Mouse Course

Visitor of the Week: Mackenzie Davenport

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Meet Mackenzie Davenport of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Mackenzie is a graduate student and member in the lab headed by Dr. Mick Edmonds. She is currently on campus training at the 37th iteration of our Mouse Development, Stem Cells & Cancer course – her first course at CSHL.  

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I’m really interested in the genetic mechanisms underlying disease. I’m currently working on studying genetic and molecular mechanisms involved in lung cancer pathogenesis.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
Lung cancer is a devastating disease, acting as the number one cause of cancer-related deaths, and while several of the genetic drivers of lung cancer have been identified, a lot of them have been found to be “untargetable,” or cancer cells quickly develop resistance mechanisms to current approaches. This really highlighted a huge unmet need to further understand other genetic mechanisms underlying this disease.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I think high school was a really pivotal time in my life: I took an AP Biology class by an incredibly enthusiastic and talented teacher; I met a little boy battling muscular dystrophy; and a friend’s mother passed away from lung cancer. These events happening concurrently and simultaneously really inspired a need to understand how genetics and DNA were playing a role in disease.

Was there something specific about the Mouse Development, Stem Cells & Cancer that drew you to apply?
I’m really interested in mouse models and how better models can be made to more accurately recapitulate disease, so learning a lot of the techniques -- from zygote isolation and microinjection to mouse embryonic stem cell culture -- essentially how to make a genetically engineered mouse model, was really appealing.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
In addition to sharing the techniques that I have learned with my lab mates, one of the biggest things I will apply to my own work is a greater perspective on cancer, especially from a developmental viewpoint.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
The course has been a fantastic experience, and one of the biggest takeaways is having been able to meet so many amazing scientists who are leaders in their fields and actually being able to learn directly from them.

If someone curious in attending a future iteration of this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
The course is amazing, and I highly recommend it. In such a short amount of time, there is so much information that you can learn about mouse development, the creation of mouse models, stem cells, etc. It really is a privilege to attend and is an invaluable experience.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The campus is absolutely beautiful, and there are so many fantastic people to meet who are visiting from all over the world.

Mackenzie received a scholarship from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to cover a portion of her course tuition. On behalf of Mackenzie, thank you to NCI for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Mackenzie 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.

Visitor of the Week: Guillaume Burnet

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Meet Guillaume Burnet of the University of Queensland (Australia). Since the beginning of this month, the first-year PhD student and Josephine Bowles lab member has been on campus training in the Mouse Development, Stem Cells & Cancer course. 

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am working on male germ cell development and spermatogonial stem cells specification. I am particularly interested in the role a protein called Cripto plays in the maintenance of pluripotency of those cells. 

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research? 
Given germ cells ultimately give rise to sperm or oocytes, and are responsible for the maintenance of the population at the species level, I find the germ cell biology field fascinating and dedicated my PhD journey wanting to understand how these cells achieve such a function. 
 
How did your scientific journey begin? 
I completed my postgrad studies in France, majoring in genetics and developmental biology. I did several summer projects, including one in my current lab, which is where and when I knew I wanted to work in research and start a PhD. 

Was there something specific about the Mouse course that drew you to apply?
I am interested in learning more about embryos and organ culture; and was most excited to gain hands-on experience producing a transgenic mouse, from microinjecting embryos to performing an oviduct transfer. 

What and/or how will you apply what you've learned from the course to your work? 
Through the course, I became more proficient in microinjection which I can reproduce  at my home institution. I will also be able to try new conditions of embryo culture that could help with my project. And if I have any questions regarding a technique, I can contact the instructors and teaching assistants. Another advantage of taking this course is the possibility of returning back home with collaborations. I met many different people during the course and already have possible collaborations in mind. 

What is your key takeaway from the course?
I feel so much more confident about trying new experiments by myself. I discovered a lot of new techniques during this course, a lot of which I can envision incorporating into my research. I also met a lot of the field’s experts and being exposed to their ideas have sparked new thoughts for my project. 

How many CSHL courses have you attended? Have you participated in a meeting at CSHL?
This is my first course and I hope to attend a future Germ Cells meeting here. 

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would highly recommend they attend this course – no matter their level of experience. In the start of the course, a number of my course mates did not have any experience with mice whatsoever but they are now handling mice like pros. And for those who have some experience working with mice, the range of techniques taught is so diverse that there is something for you. Plus, you will meet the leaders in the field, and can easily interact with them thanks to the relaxed environment. 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I really liked bonding with my course mates and teaching team – all of who I now happily call a friend. I also enjoyed connecting with the invited speakers over an occasional drink!

Guillaume received a scholarship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Guillaume, thank you to HHMI for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network. 

Thank you to Guillaume 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: Benjamin Allen & Amy Ralston

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We recently chatted with the Mouse Development, Stem Cells & Cancer course instructors Benjamin Allen and Amy Ralston. Ben and Amy, for a number of years, have been involved with the course in various capacities but this is the first year both are co-lead instructors so we dived right into the benefits of participating in the course.  

Ben: From my standpoint, the students get two important things out of the course. Sure they learn how to do these techniques and practice them a few times while they’re here but, more importantly, they get introduced to the people who are experts in each of those techniques. So even if they walk out of here not an expert in a particular technique, they’re now friends with an expert they can contact. So if they’re doing experiment X and running into technical troubles, they can feel free contact one of the best people in the world to get advice.

Amy: In addition to the professional and scientific opportunities, we’re trying to maximize our students’ networking opportunities. We bring in about 30 additional experts from fields we’re not experts in so the students are exposed to a broad number of topics and taught classes and labs by those experts. One thing that is new to this year’s course is “First Drink”, where the students sign up to host a lecturer of their choice and take the lecturer to the Blackford Bar to buy his/her first drink. I think the students really like it! I’ve asked feedback from the lecturers too, and one comment I heard from a lecturer who has been here several times was that there were interactions that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Curious as to what other updates were made, we asked the first-time lead instructors if they made any changes to the curriculum. 

