The magic of developmental biology research courses


Vicky Prince
President, Society for Developmental Biology

Over the past six months, I have been involved in not one, but two, intensive developmental biology research courses.  Each was a wonderful experience and watching how the courses impacted the students made me reflect on how transformative a rather similar course, one that I took nearly 30 years ago, was to my own scientific career.  Here, I share my thoughts on what it is about such courses that make them such beneficial and rewarding experiences for students (whether young or not so young) of developmental biology.

First a bit more background to my story. In July of 2022, I was a visitor to the Zebrafish Development and Genetics course held at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).  My goal was to learn from the experts more about how to run an intensive research course to help me prepare my own ‘Mini-Embryology’ course for UChicago graduate students.  I am extremely grateful to Zebrafish course directors Deborah Yelon (University of California, San Diego) and Tom Schilling (University of California, Irvine), together with their entire instructional team, for generously welcoming me into their group.  It didn’t take long before I was testing out microinjection reagents, mounting up embryos, and helping the students with their microscopes.  The students were a diverse and international group, coming from varied scientific backgrounds and types of institution, ranging from senior graduate students to faculty, all with a common goal of learning more about the zebrafish model.  Their enthusiasm was palpable and sharing part of their journey of discovery was a privilege, as was the opportunity to spend quality time with the fabulous group of instructors, all experts in my field.  Seeing the students discover the wonders of zebrafish embryos reminded me just how exciting that same process had been for me back in 1993—but more on that later.  It helped me enormously that the Zebrafish course was in the same lab space I would use 3 months later and being there in person allowed me to meet the key MBL folks critical to setting up lab courses. I was without doubt much better prepared for my October course by the end of my visit.

Group photo of UChicago students with course instructors at the first Graduate Embryology@MBL (aka ‘mini-Embryology’) course in October 2022 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.

Fast forward to October, and proudly wearing my Zebrafish ’22 course T-shirt (I admit I was thrilled when the students put my name on it), I was back in the same MBL space together with my primary co-instructors Nipam Patel (MBL Director) and Karen Echeverri (Bell Center, MBL), welcoming our own group of 10 UChicago students to the first Graduate Embryology@MBL (aka ‘Mini-Embryology’) course. Despite coming from the same institution, it rapidly became clear just how much the students enjoyed getting to know one another and their teaching assistants, as well as the opportunity to learn from experts about seven different research species, including a fan favorite—the gorgeous squid. We made sure the students had opportunities to interact with MBL researchers at multiple career stages, including cephalopod instructor Carrie Albertin, a UChicago PhD alum, now a Hibbitt fellow at MBL.

Overall, we modeled our course on the key features of the Embryology course—Embryology: Concepts and Techniques in Modern Developmental Biology, a six-week intensive lab and lecture course that has been running at the MBL since 1893.  While we only had the students for 12 full days, we still emphasized hands-on experimentation, exposure to diverse organisms, cutting edge microscopy and imaging, and even gave our students an opportunity to pursue short independent projects.  Just as with the Zebrafish and Embryology courses, after only a few days our students were embracing long hours in the lab while keeping multiple confocal microscopes humming through the night.

Intensive research-based developmental biology courses, which share features with the ones I have mentioned, are offered at many venues around the world, including in the USA at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Friday Harbor Laboratories.  While the long-term value of short ‘boot camp’ style experiences might be questioned because of concerns regarding retention of information, my own experiences and those of my colleagues and mentees suggest that well-delivered developmental biology research courses, which range in length from days to weeks, can be transformative experiences.  Major benefits include network building, the richness of instructional expertise, the excitement of shared discovery, the unique level of intensity that can be achieved when science becomes the exclusive focus away from day-to-day nuisances like grocery shopping, and the confidence building that comes from successfully learning, doing and applying a novel approach—often all in the same day.

Group photo of participants in the 1993 EMBO Practical Course in Comparative Embryology, held at the Max Plank Institute in TübingenArguably, the longest lasting aspect of such courses is the networks the participants will establish.  As evidence these networks are durable, I offer the fact that nearly 30 years on I am still in contact with multiple individuals who I met at the ‘93 EMBO Practical Course in Comparative Embryology, held at the Max Plank Institute in Tübingen.  In fact, two of the students from Tübingen ‘93 —Alex Schier (Biozentrum, University of Basel) and Corinne Houart (King’s College London) are long-term instructors on the Zebrafish course, so it was a treat for me to catch up with them last summer.  As a trainee, I remember wondering how one gets to know important people in one’s field.  The answer turned out to be rather simple—get to know your peers and if you wait long enough at least a subset will turn into leading scientists.  Way back in ‘93 I had absolutely no idea just how fortunate I was to be offered the opportunity to participate as a course assistant to the Tübingen course’s chick module by my postdoc mentor Andrew Lumsden (Emeritus Prof, King’s College London).  In that role I—like my fellow assistants—was also a student, participating in all aspects of the course.  Indeed, it was in Tübingen that I was first properly exposed to zebrafish, the research model I would embrace fully less than a year later during a second postdoc, and where I have subsequently built my entire independent research career.

