Drosophila Neurobiology Course

Visitor of the Week: Roberto Hernandez


Meet Roberto Hernandez of the Florida Atlantic University. A member of Gregory Macleod’s lab, the second-year graduate student returns to CSHL for another drosophila­-centric program. In 2017, Roberto took part in the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting and is training at our Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior course this time around.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am currently investigating how neuronal pH changes during synaptic activity and the impact these changes have on neurotransmission.  

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I became interested in this topic while helping Michal Stawarski collect neurophysiological data while disturbing pH homeostasis during neurotransmission. This project drove me to question how many untreatable neurological disorders may be related to pH imbalance in the central nervous system. However, the lack of research on pH dynamics in neurons and its effects on neurotransmission makes it difficult to venture into this topic. But this didn’t stop me. The lack of information and unique challenges presented by this project gave me an inexplicable sense and passion to discover the unknown as well as provide others with some insight into this field. 

How did your scientific journey begin?
The application of scientific knowledge to understand how humans and the world functions has always been a source of wonder to me. Inspired by the many scientific documentaries I have watched and the ambition to one day either make a discovery or treat individuals led me to pursue a career in the STEM field. There was a point in time when I aspired to become a medical doctor specializing in neurology and scientific research was nowhere on my radar. My organic chemistry professor at Miami Dade College, Dr. Carlos Fernandez introduced me to scientific research and had often hinted that the qualities I possess were that of a scientist. Upon graduating with an A.A., I moved to the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University and was still very much interested in the medical tract. However, I became more curious about research and joined Dr. Gregory Macleod’s lab which was where I grew to further appreciate scientific research, found a deep passion for neuroscience, and decided to pursue a PhD in Integrative Biology-Neuroscience. 

Was there something specific about the Drosophila Neurobiology course that drew you to apply?
I found the Drosophila Neurobiology course of interest because the lab techniques it covers will take my current skill set to the next level and see me through my PhD and scientific career. Further, this course provides me with the unique opportunity to learn about the ongoing research in the Drosophila community and network with the students also attending the courses. 

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
This course provides many benefits for unraveling disruptions to the anatomy and physiology of the fly. Being trained in high-speed fluorescent imaging, immunohistochemistry, and electrophysiology will enable me to assess differences in signaling mechanisms or structures as well as elucidate distinct neurophysiological phenotypes caused by acid-base imbalances. Learning the proper methods of studying specific behaviors will help me to determine how the mutation is affecting the memory and motor functions of the fly, linking a molecular phenotype to a behavioral response. I hope to apply these skills to investigate genetic mutations that disrupt acid-base homeostasis during neurotransmission (a concept poorly researched to date) by transferring such mutations to Drosophila via CRISPR in conjunction with other molecular techniques.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
The different perspectives and approaches of application that are available to my research. 

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
This course is phenomenal; the techniques you will learn are valuable in neuroscience and required for any lab using Drosophila as a model organism. Further, you get the rare opportunity of learning taught these techniques from the best scientists in the field. Also important is the opportunity to make connections with others within the field, connecting you to the greater Drosophila community. 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
What I like most about my time at CSHL is the opportunity I have in making friendships with fellow course members and network with guest speakers.

Roberto received a scholarship from the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Roberto, thank you to IBRO for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Roberto for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Repeat Visitor: Ethan Greenblatt

Photo provided by Ethan Greenblatt

Photo provided by Ethan Greenblatt

Ethan Greenblatt of the Carnegie Institution for Science continues our 2018 Repeat Visitor series. Ethan is a postdoctoral fellow in Allan Spradling’s lab and, since 2012, has been a regular at the Germ Cells meeting at CSHL. His successive participation has enabled him to “see how projects evolve over time and what new ideas and themes come up.” This year, he again took part in Germ Cells and trained at the Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior course (fly course). Ethan already has plans to attend the 2020 meeting on Germ Cells so we reached out to learn more about what keeps him coming back to campus.

Tell us about your research and how you decided to make it the focus of your research?