Ben: Amy and I replaced a few of the labs with ones that fit more smoothly with the flow of the course and that give the students a fuller grasp of the different stages of mouse development. We also swapped out some of the lecturers.

Amy: Another thing we’ve done, which is in response to survey feedback from last year’s students, is to give the students multiple opportunities to try each experiment rather than offering more experiments with fewer opportunities to practice. So far, I see people mastering things a little bit more and I’ve seen a lot less frustration than in previous years when we were ambitious with the number of experiments we taught.

In addition to the changes made to the course curriculum and lecture lineup, Amy and Ben incorporated a hot new experimental approach into this year’s course. 

Amy: Top secret! No, I’m kidding. It’s CRISPR. The course was originally designed to teach scientists how to make transgenic mice or knock-in mice the old fashioned way. But now that CRISPR exists, we adapted a lot of those same approaches to facilitate CRISPR, which is more efficient than the old approaches but it requires the same skillset.

Ben: CRISPR is the newest and biggest thing we incorporated into this year’s course. Last year was the first year we taught CRISPR and it was successful…

Amy: Successfully CRISPR-ed.

Ben: …we expanded it this year and we’re hoping it will be successful again.

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The Mouse course celebrates its 35th iteration this year. To commemorate the course’s milestone anniversary, the organizers coordinated a special one-day symposium. Trainees of this year’s Mouse course – in between checking in on their experiments, of course – were treated to a full day of talks from scientists who made significant contributions to both the course and to mouse biology. 

Amy: We’re really excited that we were able to invite all 3 of the founders of the Mouse course. They were all present for the Symposium: Brigid Hogan gave a talk at the Symposium, Liz Lacy gave a lecture this week, and Frank Costantini is arriving in a few days. It’s special to have all the founders present to acknowledge the course’s 35th anniversary.

We closed our laughter-filled conversation with their advice for future Mouse course applicants. 

Amy: It’s very important to justify how the Mouse course will enhance their career and research project. When we have a clear understanding that the student is familiar with what happens at the course, then we can be confident that they’ll have a satisfactory experience.

Ben: Also, we would recommend they ask their advisor or letter writers to do the same, to emphasize how the course is going to be a practical benefit. We don’t want this to be an intellectual exercise. Our hope is that students walk out of here trained, to actually use the techniques we’re teaching them here.

Thank you to both Amy and Ben for taking the time to chat with us. For more conversations with our other meeting organizers and course instructors, go here. Also, to gain a trainee's perspective on the Mouse course, read our Q&A with Rebecca Lea. In the meantime, enjoy the results of our rapid-fire photography session with Ben and Amy. 

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Visitor of the Week: Rebecca Lea

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Meet one of this week's featured visitors, Rebecca Lea of the Francis Crick Institute (United Kingdom). The PhD student, who is just coming towards the end of her first year, is on campus for the annual Mouse Development, Stem Cells & Cancer course. She is a member of the Early Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Laboratory led by Kathy Niakan. Read on for more on the CSHL first-timer's experience in the course and advice for those who wish to attend it next year.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
Our lab wants to understand the molecular pathways underlying early pre-implantation mammalian development, specifically how a ball of cells with unlimited potential for forming a complete organism decides its fate. To do this, we make use of cutting-edge techniques including CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, RNA-seq and fluorescent imaging in embryos and embryonic stem cells.

Was there something specific about the Mouse Development, Stem Cells and Cancer course that drew you to apply? 
It was my supervisor who first drew my attention towards this course, and I think I was hooked on the idea of applying as soon as she told me that she wished she had applied when she was a graduate student in the US – if it was a dream for her, an amazingly successful PI and a real role model for me, then I absolutely had to give it a shot! Aside from that, the course offered me an amazing opportunity to get a grounding in the area of developmental biology, and I was really excited to learn the technique of microinjecting small molecules into mouse zygotes, which we do often in my lab.

What is your key takeaway from the Course?
I think the main thing that I have learnt in the last week is that I am capable of so much more than I ever realized! Between the complex lab techniques we have been learning and the intensity of the overall academic schedule, I feel like I’ve already come a long way in both expanding my technical skillset and improving my ability to effectively manage my time. Both of these aspects will be a huge benefit when I return to my lab and continue my research, hopefully enabling me to be a much more effective scientist.

How many CSHL courses have you attended?
This is my first time at CSHL and I’d love to return to this amazing place!

If someone curious in attending your course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
Go for it! Absolutely! I can’t recommend it highly enough, as both an academic and a personal experience – you’ll have the chance to interact with leaders in the field and learn an amazing amount, as well as meeting your peers from a broad range of labs who you’ll have plenty of opportunity to have fun with. For me, this was my first time travelling trans-Atlantic and my first time travelling alone altogether, and I was pretty scared to do it – but one week in, I have absolutely no regrets, so I would say to anyone who might be worried about that aspect that it is totally worth it.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I absolutely love the campus! I’ve never seen labs set in such a beautiful environment, and being a real nature-lover, it’s amazing to walk through such picturesque scenery on my way to and from the lab each day. In fact, if I had to pick one non-science-related highlight, I think it would be walking out of Grace and immediately seeing a real-life chipmunk running across the path ahead of me!

Rebecca received a stipend from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to cover a portion of her Mouse course tuition. Thank you to HHMI for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend CSHL courses where they expand their skills, knowledge and network.

Thank you to Rebecca 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.