With regard to retention of information, I remember vividly—and more importantly still use— a great deal of what I learned in the ‘93 course, which like my Mini-Embryology course only ran for about 12 days.  Highlights and formative moments in my career included: interpreting fly cuticle preps at a double-headed microscope with Janni Nüsslein-Volhard (slightly anxiety provoking, even before she became a Nobel Laureate); grafting Xenopus organizers with Jim Smith (Emeritus Prof, Francis Crick Institute, London) in a building located on Spemann Street; and transplanting zebrafish cells to generate chimeric animals with Don Kane (Western Michigan University), which was my favorite of all and also one of the techniques I just taught at MBL.  Moreover, I still channel some of the fundamental material from the fabulous lectures I heard at Tübingen when I teach developmental biology. In fact, as a Biochemistry major the only formal developmental biology class I ever took was the Tübingen course, even though I have now been teaching the subject for 25 years.  Another fellow student, Raj Ladher  (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore), just told me he still uses protocols from the course manual, so the long-term influence of the course is clearly shared. 

High-level scientific discussions are another key element of the course experience.  As is typical at such courses, the instructors and students in Tübingen hung out together well into the night, often while waiting for embryos to reach the perfect stage or for washes to complete.  We filled the time with animated discussions about embryos, the universe and everything.  Getting to do that with luminaries such as Maria Leptin (President of the European Research Council), the late great Rosa Beddington (National Institute for Medical Research), Phil Ingham (Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine) and Eric Wieschaus (Princeton University) was priceless. But, it was also the discussions with fellow students, which ranged from the nitty gritty of the nature of midline signals, to which model systems would be most productive going forward, to what the most exciting dev bio questions of the time were, that made the experience so rich.  Somehow, we even found a little time for activities outside the lab. Martin Cohn (University of Florida) and Raj wrote an unforgettable number called “The Embryology Blues” that they sang while Alex accompanied on the piano at the course party, which Janni Nüsslein-Volhard so generously hosted. A hike through the Swabian Alb overlooking Hollenzollern Castle with Don Kane and Rachel Warga — both members of the Nüsslein-Volhard group at the time—turned into a long-lasting friendship involving many subsequent hikes. 

Squid embryos at various stagesWhile I have no idea whether in 2052 the students in the 2022 courses will look back as fondly as I do on my own experience, I do know they greatly valued their participation. Ultimately, I would argue that there is no better way to learn embryology than by handling, imaging and experimenting on actual embryos, ideally from diverse species.  Even in graduate programs with lab rotations, it would be very rare to have the range of experiences such courses can offer, especially those hosted at marine stations with access to local organisms.

The Society for Developmental Biology has long recognized the importance of intensive research courses. The MBL Embryology course has benefitted from financial support from the Society for around 20 years, and the SDB has also sponsored important international courses.  SDB co-sponsored four Pan-American Advanced Studies Institute (PASI) Short Courses, which were 10-day satellites to the Latin American Society for Developmental Biology meetings. The courses trained 120 students from the US and Latin-American countries between 2005 and 2012.  They helped forge many important scientific connections. The course facilitated Marcos Simões-Costa’s journey from São Paulo to his postdoctoral work with Marianne Bronner (California Institute of Technology), which in turn led to his independent faculty position at Cornell and now at Harvard.  Reciprocally, Federico Brown—originally from Ecuador and a graduate student with Billie Swalla (University of Washington) at the time of the course—continued his academic career as faculty at Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia), and is now a professor at the Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil).

SDB also supports other styles of courses, including the New Faculty Boot Camp, which was started in 2006. I know from conversations with past participants that the Boot Camp provides key information at a critical career transition, but just as importantly it builds long lasting networks and valued relationships. We are excited to be offering the Boot Camp again immediately ahead of the 2023 SDB meeting in Chicago.

Returning to my starting theme of intensive research based developmental biology courses, if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to enroll in one then I strongly encourage you to do so.  However, these are competitive opportunities—and in the case of the longer courses quite time-consuming too—so realistically, not everyone will be able to participate as a trainee.  But, even if you can’t be a student on a course, know that a time may come when you can serve as an instructor.  In 2022, I was reminded that helping to deliver these courses is just as rewarding as being a student, and actually comes with many of the same benefits. Be patient and your moment may come.

Last Updated 02/08/2023