Oocytes have an extraordinary ability to go into a “deep sleep” like arrest state for decades - human oocytes, for example, are produced during fetal development and can remain functional for up to five decades. I am interested in how oocytes control their gene expression, understanding which genes work together to keep oocytes healthy, and what eventually goes wrong that leads to age-onset infertility. The idea to study this specific question came over the course of many conversations with my advisor when I first joined this lab. This research question ties together my interests in aging and the lab’s expertise in female germ cell biology.

How did your scientific journey begin?

I was always interested in science (especially physics and astronomy) but when it came to actually doing the science, I found biology labs incredibly interesting places to be. I started my career by volunteering in the lab of the late James Dvorak at the National Institutes of Health. He taught me that there are so many fundamental questions in biology that remain unanswered and that even an individual researcher in biology can make a major advance by doing well thought-out experiments.

Ethan at one of the 2018 Germ Cells’ poster sessions.

Ethan at one of the 2018 Germ Cells’ poster sessions.

Since 2012, you have attended three Germ Cells meetings – what is it about this particular meeting that keeps you coming back?

The CSHL Germ Cells meeting is one of the best in the field, and I have enjoyed the extremely high-quality research going on in a multitude of model organisms. I was particularly excited to get a chance to discuss our recent research findings and learn how the frontiers of germ cell biology are evolving. The field is in the good hands of many passionate and talented researchers. These meetings are also not overwhelmingly large which gives you wonderful opportunities to interact with participants. I’ve gotten the chance to meet incredibly valuable colleagues and collaborators in the future. I had a chance to talk with many experts at an early stage in my project when I presented a poster in the 2014 meeting. The feedback I received gave me inspiration, energy, and motivation to keep on pursuing the questions I posed at the meeting.

Was there something specific about the fly course that led you to apply for it in particular?

We discovered that many of the genes that keep oocytes healthy are also required for proper neural development and function. In particular, a gene called FMR1 is linked to important autism spectrum as well as reproductive disorders. The commonality may be because synapses and oocytes use similar mechanisms to control when and where genes are expressed. I wanted to get a deeper background in neuroscience so that I might one day be able to directly connect my findings of how genes - like FMR1 - work in oocytes to understand how they help neural synapses function.

Drosophila  Neurobiology Class of 2018

Drosophila Neurobiology Class of 2018

What was your key takeaway from the fly course and what advice would you impart to those interested in this course?

My key takeaway from this course was that the Drosophila neuroscience community is incredibly welcoming and supportive and that eventually doing simple neuroscience experiments in my future lab might not be as crazy an idea as I initially thought. I would love to eventually be able to test the role of oocyte genes in synaptic plasticity and homeostasis using some of the many methods I learned from the course.

My advice would be that if you’re considering the course to do it. You will be exposed to an incredible range of ideas and techniques, high quality instructors, and the hands-on curriculum will enable you to try out experiments in the lab at CSHL that you might not even know are possible.

Now that you’ve experienced both meeting and course life at CSHL, did you pick up any differences between the two function types?

The experiences of attending a CSHL course and meeting were quite different for me. The CSHL meeting is intense in a different way: a lot of great talks and late night discussions, and an amazing opportunity to present my research to the field. The meeting had the feeling of an amazing get-together with colleagues and friends from around the world; whereas, I loved the chance to feel like a student in an unfamiliar area of science during the three-week course. I loved working late into the night trying out all of the different neuroscience techniques we were learning. Many students would stay in the lab until midnight almost every night, and the instructors and students felt like a kind of family by the end of the course. CSHL became like a home.

What did you like most about your times at CSHL?

My favorite thing about the course as well as the Germ Cells meetings were the relationships I developed. At the course, it was with instructors, teaching assistants, and fellow students. Similarly, I had amazing interactions with fellow researchers in my field at the meetings.

The Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior course will again be offered at CSHL from June 28 to July 18, 2019; and applications are being accepted here until March 15, 2019.

