The deadline to apply for the 2018 Mouse Development, Stem Cells & Cancer course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) is March 15th. If you don’t know much about the course or are on the fence about applying, I want to give you some background about my experiences from 2017, in hopes that I can convince you to apply, too.
The mouse course was founded in 1983 by superstar mouse wranglers Frank Costantini, Brigid Hogan, and Elizabeth Lacy. They recognized the power of emerging techniques to generate transgenic mice and knew they had to create an opportunity to pass these skills on to scientists of all levels and from around the world. Every year, the mouse course brings together 14 students at various stages of their careers and from diverse backgrounds to blast through an intense curriculum packed with hands-on lab work. The course is hosted by the historic Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, established in 1890: the home of many major scientific discoveries that have shaped modern biology.
In June 2017, I was fortunate to take the mouse course. During my 3 weeks at the CSHL campus, I learned a host of experimental techniques and made tons of new professional contacts and friends. Exposure to these new tools and conversations with the many faculty speakers brought fresh insight into problems I face in my current research, giving me ideas for future projects and collaborations that will benefit me for the rest of my career. I emerged from the mouse course a better scientist equipped, not just with new skills, but the belief I can learn whatever I set out to learn.
Applying for the course
Who should apply for the mouse course? You! Graduate students at all levels, postdoctoral fellows, and new PIs. We had all 3 categories in our class, and we came from different backgrounds within the life sciences: genetics, neuroscience, developmental biology, cancer biology, reproductive biology, and medicine, among others. I am an early graduate student, as were several other participants. The 14 of us had different levels of experience with lab and mouse work, but everyone had the chance to learn and try each new skill, and even the more seasoned students picked up new tricks.
[An aside: If you’re worried you might not have enough experience to apply, consider my case. I had virtually no experience with most techniques taught during the course, and (have to admit), I have a fear of handling mice. As long as you’re willing to grit your teeth and really throw yourself into the course, any level of background experience (or mouse-phobia) is ok.]
For each applicant, the course has different albeit overlapping benefits. For example, junior graduate students can establish a solid experimental foundation for their graduate research. Senior graduate students and new postdocs moving into fresh projects in mouse labs can use the course to quickly gain experience with a new model system. Finally, senior postdocs and new PIs can learn more about the experimental techniques and equipment they’ll need for their new labs, not to mention learning how to design mouse protocols and experiments essential for development of their research programs. In sum: if you want to get ahead in mouse research, you should apply, regardless of your current position along whatever scientific trajectory you are following.
With an intensive, 3-week long course like this, you might find reasons to talk yourself out of applying. Maybe you worry about being away from your regular work schedule for 3 weeks. Sure, 3 weeks away can be disruptive, but in my opinion it’s worth it, and you can plan around it. The mouse course only happens once a year, and your lab will still be there when you come back! Plus, you’ll be returning with way more expertise and new ideas than when you left. If you’re worried about the cost of the course, remember that many institutions offer travel awards and funds to cover the costs. CSHL also provides generous financial aid to students who need it, so there’s no need to worry about funding, and financial concerns should not stop you from applying. Finally, if you’re pretty convinced the mouse course is a good idea, but you don’t know whether this is the right year, or maybe next year would be more convenient, here’s the truth: it will never be perfectly convenient (because science is busy!). That said, applying to the mouse course this year can provide you with the expertise and networking opportunities that will strongly affect how you tackle and succeed next year. So don’t wait.
Taking the course
The mouse course is jam-packed with experiments, some lasting several days, and all requiring specific lab supplies and equipment. The course instructors and teaching assistants lovingly and painstakingly organize all the protocols into a tight schedule that flows smoothly and follows evolving themes over the course of the 3 weeks. At the beginning of the course, the experimental focus is on the tools required to create a transgenic mouse; specifically, work with very early embryos. This section includes techniques like electroporation and microinjection of 1- and 2-cell embryos, as well as CRISPR workshops. During my course, we moved along the developmental timeline and towards tools required to manipulate and characterize older embryos, including roller bottle culture and electroporation of mid-gestation embryos, tissue sectioning and staining, and fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). Aside from the lab work, there were guest lectures once or twice a day. Each speaker would cover background topics related to the day’s lab work, and then talk about new research being carried out by their group(s). Usually, the guest speaker would also join us in the lab, and sometimes even show off their skills by demonstrating experiments and giving students hands-on help.
The course also included great ways to connect with other students and faculty. Students presented their work in a mini-seminar early on in the course, which allowed us to get to know each other and understand our various backgrounds and scientific inclinations. We enjoyed weekly social events organized either by the instructors or the students, as well, providing a perfect place to unwind (and sing karaoke, if that’s your thing). One of my favorite parts of the course was the opportunity to meet the guest lecturers. Students would sign up to take speakers out for their “first drink” at the bar; basically, this was a chance to sit down and get to know each other in an informal setting. These get-togethers at the campus pub were a fantastic way to relax after a long day in the lab, not to mention giving us a chance to chat about anything from science and careers to English bulldogs and pink fairy armadillos. (Don’t ask.)
After the course (and some final reasons why you should apply if you aren’t already convinced)
After my 3 weeks at CSHL, I was mentally and physically exhausted, but excited about my work in a way I hadn’t felt before. I left the course equipped with new skills and heaps of reading materials and protocols, all of which I was enthused to share with my labmates back home. In the months since the course, I’ve had the chance to apply protocols taught by the instructors and to follow up on ideas that came up in conversations with guest lecturers. I’ve even spent some idle time dreaming about and planning out a potential post-doc project (which is still several years away for me), based on discussions that took place during the course. The many benefits I reaped overall extended beyond just my own feelings about research; the course was also a place I could start to build a network of scientific contacts and friends. At conferences since my time at CSHL, I have encountered so many familiar faces and reconnected with fellow students, teaching assistants, and guest lecturers. My experiences and friendships from the mouse course have helped me become a part of and feel at home within a larger scientific community.
So: if you want to add an injection of energy and excitement to your scientific research and career that will last for years (and why wouldn’t you?!), then apply. You won’t regret it.