To date, posts in the #CSHLCourseLife Series have been provided by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Meetings & Courses team. For balance, we turned to a few of our alumni liaisons to provide some “insider tips”:
- Darach Miller, Graduate student at New York University, Yeast Genetics & Genomics Class of 2015 (aka, “the Yeast Course”)
- Dionna Williams PhD, Instructor at the Johns Hopkins University, Cellular Biology of Addiction Class of 2017
- Jan Engelhardt, Graduate student at the University of Leipzig, Chromatic, Epigenetics and Gene Expression Class of 2016
- Karmella Haynes PhD, Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, Synthetic Biology Course co-founder and instructor
- Sarah Ly, Graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior Class of 2015 (aka, “the Fly Course”)
- Sunil Kumar PhD, Postdoctoral scholar at Michigan State University, Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Science Class of 2015 (aka, “the Plant Course”)
- Tiffany Halvorsen, Graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara, Advanced Bacterial Genetics Class of 2016
Alumni liaisons are recent participants in our courses, mostly trainee alums but also teaching assistants and instructors. They’re devoted to both their fields of science and their scientific communities, so much so that they help us maintain online alumni networks centered on each of our short courses. And who better to ask for advice than those who have already lived and breathed a CSHL course you're interested in?
In this post, our alumni liaisons share tips on a wide array of topics – including how to prepare for a course, how to make the most of chance interactions during a course, and how to score a Jim Watson autograph. We hope their collective wisdom will be valuable as you prepare to apply and/or attend a CSHL course! To start things off, we asked what, and how much, to pack when preparing to live at CSHL for a few weeks:
Darach: Due to the Lab’s fairly secluded setting there aren’t any stores within convenient walking distance, so make sure to bring everything with you or find out if someone in the course has a car.
Dionna: Wear comfortable clothing! The days are very long, and it helps to be in professional but comfortable clothes.
Karmella: There is a laundry facility on site so you don't have to over-pack. Think of the course as summer camp, but for advanced molecular biology research. The temperature is warm in the summers but usually mild. Comfortable long pants, long skirts, shirts, lightweight jackets and/or cardigans, and comfortable close-toed shoes are recommended. If you have special lab goggles you might want to bring them (the course supplies generic PPE). Bring plenty of comfortable clothes for hanging out on the beach or playing volleyball, and don't forget to bring at least one business-casual outfit for the final banquet at the end of the course. Also, the scenery is beautiful so if you have a camera, bring it.
Sarah: Number one packing tip? Bring bug spray! If, like me, you are usually the first to become lunch for small flying blood-sucking creatures in the great outdoors, then you will be happy you did. Also, there may be some time to swim at the beach so you may want to pack swimwear.
Sunil: Pack more clothes since time to do laundry may be limited based on your course load and social activities. Of course, pack swimsuits and running shoes.
Tiffany: So, although this might seem random...I was super glad I brought a wireless Bluetooth speaker with me! (And I think the other students were as well.) Besides my laptop, it was maybe the most-used object I packed! We ended up using it almost every day and night in the lab, and it even led to a salsa dancing lesson one night (no joke). We used it at a cabin party and also at a beach party, and even wished we'd brought two of them so the sound was better. Also, I ended up using the campus gym almost every day to keep my energy up for the long hours we spent in lab; so bringing workout clothes is totally smart. I would have gone for morning runs around campus, but it was hot and humid and the bugs were really intense, so the gym was a nice respite from that.
Next up is how to get onto the Main and Banbury campuses of CSHL:
Darach: The frequent shuttles make it easy to get from the Syosset LIRR train station to the Lab (and vice versa). And, for cycling enthusiasts, I do know of two people who biked from Brooklyn to the Lab.
Dionna: I recommend flying into the MacArthur Airport in Islip. It’s very convenient to Banbury and you get to avoid the traffic of Queens that you’d otherwise get if you fly into JFK or LGA. Also, the MacArthur Airport is smaller and therefore easier to navigate.
Jan: I flew into JFK and took the LIRR train which was easy enough. To catch the free CSHL Shuttle, make sure you stand on the correct side of the train station. I was waiting on the wrong side and had to take a cab because I missed the shuttle – that’s not advisable.