Thank you to Ethan for sharing with us his experience, and we look forward to having him back at the Laboratory again. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here and here.

* Ethan received a fellowship from the Helmsley Charitable Trust to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Ethan, thank you to the Helmsley Charitable Trust for supporting and enabling scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Visitor of the Week: Doris Ling

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Meet Doris Ling of Washington University in St. Louis. The graduate student is a member of the Barani Raman Lab which studies the insect olfactory system; as well as the Yehuda Ben-Shahar Lab which studies the genetic basis of behavior. Doris returned to CSHL to take part in the annual course on Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in how the brain encodes complex sensory information – currently I am researching this in the fruit fly brain and how it represents chemical information such as smells.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research? 
My background is in engineering and in a previous life I was interested in developing artificial chemical sensors. I quickly came to realize that man-made chemical sensors tend to fail in complex odorant environments but natural chemical sensors, such as our noses or a fly’s antennae, easily deal with these complexities. So why not study how nature builds such robust chemical sensors? 

How did your scientific journey begin? 
Growing up, I had great teachers whose enthusiasm for teaching and the sciences made it easy for me to get excited about science too.

Was there something specific about the Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior course that drew you to apply?
I applied to this course because I wanted to learn more laboratory skills specific for studying the fruit fly nervous system. Learning such hands-on technical skills from leaders in the field has been truly invaluable in ways that I am not sure I would have been able to obtain anywhere else.    

What and/or how will you apply what you've learned from the course to your work? 
This course has provided me with such a breadth and wealth of knowledge regarding everything from the developmental neuroscience to the genetic tools available in fruit flies. It was also great to learn from people with such diverse academic backgrounds. I hope to channel everything I’ve learned to ask more informed and interesting questions about Drosophila neurobiology!

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Flies are awesome. Even though their brains only have 100,000 neurons (compared to humans which have 100 billion neurons), they are still capable of so many interesting and elaborate behaviors. And considering how many biological processes are fairly conserved throughout the animal kingdom, the fly is a necessarily simple but sufficiently complex model that can teach us a lot about ourselves.  

How many CSHL courses have you attended? 
Just this one, and I attended the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting last fall. 

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
Do it! This course has been invaluable to me in terms of the experimental skills I have learned, the conversations I’ve had, and the people I’ve met. The instructors are so knowledgeable, but more importantly, ever so patient and kind teachers. It has been a great opportunity to get to know them and to have them on our team.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The people I met at CSHL during the course are nothing short of amazing. Their company has brought me countless laughs and gave me an unwavering faith about the future of the field. I already miss our late-night conversations and gossiping about science at every coffee break. I hope that I may one day be as motivated, diligent, and ambitious as they are. 

Doris received a fellowship from the Helmsley Charitable Trust to cover a portion of her course tuition. On behalf of Doris, thank you to the Helmsley Charitable Trust for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Doris for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

A Word From: Heather Broihier & Troy Littleton

L to R: Ken Zaret, Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig; Photo by Constance Brukin

The seventeenth biennial Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meeting on the Neurobiology of Drosophila took place October 3-7, 2017. Serendipitously, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced that same week and awarded to three Drosophila biologists – and Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young – for their work in understanding circadian rhythms. We chatted with the meeting organizers Heather Broihier and Troy Littleton about fruit flies, the Nobels, and how both the meeting and the field have evolved in recent years.

Troy: This meeting, together with the European Drosophila neurobiology conference, are the only forums that bring the model system of Drosophila together with those who do neurobiology. Every other meeting in neuroscience or Drosophila either covers a broad range of topics outside of neuroscience or focuses on a variety of model systems. But we’re all tied together by the common tools we use in our field: even when people may not have a specific interest in a unique protein or a circuit, there are still common tools they’re using. There are so many ideas that happen from this meeting: it’s an excitement that brings a lot of people here. 
Illustration: Niklas Elmehed, Nobel Media AB 2017

