The annual CSHL course on Quantitative Imaging is one of our most in-demand courses, attracting -- this year alone -- four times as many applications as it has spots. The course debuted in 2011 as a reinvention of a previous long-running course on immunocytochemistry and live-cell imaging.
Last month, we sat down with two of the four co-instructors, Jennifer Waters and Talley Lambert, both of whom were instrumental in shaping what the course has become today. Because it’s so competitive, our chat began with how they select trainees each year from the pool of applicants:
Jennifer: I go right to the personal statement: I want to know what their motivation is for taking the course. We’re focused not just on microscopy, but on using microscopes as a tool for making measurements – quantitative microscopy – and we’re looking for applicants who recognize the importance of that in their research. We also look for applicants who we think, after having taken the course, will benefit others. So, for example, an application from a lab that develops fluorescent proteins but doesn’t have a lot of classically-trained microscopists would be a great candidate; having a microscopist in that group would be a great help in validating the proteins.
Talley: We like to make sure that what they are seeking is a good match for what we're teaching.
Jennifer: That’s true. Sometimes people are looking for something different. We also want applicants who, based on where they are in their career, will benefit the most from the course. We often get applications from first-year graduate students and, based on our many years of teaching, we know that’s a bit too early. They have to have their hands in research for a while. Second-year graduate students are borderline. We do take them, and we had a couple this year, but I think third year is the sweet spot. By then, they’ve really figured out what their project is, and they’ll take what they learn here and start using it right away.
Talley: I definitely like re-applications too.
Jennifer: Yes! We have gotten applications we would like to accept but didn’t because we thought they weren’t quite ready yet. So we’re happy when we see those people apply to the course again; in fact, the chances of their re-application being selected is higher.
If you’re among the ~25% accepted to train at this course, this is what your typical day would look like:
Jennifer: It’s exhausting. We start at 9 o’clock sharp and for an hour and a half, we have coffee and continental breakfast while going over questions and reviewing anything the trainees didn’t quite get during the previous night’s lab. To me, it’s really important to have a good stretch of time each day for open discussions. After that, we launch into the first lecture of the day, which tends to run for another hour and a half, sometimes two hours. Next is lunch and then it’s another lecture, lab, or both in the afternoon. With the exception of maybe one evening talk, we try not to schedule any lectures after dinner. Instead, we end the day in the lab, and that generally goes until 10 o’clock.
Talley: There’s very little unscheduled time from 9 AM to 10 PM, except one hour for lunch and one hour for dinner.
Jennifer: If a person has never been involved in this sort of course, then it might feel like a lot. But compared to other courses, we don’t go as late into the evenings; I just think people need a good night’s sleep if they’re going to continue to learn while they’re here. Even though the pace is intense, there’s a lot of time where we’re just talking because the labs are very much set up like that. The TAs and instructors all genuinely enjoy teaching, so they’re in the lab, checking if anyone has questions, chitchatting, getting cornered by the trainees to talk about individual projects at home, etc. So there’s a lot of time when we’re just interacting and getting to know each other, to the point where we’re all sad on the last day that it’s over.
Talley: For anybody we bring in as a TA or invited speaker, I see it as a requirement that they be there for the students, because it’s fun and necessary for them to get access to experts.
Jennifer: I agree, it’s really important for the trainees to get as much of our time as they want or need.
The discussion then moved to how the course has and hasn’t changed in the last eight years:
Jennifer: Well, Talley and I haven’t changed – we’re still here! [Laughter]
We have always had an analysis component, which is one of the things that makes our course unique. We are serving what we see as a great need: people who want to use microscopy and do analysis need to learn both of them. That’s a very hard thing to do because each topic could easily fill the full two weeks of the course.
But the course has changed quite a bit since 2011. For one, a majority of the lectures are now given by people like Talley and me -- people who run core facilities. Our jobs consist of talking to and guiding people who need to use microscopy and use it properly. We do a lot of teaching at home, so we have built up an expertise and understand what the course trainees don't know, and what they need to know. We put a lot of practice into the best ways of presenting concepts so trainees can absorb the ridiculous amount of material we throw at them in a short period of time. We do still have professors and principal investigators, who are absolute experts in their specific applications, come to the course and give seminars where they show really nice, rigorous applications of the type of technology that we teach.
