It is our pleasure to introduce the launch of our guest writer series. The series will highlight pieces from course and meeting participants, and graduate students of the Watson School of Biological Sciences who share their personal insights to a meeting or course in which s/he took part.
Kicking off the Series is Heather Ray, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an alumna of the 2017 Xenopus course, who recounts her CSHL course experiences, and the unexpected benefits her participation at the course continually presents.
In April 2017, I stepped off the airport shuttle at the Cold Spring Harbor Campus ready to start my two-week long adventure as part of the Cell and Molecular Biology of Xenopus course. Everyone I know who has attended a CSHL course told me what a great experience it would be, and I was highly anticipating the chance to learn from some amazing scientists and make a lot of new personal and professional connections. Within the first day, I knew that what everyone had told me was true and I would not be disappointed.
For me, one of the best aspects of the course were the people that I came to know. When you spend 24 hours a day working, eating, socializing, and resting with the same group of people, you get to know them pretty well. We came from all over the world and each person brought his/her own unique ideas and perspectives; and yet we all had one thing in common: our passion for our science. By the time the course ended, I thought of them as family and missed seeing them once I returned home. But, one of the great things about our profession is that there are always opportunities to see each other again, and I anticipated I would next meet up with some of my new friends at a meeting or other scientific event.
While at the course, it was easy to see how all of us in the same class would connect with each other. But what I didn’t anticipate, is how much these course experiences translate across the years and create a sense of kinship between people who have never met. I was able to experience this type of connection firsthand in August of this year at the 17th International Xenopus Conference in Seattle, WA. This biennial meeting attracts researchers from around the world who use Xenopus species in their research, and there is always a good chance that a number of former CSHL Xenopus course participants - including students, TA’s, and lecturers - will be in attendance. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was generous in sponsoring a reception so that we could host a “Xenopus Course” reunion for the course participants present at the conference. We advertised the event ahead of time and asked people to wear their special course T-shirts as a way to honor the course and identify each other.
Going into the event, I was expecting some level of participation and discussion among those who already knew each other and wanted to reconnect. I quickly found my own classmates (there were six of us present, including two TA’s) and we had a great time catching up. But then my expectations were far exceeded as I witnessed the number of people who chose to participate in the reunion and were having a great time talking to, not only their own friends but, everyone present. I was amazed to see people wearing their course T-shirts from 20 years ago and we shared some great laughs over the stories behind the pictures and phrases enshrined on the shirts.
The reunion became much more than a chance to connect with old friends; it grew into a great opportunity to make many new friends and colleagues as well. I found myself talking to Atsushi Suzuki, an associate professor at Hiroshima University in Japan, who took the course as a graduate student in its very first year in 1993. I met several people for whom the course meant so much that they kept returning to the course becoming involved for many years in multiple roles. We talked about how the focus of the course has changed over the years with the change in technology and direction of the field. I had a great time meeting the original directors who dreamed up the course and saw it come to fruition. One of those masterminds, Rob Grainger, told me how happy he is to see that the course is still benefiting and inspiring so many scientists and serving the research community he loves. In all, there were almost 50 of us at the reunion. That equates to 50 new friends, 50 new colleagues, and an exponential growth of my network.
For many of us, one of the hardest parts of the job is to network, and yet it is so crucial for success. To walk up to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself, and spark a conversation can be quite intimidating; especially if it is someone you admire. But what I learned this summer is that by simply sharing the common bond of having participated in the CSHL Xenopus course, networking becomes easy and natural. I was able to meet and “talk shop” with leaders in my field who I otherwise might not have. I also know that my new network isn’t limited to the attendees of the reunion or my course year cohorts. I can contact anyone associated with the course and, just by simply identifying myself and the common bond we share, they would become a great new connection. This summer, I learned that while the time you attend a CSHL course may be limited, the benefits you gain are not. I look forward to continuing to reap the bounty from my course experience for years to come.
If you’d like to join the CSHL Xenopus community and its alumni events, be sure to take part in the Cell & Developmental Biology of Xenopus: Gene Discovery & Disease course. It will again be offered at CSHL on April 3-16, 2019. Applications are due January 31, 2019 and are being accepted here.
If you’re a past meeting or course participant interested in submitting a piece on your experiences at CSHL, let us know.