A few days ago, another batch of alumni from the course on Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior were welcomed into the ever-expanding network. We met up with Karla Kaun, Alex Keene, Chi-Hon Lee, and Stefan Pulver to talk about the annual course and exchange fly-centric one-liners. Drosophila Neurobiology, aka “the fly course,” is among our longest running courses and has therefore evolved significantly over the last 34 years. Here is an overview of the course format today and the major updates Alex, Chi-Hon, Karla and Stefan have made to keep it current and engaging.
Stefan: One of the things we try to do in the course is continually reinvent and change it in response to student needs and feedback. The content of the course is usually structured by us ahead of students applying. But we build in flexibility so we have avenues where students can explore – maybe improvise different modules and extend some of the modules we teach, all while having a solid framework of learning objectives. The course isn’t a static thing that moves from one year to the next. It’s a growing, living thing that can actually change – sometimes even within the three weeks of the course. We make adjustments “on the fly!”
Chi-Hon: One of the most significant changes we made is the addition of the capstone project. The course was originally designed to teach students how to use Drosophila to study neuroscience. The capstone project allows the students to link what they learn at the course with their own research interests.
Karla: At the end of the course, the students give chalk talks on their capstone projects and what they want to do in the future in their own labs using what they learned in the course. We really like chalk talks because they create a lot of back-and-forth discussions between the students and faculty.
Stefan: Another new thing we’ve introduced over the last few years is a do-it-yourself (DIY) component. We have a few sessions where we teach students how to build apparatus and create their own equipment. These are systems students can create by using 3D printed materials or purchasing separate components. The systems we DIY – generally behavioral apparatus and opti-genetic LED controls – are expensive if you buy them outright.
Alex: With the advent of 3D printing, DIY-ing is becoming more and more common across science and we wanted to make sure we integrated it into the course.
Karla: And the students love it. One of the scientific advantages to DIY is it permits a lot more creativity. We try to reveal to our students that it’s not that expensive to do it yourself, so anybody can do it. You don’t have to buy a pre-built thing. The only limitations are your imagination and ability to order materials.
Alex: Another thing that’s been ramping up is the integration of computational biology into the course’s physiology and behavioral sections. Computational biology is something that’s growing within the neurobiology field, and we make sure our students get a healthy background in it.
Chi-Hon: We aim to empower our students. In Drosophila neuroscience, there is a norm to use creativity to overcome hurdles. Most of what you want to do, you cannot buy the right tool: you have to invent it, or write your own program to achieve a goal. Our sessions are designed to help students get to the stage where they can build a tool or program and realize it’s not that hard.
We next asked them to describe the day-to-day life of their trainees.
Chi-Hon: The day starts at 9 o’clock with a lecture. Students then spend the latter half of the morning, which sometimes runs into the afternoon, to explore and work on achieving a specific goal in the laboratory. We come back to the lecture room in the afternoon for the students to present their observations and discuss how to process their data. In the evenings, students continue to work on and practice very difficult techniques, and also hear invited lectures from world-renowned scientists.
Karla: The faculty we invite as lecturers are experts in many different things and can tailor what they’re teaching to the students’ interests. So it’s rather dynamic in that way.
Stefan: We bring in a range of faculty members. And oftentimes, they bring along course aides or assistants – like postdocs and graduate students – who contribute to the course too. So you don’t only have faculty but also members of their laboratories coming in to help teach course practicals.
Alex: Oftentimes, the invited lecturers come in to give a two-hour talk but stay for 3 or 4 days. They want to spend as much time with the students as possible. That generates opportunities for students to informally interact with them, talk to them about their projects and get feedback, which I think is one of the more valuable things the students get out of this course.
The course runs close to three weeks and during that time, the trainees also have access to the equipment and technology acquired for the course.
Stefan: Although we study Drosophila, this really is an integrative neuroscience course. We use Drosophila in part because we can teach a whole bunch of different concepts in neuroscience, from genetics to cellular physiology to behavior, that are very tricky to do with other model organisms. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is exceptionally good at bringing in cutting-edge technologies and giving students access to it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s important to not underestimate the access to resources and equipment here; we have equipment that is not easy to access in a lot of institutions. So students can see the full array of possibilities for addressing a question, from two-photon microscopy to live imaging to electrophysiology to inexpensive ways of doing behavior experiments.
