Fri 3 Jun 2011
By Amanda Rose Martinez
The Neural Systems and Behavior course (NS&B) was already humming with activity last week as it prepared to kick off its 33rd year. Setting up equipment in Loeb Laboratory on Wednesday was a group of the course’s seasoned regulars, including faculty Lidia Szczupak and Ron Calabrese and teaching assistant Michael Wright.
His eyes glued to a small, circular level, Wright, who is in his fourth year with the course, meticulously adjusted the legs of what could be called the pièce de résistance of the NS&B’s lab equipment: the floating air table.
“Very minute vibrations on a preparation that has two electrodes on neurons can just be the end of the experiment,” says Szczupak, who is from the Universidad de Buenos Aires and is marking her 11th summer with NS&B.
To create a flawlessly stable surface, each table is covered with a metal plate that rests on top of a pocket of air. Everything—microscopes, cells, electrodes, micromanipulators—is affixed to the plate through a series of metal holes on its surface. This way, any vibrations from the footsteps of people walking around or a slammed door are evenly distributed throughout the sensitive experiment’s components.
Come 9 AM Monday this week, 20 students from around the world began the first of four two-week cycles, each of which explores the neural system of a different animal. First up is the leech, which, with its simple nervous system and neurons that are easily recognized with a microscope, is an ideal starting organism.
“The goal is to get the kids to approach live neurons with their own hands,” says Szczupak. Come back in two days, she says, and “you’ll see people who never worked with a single neuron before. They’ll be familiar with putting electrodes in the cells, recording resting potential, action potential, and learning what this means.”
If there’s one event in this cycle that NS&B faculty are eagerly anticipating, it’s an appearance by John Nicholls, “one of the ‘Fathers of the Leech,’ ” as Szczupak calls him. Nicholls, formerly of SISSA in Italy and lately teaching in countries around the world, will give a talk on the significance of the leech in neurophysiology research. No stranger to NS&B, Nicholls can be identified among the instructors in the course’s earliest class photos, which are posted in the hall outside the lab.
But when asked what they’re most looking forward to and consequently, the thing that keeps them coming back year after year, NS&B faculty unanimously cited two things—camaraderie and friendships, old and new. “It’s just a lot of fun,” says Ron Calabrese of Emory University, who joined the course as a TA in 1979 and has been back every year since. “I like meeting people. I like seeing what they’re about.”
“We’ve been on the same team with minor differences for ten years,” Szczupak says. “We became friends and it’s very nice to be together doing this.”