Last summer I had the great pleasure and privilege to attend the six-week, summer Embryology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in the beautiful town of Woods Hole, MA. The course is legendary, as having been established in 1893, it has spit out some of the most prominent scientists in the field of developmental biology. After always finding an excuse not to apply (just starting my PhD, too much work in my second year, writing up in my third year) I finally decided to apply last year and was incredibly fortunate to get in. To those reading this and wondering themselves whether to apply for the 2018 call (http://www.mbl.edu/education/courses/embryology/) – I can promise that this course will change your life*.
During those six weeks I learned a vast amount of useful and important things but the single, most important thing I got out of it was getting rid of fear.
Firstly, the fear of asking questions. This one is associated with the fear of appearing stupid in front of colleagues and especially senior scientists. Feeling embarrassed to admit you didn’t understand something during a lecture, or asking to clarify some of the methodology that you didn’t follow. Sounds familiar? At the Embryology course we had some of the most successful developmental biologists come and lecture about their respective fields of specialization. After the lectures came the famous sweat box – a discussion session after the lecture where only students are supposed to ask questions to the speaker. Any question you desire, and I mean any – about the lecture, their career, thoughts about a controversial subject. It was during those sessions that we all discovered that we had the same questions about parts of the lectures, and they were perfectly valid, that asking even the strangest or seemingly obvious questions often sparked incredibly interesting discussions. After one session, every student has asked questions and the discussions in the following weeks were some of the most memorable and stimulating I have been part of.
Secondly, the fear of trying something new. During a PhD or even a Postdoctoral position, we often have a limited amount of time, and of course a limited amount of funding, which often drives us to stick to ‘safe’ experiments and experimental models. Using well-established techniques, to study grant-awarding, often medical questions, in standard animal models. At the course, you are given the unprecedented freedom and resources to try almost anything you can think of. You are given the animal of the day (be it model organisms like mouse or drosophila, or wonderful weirdos like ctenophores and tardigrades) and are encouraged to come up with any experiment you are interested in. The PIs and their assistants are incredibly supportive and excited about even the craziest of ideas and just like that, you have tried so many new techniques on so many organisms that your head spins right off your neck.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the fear of failure. Never in my life have I failed so often in such a short amount of time as at the Embryology course. Every day is filled with failure – you are up until 2 am in the morning meticulously injecting your sea star embryos, lovingly placing them in the incubator overnight and waking the next morning only to find that they are all dead, because you’ve put them to incubate in the wrong temperature. That moment when you excitedly run to check on your amazing Spemann organizer graft and find that the thing you thought was developing into a beautiful two-headed froglet is merely a mashed-up ball of cells, which is miraculously still alive and twitching, though will definitely not win you that special can of Massachusetts lager. You fail so often that you finally realize that it is those failures that you learn from the most and after you try, and try, and try, and try again – you finally witness something that worked, and it is beautiful.
*Or at the very least make you a better scientist.