Last week, we spoke with co-instructors from Ion Channels in Synaptic and Neural Circuit Physiology course, Nicolas Wanaverbecq (soon to be starting a group at the Institut de Neurosciences de la Timone) and Annalisa Scimemi. Both share great insight into how the course remains at the forefront of technology while maintaining its core training ideology, and give a glimpse into the course by outlining a day in the life of an Ion Channels trainee. Nicolas and Annalisa also offer sage advice on how future applicants can increase their chances of being selected for the course. Given the Ion Channels course is highly competitive – accepting only 20% from its 2017 pool of applicants – their advice is worth its weight in gold.
Nicolas: The course is three weeks long. The first couple of days consist mainly of lectures given by instructors on the basics of electrophysiology, ion channels, and physiology of excitable cell and their implications for the function of neural circuits. Then we bring in invited lecturers to speak on specific topics. Each lecturer gives two talks during the morning half of the day: a didactical one followed by a talk on their research. We then take a lunch break after which we brief the students on the afternoon’s lab session, where they will work on the topic that was discussed in the morning. So the afternoons and evenings are spent recording from neurons and analyzing the results. Every day we cover a different, major topics ranging from single ion channels to synapses, using in vitro and in vivo experimental preparations.
Annalisa: I like the lecturer format Nicolas mentioned. Sometimes the first part of a lecturer’s talk describes papers published in the 50’s and 70’s and then switches gears to discuss a 2017 approach to address more sophisticated questions. I appreciate the approach of looking back and looking forward within the same three hours of a morning, because it allows you to realize how much we have progressed but also how much is still unknown about some fundamental mechanisms of brain function.
Nicolas: We ask our lecturers to stay at CSHL for as long as possible so they can interact with and help students in the lab. This gives students the chance to talk with prominent scientists in a very laid back atmosphere. Also, every night we have “Chalk Talks” where two students each give a five-minute talk on their project - what they do, why they applied for the course, and how they and their project will benefit from it.
Given their participation in the course over the last several years – Nicolas has been part of the training staff since 2013 and Annalisa was a teaching assistant in the early 2000’s – we discussed the curriculum of the course and specifically how it has changed to stay current with the evolving field.
Nicolas: The main philosophy hasn’t changed. Our goal is for the students – who are mostly unfamiliar with electrophysiology and ion channels physiology – to understand the concepts of electrophysiology and neuronal activity. Students get a general picture of neuronal activity, how to record and study it so they are able to return to their labs with a general "tool kit" to solve problems and carry out their experiments using what they learned. This philosophy has worked quite well and has been a constant in the course.
Annalisa: The techniques may have changed but the spirit of the course hasn’t. It’s good that some techniques change because it means we’re teaching the state of the art. The conceptual approach — the rigor in which you have to perform your experiments, your attention to details, and the effort to squeeze information out of your recordings — is definitely there.
Scientifically, I think the field has become more multidisciplinary. It’s a source of excitement and challenges because many of us were trained in just one of the many disciplines that we need to know right now. I personally like the new developments in imaging and quantitative approaches. Every day, there’s something new to learn, and that’s a humbling exercise that keeps me motivated.
Nicolas: I totally agree. I’m very interested in the development of transgenic approaches and viral infection to selectively target and manipulate neurons. They enable us to perform electrophysiological recordings from an identified population of neurons while analyzing their morphological and anatomical properties. This approach combines function with connectomic approaches – identifying how cells talk to each other as well as which cells talk to each other.
We then asked them for advice they would offer to those interested in attending a future iteration of the course:
Annalisa: Think about your scientific questions and how they can be complementary to the topics historically treated in the course. And, to those whose applications were not accepted, I would say try again. A part of science is being persistent, and not being accepted one year doesn’t mean you weren’t good. Maybe the pool of applicant was just very big that year. Also, keep doing your good science. It’s not a sprint run but a marathon.
Nicolas: We evaluate applications by making sure the personal statement shows an applicant’s motivation, how the Ion Channels course will be useful for them and for their project, and what aspect of their research will be improved with a technique we cover. We also look at an applicant’s background and originality of their project. If an applicant, let’s say, has a non-electrophysiological background but intends to add these techniques to their research, we would consider his/her application as well. The course is very competitive. We accepted only 12 students out of 60 applicants this year to maintain a 1:2 ratio of students to instructor/TA. With twelve students, we are able to follow them through the course and make it as efficient as possible for them.
Our chat winded down with both co-instructors sharing their personal experiences with the course and the benefits all parties gain from it:
Annalisa: It’s useful to think about what has happened to people who took the course in the past and where they are now. In the past, I was a TA in this course with students who have now established themselves as individual investigators. When you attend as a student, you’re surrounded by friends who will become your colleagues in a few years. It’s an opportunity to form bonds that will last a lifetime. Cold Spring Harbor is one of the few places that offers this kind of opportunity, so it’s a privilege to be here as a student, a co-instructor, and as part of the community in general. So I definitely would encourage anyone to take this chance of a lifetime.
Nicolas: Personally, I enjoy the connections made. Through the course, I have the opportunity to talk with students who have a real interest and curiosity for the field. I’m enthusiastic to share my knowledge and help young scientists grasp the techniques as best I can. It’s also interesting to meet fellow scientists, discuss our research, and set up future collaborations. Another benefit is the potential to meet and discover candidates for future postdoc openings. I think it’s bilateral – as much as the students benefit from meeting established scientists, we benefit from meeting them, getting to know them, and seeing how they work.
Thank you to both Nicolas and Annalisa for taking the time to chat with us. For more conversations with our other meeting organizers and course instructors, go here. Also, to gain a trainee's perspective on the Ion Channels course, read our Q&A with Aalok Varma.