Something else that has changed is the technology itself, and we make an effort to keep up with it and stay cutting-edge. For example, we didn’t teach light sheet microscopy at all the first couple of years but as it is now coming of age, we’ve doubled the amount of lecture and lab-time spent on it. Each year, we think of what new technology people should know about – even if they're not asking for it.
Talley: In any given year, I can think of things we've added or removed. We used to put more time into two-photo microscopy but have sort of de-emphasized that a bit. We also used to have a sample preparation component that is completely gone now, and we've emphasized super resolution imaging to varying degrees. The different microscopy techniques just kind of ebb and flow, and it's a continuous consideration to change with them.
Besides being a lead instructor for this course, Jennifer is also a lecturer at two of our other courses, Drosophila Neurobiology and Imaging Structure & Function in the Nervous System. We asked her about differences between the three courses, and if there’s a benefit for a Drosophila or Imaging alum to also train at the Quantitative Imaging course:
Jennifer: Absolutely. Both the Drosophila and Imaging courses are designed for imaging a specific application. The Drosophila course is all about how to prepare flies for imaging and then how to image them. The Imaging course is a little broader in that it’s imaging for neuroscience, but it’s still very much focused on that field. So they spend a lot of time on multi-photon imaging, which we don’t, because that’s commonly used in neuron imaging. In our course, we don’t play favorites in terms of what organism you want to image, and we cover a wide range of imaging modalities that can be used. In fact, somebody who has taken one of the other two courses actually has a great background for then taking our course. We like people to have a little bit of microscopy experience for our course because there’s a lot of material that takes a lot of time to absorb.
We next asked for their favorite moments from the course over the past eight years:
Talley: When I think of our highlights, I think of the guest lecturers.
Jennifer: Oh! We had Eric Betzig one year before he won the Nobel Prize.
Talley: That’s a good highlight.
Jennifer: I like to think it means that we’re really good at picking guest lecturers. [Laughter]
Talley: Correlation and causality. [More laughter]
Jennifer: The year he won the Nobel Prize, it was on my list to invite him again. Not because he’d just won but because he’s great and really fascinating to listen to. He kindly declined of course, but I had to email him anyways. I’m always very proud of the lecture series we put together for the course. Our invited speakers are microscopists who speak at big meetings in front of large auditoriums of people. For them to come here, give a lecture to our 16 students, have dinner and chat with them, it’s such a great experience.
Talley: This is not a specific moment, but when one of the students asks an invited speaker a great question that you’re pretty confident they just learned at the course, and yet they totally get it…
Jennifer: That pride.
Talley: Yeah, and sometimes a student gives a presentation on something they did in the course lab that is really striking and very, very good. Just seeing the trainees’ progress. It’s not a specific moment but it’s definitely a category that we always talk about.
Like Jennifer, Talley has been with the course since 2011. However, Talley started out as trainee, then worked his way through the “ranks” to his current role as co-instructor. Here’s what he had to say about his evolution with the course:
Talley: It’s difficult to overstate the impact of taking this course. I mean, it changed my career. I came as a biologist to learn some techniques and left saying, “I think I want to do that instead.” I was just enamored with all of it.
In the beginning, it was just all learning and I didn’t really feel like I had anything to give. I was absolutely terrified when I gave my first lecture, and it was on-camera! Now I feel like I have a lot to give -- I feel genuinely capable of fielding any topic in this course. The biggest change has been in my level of confidence and the relative degree of what I’m learning versus what I’m giving. It’s been fantastic. I enjoy teaching this course and I love Cold Spring Harbor because this is where things changed for me.
Jennifer concluded our chat with why she continues to teach this course at CSHL:
Jennifer: I have taught at other places besides Cold Spring Harbor and I love teaching here. The support that we get is amazing. My home institution keeps asking me to run a course like this there; I said I’d consider it if they give me a team of people like the one Cold Spring Harbor has to support this course!
The Quantitative Imaging: From Acquisition to Analysis course returns to the Laboratory next April and is already accepting applications here. For an inside look into the course, visit its Twitter and Facebook accounts.
For more conversations with other course instructors, check out the rest of our A Word From series.
Photo: Constance Brukin