Sarah: I would recommend keeping the CSHL Shuttle schedule and phone numbers of the drivers on your phone or printed out, so that you'll have a point of contact once you're near campus. In general, the CSHL Shuttle makes it really convenient to get to campus from the local train stations and the drivers will make you feel so welcome. They're the best!
Tiffany: Transportation from JFK via train is quite nice. It wasn't too hard to figure out which train to take from the airport, and I enjoyed the scenery on the Long Island Rail Road. I would say it's a good idea to use Google Maps ahead of time and send the train directions via text to your phone before getting to the airport (with the latter applying moreso to international students who might not have cell service when landing in NY).
As for how to best prepare for the actual course itself, their advice varies. To ensure you’re fully equipped to get the most out of a CSHL course, we’d recommend combining advice from the alumni liaisons below with any you receive directly from instructors of the course you’ve been accepted into. Some of our instructors require pre-course reading and exercises for example, while others have minimal communication with trainees prior to the start of a course, and instead wait until everyone is on campus to go through necessary background material.
Karmella: [For the Synthetic Biology course,] students are usually provided a reading list about two weeks before the start of the course, and reading these articles ahead of time is very helpful. Definitely brush up on molecular biology, including gene regulation in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. A review of approaches of mathematical modeling of these processes is also highly recommended. The CSHL Bookstore provides a few useful handbooks and texts for molecular biology. For specific information, the student should begin with the instructor profiles posted on the blogsite dedicated to the course. These profiles include a short description of what the instructor will be teaching during the course. You can look for relevant articles or email the instructor for relevant papers. Also, check out the other courses' websites to find other speakers you might know. If want to want to attend another course's talk, contact the instructors to see if there is space for you.
Sarah: Incoming trainees don't necessarily need to brush up on specifics before the Fly Course, but it is immensely helpful to have an idea of what specific information or techniques might be the most useful to you in terms of pushing your own research projects forward. You will be able to ask very specific and practical questions that will immediately benefit you when you return to your lab after the course.
Sunil: Look up the list of invited speakers and brush up on their work. It’ll help you be prepared to chat with them and develop connections that can come in handy later in your career.
‘Intense’ and ‘jam-packed’ are just two of the many adjectives used to describe a course at CSHL. To balance the intensity, social activities are built into the course schedule. Here are what our alumni liaisons have to say about these events:
Dionna: The social activities are just as much of the experience as the scientific knowledge shared during the course. Make sure to spend time with your classmates because they are a lot of fun, and it also provides really great opportunities for networking.
Sarah: Don't be afraid to take part in all of the course social activities. Most of your days will be spent learning and working, but the time that you have to relax and socialize with your fellow course mates and instructors is just as valuable. It's not often that students can interact with such a broad, international group of scientists over an extended period of time. The professional and personal connections you make during the course last well beyond your time on the CSHL campus.
Tiffany: Ask about coordinated activities with the other courses. A lot of people from my year wished we had coordinated activities with the Fly Course. There are kayaks you can use, and they’re great if you don’t want to leave campus during your free time. (You have to arrange this with Security.) Also, there are cool bio sculptures located on campus, and happening upon them randomly was pretty fun.
Networking with senior scientists is an added benefit to participating in a CSHL course. Besides being trained in the latest techniques and tools, be prepared to meet a lot of people and make connections! Our alumni liaisons expanded their personal and professional networks in our courses, and a number even gained new mentors from the connections they made:
Darach: One of the most lasting benefits of the Yeast Course for me was the immediate immersion into the broader yeast community. The series of discussions with researchers from across the community placed the skills in a broader context; it was not only a good introduction to the methods, but also to the history and future of these methods and the research they make possible. Additionally, it was a fun chance to compare very basic lab methods across a wide range of participants, and meet colleagues who I've already gone on to catch up with at conferences.
Dionna: The opportunity to be surrounded by and get to know the experts in the field in an informal setting was really amazing, particularly as a trainee. Larger meetings don't provide access to senior faculty in a similar way, so please take advantage and learn all you can from them!
Karmella: Do not miss out on impromptu meet-ups at the campus pub. If you are not a drinker, there are non-alcoholic beverages available. Look for your classmates, instructors, or people from other classes during meal time. The seating is family-style.
Sarah: You will meet such inspiring and friendly people during your time here. If you're worried about networking or talking to lecturers, don't be! Everyone is happy to talk and help you out. For those who are nervous about networking or striking up conversations with lecturers, just remember that everyone at the course is excited about science so you won't be short of things to talk about.