Illustration: Niklas Elmehed, Nobel Media AB 2017

Heather: This is the most exciting meeting in our field and it’s really well-represented in terms of colleagues and topics. We had about 450 participants this time representing everything from the molecular genetic level all the way up to circuits and behavior. This year’s meeting was especially exciting for us because the 2017 Nobel Prize was awarded to scientists in our field on the same day the meeting started, for work that was actually initiated in Seymour Benzer’s lab. We had a Seymour Benzer Memorial Lecture this year given by Hugo Bellen, and so everything felt timely. 
Troy: One of the big excitements in our field is that we span the gap from people who study single molecules all the way up to complex behaviors mediated by the large brain circuits. Being able to see the full range of science – how single molecules make the molecular engines that ultimately allow the animals to learn and behave, and studying how that’s represented across neural circuits – is really exciting. In that regard, this is a unique meeting because those in the circuit world get to experience the molecular world and vice versa. This meeting also keeps everyone abreast of the tools across both systems that help advance both fields. 
Heather: There’s been a lot of tool building, especially out of Gerry Rubin’s group in Janelia. He gave a short talk on the unbelievable pace of innovation in the computational tools we have for putting together the fly connectome in the brain —for understanding how every neuron connects at a synaptic level. For many years, the implementation of the tools wasn't quite there yet. But amazing progress has been made to enable that kind of map in what Gerry thinks will be the next five years. It’s in collaboration with Google to get through the data analysis and enable these large datasets to be connected and compiled. I’m just blown away: this kind of work was not imaginable even five years ago. The talks in the circuits session really exploded this year, and there now seems to be a huge payoff from the tool development that has gone on in our field.
Troy: Technology is a big driver in our field. In prior years, we had technology talks that were organized into small subsections and, consequently, broke the community apart. This year, we decided to have one symposium dedicated to technological developments, so everyone was in the same room and heard about the great new tools coming out. It worked really well. 
Heather: We weren’t the driving force behind this, but there was also a presentation this year about the 2017 Nobel Prize. It was given by attendees who had done scientific training in each of the three labs for which the Prize was awarded. They put together a really great presentation about the history of the work that provided the students and postdocs with a more immediate sense of that history. We all felt that our entire field was awarded the Prize.
Troy: The award really emphasizes that Drosophila as a model isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a great system to understand core principles of behavior that have been conserved across evolution. The simple fly can tell us so much about basic biology and basic mechanisms of disease that have important benefits for human health.

A unique feature of this meeting are the Elkins Memorial and Seymour Benzer lectures:

Heather: The centrality of this meeting for our field is signified by the Elkins Lecture, which is an award given every two years for the best PhD thesis in Drosophila neurobiology. Troy directs the selection committee, and the winner gives one of the full-length invited lectures here at the meeting. 
Troy: This year, we had 12 or 13 nominations that were just unbelievably great. It’s always a challenge to pick from the very, very best. Ultimately the selection committee – which includes former organizers of this meeting – considers the impact of an applicant’s work in the field. The 2017 Elkins Memorial Lecture was awarded to Raphael Cohn for his work on how the fly learning centers – the mushroom bodies – encode contextual information cues from the environment. It was spectacular, beautiful work that takes advantage of all the tool development and biology available up to this point.
Heather: It’s incredibly exciting that we have such unbelievably high-quality research going on in our field. This meeting really represents the best of our community.
Troy: The Seymour Benzer keynote lecture by Hugo Bellen was another high point of the meeting for me. Hugo highlighted how the fly might inform basic mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s – i.e., the links between defects and lipid metabolism in the fly that cause neurodegeneration, and the mouse or other models with ties to Alzheimer’s. For me, the twin pillars of basic science are 1) how something not related to disease works at a fundamental level, and then 2) how to take it to a different arena to inform core disease mechanisms. Both lectures this year were excellent examples of basic science. 