Karla: And some of the most complex software for analyzing behavior, too. Altogether, it’s $2-3 million dollars worth of equipment.
Stefan: We have chunks of time in the course where there is no scheduled learning. So students can do their own experiments and access this fantastic equipment any time of day or night.
When it comes to the value of the course, here is what the instructors had to say:
Alex: We had an analysis done and it showed that 64% of the graduates of this course go on to faculty positions. Part of that is accepting some of the best people as students but we like to believe that the course itself contributes to this. I really think it’s priceless.
Karla: On a recent long-term survey to people who had previously taken the course, we got amazing feedback from a lot of them. For me, I’m an assistant professor fairly new to professor-ing and it’s pretty amazing when these really big names email you and say, “This course was amazing! Thank you so much for continuing it!” I think this course is something that sticks with you your whole life.
Alex: Go online and look through the roll of honor. The people who’ve taken the course over the last 34 years include huge names and people who have started new areas in the field, like Karla. To come in and see this year’s students, I can’t help but think that at least half of them will go on to make their own big contributions.
Chi-Hon: This course offers more than just skills, knowledge, and technology – we provide an environment to network.
Karla: The lifelong friendships that start in the course are priceless and make the biggest impacts.
Stefan: Having a network of colleagues you can trust and go to with questions or problems is really helpful. Each year of students formulates that network.
Chi-Hon: We have a mixer with the Advanced Techniques in Molecular Neuroscience course where we invite a world-renowned scientist to give a research talk to students of the two very different but overlapping fields. The students in both courses intermingle and discuss their field’s perspective on the same topic. It’s followed by a cheese and wine reception so the discussions continue for hours afterwards.
Alex: This year, we had Amita Sehgal of the National Academy give this talk. Amita’s in my field and I’ve seen her talk probably a dozen times, but it was neat to see her teaching to a small group.
Karla: We also do a mixer with the Frontiers and Techniques in Plant Science course.
Alex: We “cross-pollinate!”
Acceptance to the Drosophila Neurobiology course is competitive. We asked the course instructors for tips on what they look for in applications and how they make their selections.
Alex: I would advise applicants to clearly state what they hope to get out of the course. In addition to them being very talented, that’s one of the important things we look for in an application.
Karla: Our goal is to create a really dynamic group of students that is diverse scientifically, by gender, and by nationality. It’s helpful for applicants to include a few sentences about their expertise so we know what they can contribute to the course and what they can take away from it.
Stefan: We look for excellence in science and for people who, in a general sense, are going to be leaders in the field. Also, our makeup is international and we welcome people from Drosophila labs all over the world. Karla’s point about the students’ expertise is important in that the course can be considered a two-way street: Students teach other students about their own work, so those who can come in and contribute something new are actually really nice to have in the course.
Chi-Hon: We look for people who not only want to do their own thing, but are also willing to share. People who not only learn from lecturers and instructors, but those who can work with and learn from other students.
Karla: It isn’t only graduate students and postdocs that apply to our course. We also receive applications from faculty at undergraduate institutions. And we welcome them because flies are particularly useful tools for doing undergraduate laboratories, so these faculty can have a really big impact on future generations of Drosophila scientists.
Stefan: I would also say, if you apply to the course and don’t get in, don’t be afraid to try again. Don’t take an initial no as a permanent no. We have had students who, in our opinion, weren’t quite ready to come to the course one year, but then apply again and gain acceptance in another year.
Here are a few more pieces of advice from the instructors:
Karla: Bring insect repellent!
Alex: And sunscreen!
Karla: And sleep a lot before you come!
Chi-Hon: I’ve been to many, many courses in different institutions and I always come back to Cold Spring Harbor. This is the best place.
If you'd like to learn of the Drosophila Neurobiology course from a trainee's perspective, read our Q&A with 2017 fly alum Tayfun Tumkaya. Also, for more on how to prepare for your time at CSHL, check out our course trainee informational guide series.
Make sure to read the rest of our A Word From... series.