Sunil: All of the invited speakers are happy to interact with you; I don't know of any platform where you get to meet so many scientists in your field in one place. And with less than 20 students, everyone usually gets a chance to interact with the invited lecturers. I built a strong network through connections I made during the course. And, since the instructors got to know me well during the course and I kept in touch with them, some of them are now my mentors. Do not forget to follow-up with those you meet and the connections you make during the course.
Tiffany: You’ll be surrounded by fellow trainees from such broad scientific backgrounds (e.g., physics, biochem, and genetics) and it’s wonderful. I absolutely loved meeting the other trainees, and knowing them – I’m sure – will prove to be helpful in my career and life in general. For me, interacting with them helped me find new perspective with my own research and how I present my work. I am so grateful to have shared that experience with some of the most intelligent and kindest scientists I have ever met, and to be part of the CSHL community.
When it comes to the courses in general, here is what they had to say:
Dionna: Be prepared to take a lot of notes! The information you'll learn will be invaluable, so be prepared to write it all down.
Jan: It can be stressful at times, especially if you try to perfectly follow all of the experiments, so I would suggest focusing on the techniques most relevant to you. Also, nobody knows everything but almost everyone is happy to explain their methods and papers to you.
Karmella: The Synthetic Biology course offers a series of mini-crash courses in fundamental techniques during the first week. The second week allows students to apply what they have learned to explore a research question or complete a bioengineering design challenge. All of the reagents and instruments that the students need are provided by the course. Also, bring your favorite card game to play in the break area outside of the lab during long experimental incubations.
Sarah: Every day of the course is jam-packed with information that is disseminated both in lecture form as well as taught through hands-on projects in the laboratory. This lecture/lab combination really pushes you to integrate the information in a way that sticks with you long after the course is over.
Sunil: The Plant Course can be very intensive. Be prepared to spend 14-16 hours on lectures, labs, and discussions each day. At first, I was worried about the intensity but as the days went by, I didn't notice any fatigue because it was all about things we love. I did skip some late night discussions to get recharged, and it’s alright to do so.
We constantly apply for grants to help support the operating costs of our courses. A portion of this funding is put towards financial aid for course trainees, and applicants are always encouraged to apply for assistance if they need help paying for a course. Our alumni liaisons have a wealth of insight for funding the travel and tuition costs of a course, through CSHL as well as other sources:
Dionna: I received a Helmsley Scholarship to attend the course, which was incredibly helpful as I might not have been able to attend otherwise. So for financial aid it would be wonderful if more people would have opportunities to receive this kind of support.
Jan: There are plenty of travel fellowships that most are eligible for and I recommend you apply for one or two. But whatever the case, just apply to the course you want to take because applying to a CSHL course is free and there is always a chance you’ll receive financial aid. Personally, I received a Helmsley Fellowship because I was coming from a field different from what was covered at the course I took, and it was very useful.
Karmella: Don't forget to read about the fellowship opportunities listed on the course’s application pages. If you need further input or assistance, ask an instructor or CSHL coordinator.
Sarah: If you are in need of financial aid, you should certainly fill out the aid request when you apply for the course. Additionally, course applicants should make themselves aware of awards/funding that may be offered by their home institutions. For example, many institutions provide travel awards for graduate students that can be used towards the course.
Tiffany: I was very lucky and extremely grateful to have received NSF funding through CSHL. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to attend. I think most of my course mates had funding from their lab, but the financial aid provided by CSHL was vital for me.
Last but not least, three tips on how to commemorate your trip by scoring a picture with Jim Watson or the Nobel Laureate’s autograph:
Jan: James Watson lives on campus and you can ask him for autographs. Also, whether before or after your course, spend a few days in New York.
Sarah: You may want to buy a copy of "The Double Helix"! A lot of students will line up outside of James Watson's office on the last day of class for his autograph.
Sunil: I saw Dr. Watson multiple times while he was walking towards Blackford. Luckily, I got to take a picture with him and his Nobel Prize!!! I also saw current President Dr. Stillman but wasn’t able to get a picture with him though. Next time!
If you’re part of the CSHL course alumni family and want to share a tip or two with the next generation of CSHL trainees, leave your tip below or contact us – we’ll update this blog post.
Image by Sadie Nennig, Cellular Biology of Addiction Class of 2017