Organizers of Neurobiology of Drosophila hold the role for only one iteration of the meeting. Here is what Heather and Troy did in 2017 to leave their mark on the meeting: 

Heather: Both Troy and I happen to be on the cellular/molecular side of the balance, so we included the meeting’s first ever Neuronal Cell Biology session. For the next iteration, the new organizers might have different interests and ways they want to highlight the strengths of our field, so it’s appropriate the organizer roles move to two different people.
Troy: It’s great to give other members of our community the opportunity to survey the field and make their own choices on what they feel are important things to bring to the meeting. Heather and I also moved the poster session to the evening and that actually turned out very well. People grabbed a beer from the bar and basically stayed as long as they wanted in the poster session.

In terms of who would benefit in attending the biennial meeting:  

Troy: There are benefits across every career level. We mostly selected junior scientists to give talks, so graduate students and postdocs get to expose the community to their work. It’s a great place for younger scientists to network with more senior people. Graduate students get to “sample” and meet with people from labs they might be considering for postdocs, and the same applies to postdocs who are beginning to go in the job market. And it comes full circle: the PIs see the junior scientists present fantastic work and we can encourage them to consider our labs for future training. Personally, I'm already cherry-picking who might fit well in my home institution and encouraging them to apply for faculty positions there. 
Drosophila Neurobiology course, 1993 Can you find Troy Littleton?

Drosophila Neurobiology course, 1993
Can you find Troy Littleton?

CSHL also runs an annual summer short course in Drosophila neurobiology, and a large number of course participants regularly attend the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting. In fact, Troy was a trainee in the course in 1993 and Heather was an instructor in 2009-2011! In celebration of the course’s 30th anniversary, a reception was organized during the meeting that was attended by more than 75 course alumni dating all the way back to the Class of 1989. (Check out the complete course "class photo" gallery.)

Heather: It was an outstanding way for our community to see the importance of that course. So many of us came through the Drosophila neurobiology course as students, instructors, teaching assistants, or invited speakers, so we feel tied to it. This meeting is a great way for a lot of us to get together and see old friends. 

The Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting at CSHL offers a lot to every participant. Whether one attends to discover the latest technological developments, hear a presentation on the best thesis, meet new collaborators, reunite with old friends, or celebrate the Nobel Prize with peers from the field, this meeting is, as Heather said: “THE best meeting in the field!”

The meeting returns to the Laboratory in 2019; and information on our Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior course can be found in this webpage. To gain an inside look into the course, be sure to read our Q&A with 2017 Course Alumnus Tayfun Tumkaya.

For more conversation with other meeting organizers, check out the rest of our A Word From series. 

Visitor of the Week: Ilse Eidhof

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Meet Ilse Eidhof of The Radboudumc (Netherlands). The PhD student is part of the Drosophila Models of Brain Disorders Research Group led by Annette Schenck. A 2016 Drosophila Neurobiology course alumna, Ilse returns to campus for the 2017 Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting where she presented a poster.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders, and use the fruit fly as the model to understand the mechanisms underlying these disorders. 

Was there something specific about the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting that drew you to attend?
I have a number of reasons for attending this meeting. For one, I believe this meeting to be one of the greatest in Drosophila neurobiology and its long list of speakers consists of those who are absolutely the best in the field. In addition, this meeting provides a platform to interact with other Drosophila scientists; and I am particularly interested in new technological innovations that are presented and discussed here.  

What is your key takeaway from the meeting?
Mainly the current state of today's Drosophila research and which new tools and techniques I can incorporate into my own work.

How many CSHL meetings have you attended? How about CSHL courses?
This is the second meeting at CSHL I am attending; and in 2016 I was part of the Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behaviors course. 

If someone curious in attending a future iteration of Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would definitely recommend those interested in this meeting to attend because I believe it to be one of the biggest and greatest in the field. It covers a broad range of topics - from basic neurobiological questions to technological innovations and disease modeling - that there is basically a topic of interest for everyone. Plus, the overall quality of the research presented is quite amazing. 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I really like the open atmosphere at CSHL; and there are numerous opportunities to meet and interact with fellow scientists in the field. 

Thank you to Ilse for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course – go here