We recently sat down with Farran Briggs and Andrew Huberman, the co-lead instructors of our biennial course on Vision: A Platform for Linking Circuits, Behavior & Perception. This is their third time leading the course together but their ties to the course started almost twenty years ago when they both took it as graduate students (in 1999 and 2001, respectively).
Farran: One theme that has carried through since Andy and I were students in this course, is that it really is transformative. It’s transformative because of the exposure students have to the faculty via both formal and informal interactions with them. Students not only gain this tremendous knowledge that they will never get in a graduate program course, but they put faces to names on the papers. And beyond that, they actually talk to these faculty about their own projects, and dig into the technical details of “How did you do this analysis?” That is invaluable because it might shape the future of a student’s entire career. They might decide at this course – and I’m speaking from personal experience – to go after a question they never thought of before, that will then shape their entire research trajectory.
Andrew: This course is not like standard seminars. The faculty we pick are people who are here to educate, as opposed to just share what they do. There’s nothing really like it.
Farran: Just following up on that. CSHL’s bread and butter is the technical courses where a student comes here and learns a technique, which is fantastic and can be transformative in its own way. But as our field becomes increasingly obsessed with techniques and the students start to absorb that, it’s even more important to have a course like this where they hone their focus on a question.
Andrew: The concepts.
Farran: What am I going after? Why am I studying this? You get some of that in the technical courses as well, but we’ve already seen a transformation in a lot of our students. Our students, oftentimes, come from very famous and well-established labs and have a very general idea of what they should be working on but they haven’t actually honed their project. Coming here, talking to the faculty and their fellow students, they begin thinking about their project in a new way.
The Vision course, which consists predominantly of lectures and informal discussions, is one of our offerings held at the Banbury Conference Center. Banbury course schedules are works of art that instructors design meticulously by considering the latest developments in the field and, most importantly, what’s best for students.
Andrew: This course has been going on for a long time. We inherited it from our advisors, so to speak.
Farran: We’ve learned a lot from those who came before us. When I took the course and probably when Andy took it, the course had a very hierarchal structure.
Andrew: The course ran in an anatomical hierarchy – moving from retina to the brain. A few years ago, Farran and I realized that it made more sense to make it more conceptual, so those who work in different parts of the visual system and brain could communicate throughout the course. We also changed the overall schedule. We have four hours of lecture in the morning, take an afternoon break, and then 2-3 hours of lecture and discussion in the evening.
Farran: Two faculty lecturers are scheduled per day, who both speak in the morning session until one o’clock. We start back again around 7:30 and go on until the students stop asking questions. The evening sessions start with at least two or three short student talks; this gives a forum for everyone to get direct input and feedback on their projects. The talks are followed by an open Q&A session with the faculty lecturers from the morning session.
Andrew: In previous iterations of the course, we had a format where we had morning and after-lunch lectures. In my opinion, our current format works far better because people get time to synthesize and think about their work. I’m a big believer that students and faculty cannot reasonably sit all day long in a room. Your brain goes to mush. And nothing in our schedule is haphazard. If you look at the schedule, everything is there for a reason – including the breaks.
Farran: The mid-day break allows the students to catch the faculty lecturers. Oftentimes, they’ll go for a walk or sit by the beach together, giving the students a much more informal chance to ask about their projects.
Andrew: The value of a pure lecture course like this one is hard to justify and explain unless you’ve been to one. It’s not so much about the lectures but the opportunity to dive really deep into a topic. You have to leave time for spontaneous interactions, and that’s what we did when we re-designed the course’s schedule.
It’s not only the course schedule Farran and Andrew have revised. They’ve also invited younger lecturers to demonstrate emerging techniques and contribute to career discussions.
Andrew: Junior faculty lecturers bring in a great energy and they have a different kind of approach. They are also able to talk about career stuff that’s relevant for the students, who are understandably interested in their career trajectories. This year, we’ve dedicated a lot more time to career development. The students get to really think about the entire arch of the field and decide where they want their specific contribution to be. I think that’s what’s missing from most career training in the sciences. People get really focused on what they do without really knowing how it fits in the big picture.
Farran: We also wanted to bring in faculty who would be able to showcase – and instruct – on the details of the many new emerging techniques in vision research, because that’s what the students are using. In previous iterations of the course, we had people doing traditional techniques but not necessarily branching out into the new, so we made a push to include faculty who are using a bit more cutting-edge techniques.
Andrew: The field now readily embraces everything from mouse to primate models to humans. It used to be rare that a lab would do more than just one or two techniques. Now, it’s not uncommon for people to lecture about everything from virology – not in-depth virology but the use of virus – to systems neuroscience and computational methods. We also include stuff on atypical model species: we brought in someone who works on marmosets and had discussions about comparative approaches.
Farran: And imaging. A lot of imaging.
Andrew: We’re focusing less on development now, mostly to reflect the fact that a lot more people are interested in visual system disease. We brought in two clinician lecturers this year and have a few students who are clinician scientists.
For those interested in applying for the course on Vision: A Platform for Linking Circuits, Perception & Behavior, here is additional insight and advice regarding the application process:
Andrew: If someone is interested in attending the course, they should have an interest in vision, be highly motivated to learn, and have something they want to share, questions, or something they’re wondering about - and that can be anything related to the course topic. We respond well to someone who is both excited to learn and excited to contribute. The students are as much a part of the course tutorial as the faculty because they ask really, really good questions.
Farran: We aim for a class of participants who are both graduate students and postdocs. One of the things we look for are postdocs transitioning into vision from another field, because this is a sort of crash course for them and opens up a new professional family they’re going to belong to. And in all of the applications, we look for a passion and excitement for vision research.