When I first read about this summer school, I realised two things: that it would be incredibly intense and demanding, and that it would fundamentally shape the way I see science. I remember hesitating whether to apply, but I had previously taken part in an 8 week summer school in Switzerland and it was an amazing experience. So why not do it again?

Marine Biological Laboratory
Marine Biological Laboratory

Well, first I have to say that it was exactly as demanding and exhausting as expected. But it was also an incredible experience. Imagine a tiny slice of the US, full of dedicated scientists all eager to make an exciting discovery. The setting of the MBL is quite stunning, right next to a small harbour with several beaches nearby. Families flock to Woods Hole for the summer holidays, and mingle with the scientists taking part in the courses. As you can imagine, the holiday atmosphere there was fantastic for breaks, which we often took on the beach. If you go, just make sure you take the time to enjoy it!

The course consists of several sections, organised by topic. The Neurobiology course I took part in consisted of four main sections: Genomics (1 week), Electrophysiology (3 weeks), Imaging (2 weeks), and Cell Biology (2 weeks). Except the organisers of the course, the core faculty changes with each section. Each faculty member assembles a particular rig that he/she works with, and brings along a couple of amazing teaching assistants. Apart from the genomics section, we typically devoted the first week of each section to rotating between setups and giving them a try. I thought that was very informative as you got a quick insight into many different methods. After that initial week, we assembled in a closed room along with ‘The Jar of Destiny’ to decide on a project and method to pursue further in small groups. Essentially, you can – within certain limits – carry out any experiment you find interesting. Of course you also have to present your data and interpretations at the end of each cycle, the last days of which often swelled into a slight panic among many of the course members! Nothing to panic about though: the atmosphere is always friendly, supportive and encouraging. By the end of the course, I had prepared samples for RNA sequencing, performed electrophysiology on tadpoles, learned how to do electron microscopy from the very beginning, and had a go at calcium imaging. The sheer amount of techniques to learn and projects to work on does mean that a typical day starts at 9am and finishes anywhere between 7pm and the early hours of the morning. That said, bear in mind that you are mostly working in a team and it’s really up to you how you manage your time. For me, things took an absurd turn when, in spite of the heavy workload, I was convinced by others in the course to go jogging before the lectures started in the morning. I have to clarify that I don’t go jogging (and definitely not in the morning). Watch out.

Harbour in front of the labs

The accommodation consists of shared dorms and has everything you need. The dorms, cafeteria, lecture rooms and labs are essentially all on the same campus, so you suddenly become very efficient. The days there start with a two hour lecture given by a different faculty every day. It is either a member of the core faculty who stays at the MBL for the entire section he/she is teaching, or an invited guest that covers a specific area of research. The lectures will be good training for any of you who have problems turning up on time to lectures. The lecture only starts once everyone has arrived – if you happen to be the last one (and the preceding person arrived several minutes before you), do not be surprised to be greeted with considerably more enthusiasm than you had hoped for, in the form of booooes and laughter called ‘The Walk of Shame’. After lunch, you head to the lab and work in teams on a particular project. The hours you work depend mostly on you and, I suppose, on how susceptible you are to peer pressure. There are tutorial-type sessions which allow you to go over the topics covered, and basically ask any question you can think of. So the summer school offers some basic structure without being overbearing – it’s very much up to the students to organise themselves and arrange for what they need.

What I enjoyed the most about the course is simply how inspiring and exciting it felt to be surrounded by experts in different scientific fields coming together to share their knowledge and passion – and work together. I don’t think I will forget running to get worms in one department and running back to the imaging rigs to cut axons with a laser. It’s truly a unique environment that encourages discussions on any topic with pioneers in the field. And finally, you get to meet some amazing people, and make new friends around the world. It’s well worth it!

Here are some final tips: 

  1. Find out about Secret Beach. And go there.
  2. A day there does not end before you had a beverage at Captain Kidd.
  3. You will probably work harder than ever before (hopefully). You will also sleep less than ever before.
  4. You will leave with lots of bizarre memories shared only by a few.
  5. The cafeteria has EVERY type of food you could possibly imagine (at least in the cafeteria domain). This includes cold and warm meals, sandwiches, crisps, every kind of soda, and a gazillion kind of deserts, ranging from cookies to cakes, to ice-cream topped with smarties. Do not make my mistake and buy skinny jeans before your trip, unless you have a will of steel.
  6. Start thinking of an awesome nerdy science costume to wear during the 4th of July Parade!
  7. Take the free Sundays (and some Saturdays) to explore Martha’s Vineyard or go whale-watching.
  8. Ask lots of questions.

    Cookies to stay safe
    This perfectly encapsulates my food experience in Woods Hole