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2017 Marine Biological Laboratory Embryology Course Report

By Tessa Montague

tessa montagueThis summer I was a student, along with 23 other scientists from around the world, in the 125th Embryology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The Embryology Course is an intensive 6-week experience, combining morning lectures from over 40 faculty members with afternoon/evening labs covering a host of traditional and non-traditional model organisms. The 2017 Embryology class was a diverse group of people: the students (consisting of graduate students, postdocs and a faculty member) came from a range of disciplines (developmental biology, computational biology, engineering, physics…) and from many countries, including Brazil, Poland, Chile, the USA, the Czech Republic and Sri Lanka. According to our estimates, we were exposed to up to 100 different organisms during the course, ranging from zebrafish to quails, black widow spiders to squid, and tardigrades to ctenophores. Each student who entered the course emerged as a more sophisticated scientific thinker, skilled microscopist, adroit embryologist and sleep-deprived human. Most importantly, we left with a group of new friends and colleagues around the world.

A day in the life of an embryology student

Alarms go off at 8 am, we press snooze a few times, and scramble to get breakfast in the dining hall before the lecture at 9 am. The first lecture usually consists of an introduction to the latest organism we’ll be studying from one of the ~40 outstanding visiting faculty. Someone knocks over their coffee flask in the middle of the lecture, which slowly rolls down the sloped lecture theatre until it thuds at the bottom.

After our mid-morning break, caffeinated, we learn in detail about some of the research projects being conducted in the lecturer’s laboratory. Questions are saved for the third section of the morning, affectionately known as the Sweat Box. The students, course directors and speaker move into the glass Sweat Box, and for an hour the students quiz the speaker on what she/he has spoken about until the PI is a sweaty, quivering mess*.

Students and faculty break for lunch and return in the afternoon for the beginning of the day’s lab. Each faculty member usually stays in Woods Hole for a few days and brings a graduate student or postdoc to teach us the art of their organism. At the beginning of the week we are introduced to the techniques that can be used in that organism (injection, electroporation, grafting, CRISPR/Cas9, live imaging, immunofluorescence, etc.) then later in the week we are given free reign of the reagents, organisms, microscopes, Bunsen burners and loudspeakers to do what we will with. What ensues is an exciting, messy exploration of science that sometimes results in breathtaking moments of awe and wonder, and most other times results in catastrophic failure.

In the late afternoon, when we’ve squished a few samples, started some incubations, and squealed at some cute squid embryos, our course assistants take us out for softball training. As an international bunch, we lack sophisticated softball skills (in fact, most of us lack any softball skills), but we make up for it with enthusiasm and fear of hurling balls. Why the softball training? Because at the end of the course we compete with our archrival, the Physiology Course, for three highly prized wooden buckets. This year Embryology won! Thanks for asking.

Sweaty from the softballs, we wander into the dining hall for dinner, take a break to shower or wander around the picturesque New England town, and return to the lab to work until the early hours. Some students are natural night owls; others are early birds, but the energy that permeates every individual in the course causes us to work later and later without realizing it. Sometimes we take a break to go to the local bar (the Captain Kidd), to swim in the sea, or to get some much-needed rest, but usually a student is just about to go to bed when the organism under the microscope suddenly starts making the most incredible morphogenetic movements, or (in my case) the tardigrade starts doing the most incredible poop, so we stay up, and before we realize it, it’s the early hours of the morning. This happens 6 days a week, and on the 7th day we sleep, go to the beach, eat at Pie in the Sky (the amazing local bakery), and practice our coordinated fertilization dance for the 4th of July parade.

The magic of the Embryology Course is a combination of the people, the resources and the energy that permeates the MBL. It’s invigorating to take a break from the constraints of academic science and be let loose in a lab full of motivated and crazy people, with a freezer full of reagents, an incubator full of organisms, and a basement full of cutting edge microscopes. We got to ‘play’ as scientists, with little fear of failure, and we were accompanied on this journey by a group of equally passionate faculty, teaching assistants, course directors (Dave Sherwood and Rich Schneider are amazing!), microscope specialists and Zeiss interns who were just as excited about our crazy experiments as we were.

As graduates of the course, some of us learned a whole new field; others acquired technical skills that will be invaluable for the next stage of our careers, and others found our new model organism. But for each of us, as we return to our PhDs, postdocs and labs, we can tap into that energy and scientific craziness now and well into the future.

*Just kidding!

Tessa Montague is a graduate student in Alex Schier’s lab at Harvard University. You can find her pooping tardigrade movie online.

MBL images

Images credits: A. Drosophila eye disk. Bruno C. Vellutini, Zuzana Vavrusova and Vanessa Knutson. Blue: Elav, Pink: Repo, Yellow: HRP; B. Spider embryo (Parasteatoda tepidariorum). Tessa Montague. Blue: DAPI, Green: Acetylated Tubulin, Pink: HRP (autofluorescence); C. Regenerating hydra. Berta Verd, Sergio Menchero and Surangi Perera. Blue: DAPI, Green: Phalloidin; D. Squid embryo (Doryteuthis pealeii). Tessa Montague. Blue: DAPI, Green: Acetylated Tubulin, Orange: Actin, Pink: Serotonin