents the overwhelmingly positive feedback from a poll of Physiology course alumni from 2004 to 2010; and the remarkable list of 23 research papers and 59 meeting abstracts that developed out of Physiology course projects from 2005 to 2012.

Physiology course students, faculty, and family members with a sand sculpture they made of the mitotic spindle. Photo courtesy of Ron Vale.

Vale and Tim Mitchison of Harvard Medical School co-directed the Physiology course from 2004 to 2009 and revamped it in significant ways: (1) an equal number of students from cell biology and from physical sciences are admitted (2) students go through a “boot camp” to learn research techniques outside their fields and to begin thinking and stretching beyond their comfort zones (3) faculty give students the kernel of a “real” research problem – not an exercise – and the students develop an experimental plan, reporting back on what they found at the end of 11 intense days (often working 14 hours a day!)

And if they find nothing? Not a problem! “That’s most of what is going on!” Vale says. “Learning from failure is a crucial part of being a scientist.” The atmosphere the course intentionally creates is “intense, yet low-risk,” minimizing “the fear of failure or of appearing ignorant, factors that impede students, as well as senior scientists, from venturing into new fields or learning new approaches,” the article states.

Very often, students and faculty become so inspired by a research problem that they continue to work on it after the course ends, at their home institutions. That is how the seven-week Physiology course has generated so many publications.

The positive impact on students is evident from the alumni poll, which includes comments like, “I am now much more likely to try new experiments even though they seem nearly impossible. This attitude has had a very positive influence on the fun I have being a scientist, which is also reflected in the results.”

“People have a tremendous amount of fun in the Physiology course, whether their project gets a good result or not,” Vale says. “They appreciate the experience of going after a real research problem, of being surrounded by faculty and fellow students who are excited by the thrill of the chase … We are trying to learn something new, and we don’t necessarily know how to get there. That is science!”

The current co-directors of the Physiology course, Dyche Mullins of University of California, San Francisco, and Clare Waterman of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, have preserved the basic structure and spirit that Vale and Mitchison brought to the course.

Physiology is one of 22 courses the MBL offers for advanced, laboratory-based research training in fields such as cellular physiology, embryology, neurobiology, and microbiology.

Citation:

Vale RD, DeRisi J, Phillips R, Mullins RD, Waterman C, and Mitchison TJ (2012) Interdisciplinary Graduate Training in Teaching Labs. Science 338: 1542-1543.

Dyche Mullins in the library of the Stazione Zoologica, a marine biological station in Naples, Italy, that inspired many of the MBL’s founding investigators.

Physiology course co-director Dyche Mullins, in a delightful/witty post on his blog, ruminates on the Lillie Auditorium “initiation” of Physiology students, how life-altering the course can be, and what it means to become a member of the global MBL tribe:

With little more than a week left, my Summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole is winding down. Six weeks ago Clare Waterman and I launched the 2012 Physiology Course with a pair of orientation lectures. We followed our customary division of labor: Clare explained the nuts and bolts of the course and I described its history and philosophy. The incoming students, primed by tales of long hours and difficult experiments, listened nervously —their attention broken only by occasional attempts to get comfortable in the charming but uncompromising wooden chairs of Lillie Auditorium. For me, this annual ritual is a sort of Proustian, madeleines-in-weak-tea moment … read more

Eddie Oroyan and Laura Selle Virtucio of Black Label Movement. Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

 

If you see human beings hurtling through space over the Swope lawn this week, stop, watch, and imagine moving molecules in a cell. What you are witnessing is a literally high-impact collaboration between scientists and dancers from Black Label Movement (BLM) company in Minneapolis, which is in residence in the MBL Physiology course this week.

On Sunday, July 8 at 4 PM, the collaborators will present an informal performance and lecture-demonstration, “HIT: When Dancers and Scientists Collide,” in the MBL Club, 100 Water Street, Woods Hole. The lec-dem is free and open to the MBL community and public.

HIT is part of a burgeoning, 3-year experiment led by Physiology course faculty member David Odde and BLM artistic director Carl Flink, who are both professors at the University of Minnesota (of biomedical engineering and of dance, respectively). Called “The Moving Cell Project,” their collaboration initially sought ways to express biological concepts to a lay audience through the dramatic physicality of dance. But they soon found that their exchange was taking them much deeper.

Odde realized that having movers represent a cell-biological process is much faster (and less tedious) than creating a computer simulation, which can take months. “We started to explore the idea of using dancers to literally embody our scientific hypotheses, in order to quickly convey them to other people,” Odde says. “We call it bodystorming,” which is like brainstorming ideas, but using actual bodies.

Black Label Movement dancers Eddie Oroyan and Laura Selle Virtucio perform “HIT.” Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

They also found themselves entering bracing new territory for dance. In “HIT,” which focuses on a cellular process called “microtubule catastrophe,” the dancers were asked to experience the “stochastic, violent pulling and pushing dynamics of molecules in a cell,” Odde says. This led to arresting movement and musical dynamics; the dance is strange but beautiful and compelling. But it also meant Flink had to develop “impact techniques” for the dancers so they could careen and collide without getting injured.

At the MBL, the collaborators are further exploring their hypothesis that “movers can help advance scientific discovery at the leading edge,” Odde says. They are assisted by Dyche Mullins, co-director of the Physiology course, who became involved in the project a year ago; Physiology course students; and 7 movers from Black Label Movement. In addition, any MBL students, faculty, or researchers who want to test out their own hypotheses with BLM are encouraged to contact Odde (oddex002@umn.edu).

To view a brief documentary video on the collaborative development of “HIT,” please go to: http://vimeo.com/30346802

By Amanda Rose Martinez

A Wednesday morning in Loeb Laboratory found the 2011 Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics & Survival (SPINES) students getting a lesson on the human brain. There to lead the cerebral tour was SPINES faculty member, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a neurosurgeon, world expert on brain tumors and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Quiñones-Hinojosa described each brain region, all the while weaving in stories of their function and the history of their discovery. His pace was swift and rich with information, alive with his enduring fascination for what he calls “the most beautiful organ.” As he went, Quiñones-Hinojosa fired off questions to SPINES’ neuroscientists-in-training, compelling them to keep up.

“So where is memory formation?” Quiñones-Hinojosa asked. “Memory formation is right here in the hippocampus. So you can take one hippocampus out. What happens if you take them both out? No new memories. You can have the old memories, but no new ones.”

“You can barely see the curve right here,” he continued, tracing his way through the limbic system to a small, almond-shaped region called the amygdala. “That’s how movies play with us. They show you the movie “Silence of the Lambs” and they make you afraid. They make you feel fear for your life. They’re right here. They’re playing to the amygdala.”

At one point, Quiñones-Hinojosa paused to address the moment’s larger significance: “I get to touch human brains and human lives,” he said. “Not only do I give people hope in the operating room, but outside of the operating room, I get to do research. And I give them hope that one day we’ll find a cure for brain cancer. And then I come here and hang out with you guys. I mean this is the coolest thing I could do in the world.”

On Friday, July 8, Quiñones-Hinojosa will give a lecture entitled: “Bridging the Gap in the Fight Against Cancer: From the Operating Room to the Laboratory,” as part of the Friday Evening Lecture Series. The event will take place in Lillie Auditorium at 8:00 p.m. For more information, visit: http://www.mbl.edu/events/events_friday_07_08_11.html. Quiñones-Hinojosa’s lecture is supported by the Joe L. Martinez, Jr. and James G. Townsel Endowed Lectureship.

Keith Trujillo, co-director of SPINES, with students during a class led by Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

By Amanda Rose Martinez

Students in this year’s Embryology course have just six weeks to wrap their heads around a, if not the, fundamental question of biology: How do you start with a single egg and get to a full embryo? As it turns out, explained Nicole King in Tuesday’s lecture on “Animal Origins,” this is also a fundamental question of evolutionary biology: How did multicellular animals evolve from their single-celled ancestors?

“Our goal,” said King, an associate professor of genetics, genomics, and development from the University of California, Berkeley, “is to try and identify genomic and cell biological innovations that might have contributed to this transition.” She then unveiled the two key players that may prove pivotal in helping scientists to uncover such innovations— choanoflagellates and sponges.

Choanoflagellate: evolution’s last stop on the way to animals. Photo by Mark Davel

Choanoflagellates have a spherical cell body, bordered at its crown by a collar of minute, hair-like projections, and a long, central appendage called a flagellum that resembles a whip and enables it to swim. King’s allowance that “it’s reasonable to think of these organisms as sperm cells with a collar,” sent a ripple of early-morning snickers through the auditorium. But what’s special about the unicellular choanoflagellates is that they’re the closest living relatives of animals. Just next to the choanoflagellates on an evolutionary chart lies the multicellular sponges, the earliest branching lineage of animals.

A sponge named Oscarella carmela. Photo by Scott Nichols

In this way, choanoflagellates and sponges “bracket the evolution of multicellularity,” said King. “If we can study these organisms at the molecular level, see what they share in common, see what’s different, hopefully someday, we’ll be able to reconstruct the molecular processes that contributed to the origin of animals.”

Later in the Lab…

Tuesday afternoon, the students got their first glimpse of choanoflagellate and sponge cells. Using a standard imaging technique, they added a fluorescent antibody to a structural protein (beta-tubulin) that is common to both organisms. When viewed under a microscope, the antibodies could be seen fluorescing bright green, which served to highlight the outline of each cell body and flagellum, but also emphasized the shared architecture between choanoflagellate and sponge cells.

“The hope is that these students have interests that are unique and eclectic, and that they’ll take these techniques and apply them in novel ways for their areas of interest,” said Stephen Fairclough, a graduate student in King’s lab at UC Berkeley and one of the teaching assistants for this year’s course.

Yi-Ju Chen (R) of Caltech gets advice on sample preparation from Embryology faculty member Nicole King (L). Photo by Amanda R. Martinez

Eclectic interests indeed. A quick canvas of the room revealed Yi-Ju Chen, a graduate student in physics from Caltech interested in evolutionary theory and pattern formation; Valerie Virta, a postdoc at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), who is investigating the mechanism that causes some cells to stop moving and become the bones that form the face; and Joseph Campanale, a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who studies how embryos eliminate or detoxify environmental chemicals during development.

Joseph Campanale of Scripps readies a piece of sponge for viewing under a microscope. Photo by Amanda R. Martinez

Valerie Virta of NICHD prepares humidification chambers for her samples. Photo by Amanda R. Martinez

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