A Typical FIR Day

A typical day in the course, which meets 6 days a week, begins at 9:00 A.M. with a lecture. Speakers, outstanding renowned researchers with demonstrated skills and commitments to teaching at this advanced level, deliver enough background material to make the lecture accessible to all in attendance. FIRbees are encouraged to ask questions, design experiments to fill crucial gaps in knowledge and present clinical implications from their own experiences. It is unusual for the lecture to end before 10:30 A.M., and typically two hours are devoted to this intense conceptual experience.

After a brief break, the group convenes either in the laboratory for an introduction to the day’s experiments, or to a specialized resource for technological and theoretical training in an emerging research approach. Alternatively, FIRbees, lecturer, and course faculty meet for an in-depth discussion of the lecture topic that lasts for 1-1.5 hours. During lunch, the speakers join students for further informal discussions. Such opportunities for intensive scientific exchange with leading investigators are among the invaluable benefits afforded to FIR students. Many participants cite this aspect of the course among the highlights of their FIR experience.

After lunch, FIRbees begin lab exercises, which usually last all afternoon and may continue after dinner. Within each Section of the course, students are usually divided into smaller groups (4-5 students/group) to maximize the “hands-on” laboratory experience. The number and type of laboratory exercises vary between different sections. Sometimes the students, guided by teaching assistants, follow typical lab protocols that allow them to learn a given technique or approach. Other times specialized techniques are introduced by an instructor and then are practiced by the students.

Frequently, another lecture or seminar is presented after dinner with the lab groups reconvening afterwards in the lab. Students work on lab exercises during the afternoons, evenings, and late into the night. Laboratories are open twenty-four hours/day and seven days/week and it is not uncommon to find the majority of participants and many staff members in the lab well past midnight. The opportunity for students (and faculty!) to totally immerse themselves in science is another special aspect of the FIR experience. The complementary lecture/lab sequence of the course provides unique learning opportunities to the students. Each of the faculty members provides a thorough introduction to their specialty topic, and following each unit, a summary. Many of the supplementary learning materials introduced, including lab protocols, journal reprints and lectures, are provided to students in an electronic format for their own continuing reference use.

FIR course students are also expected to present their own data to an audience of their peers and instructors in an informal setting. During these presentations, students are challenged to interpret their data and draw conclusions as well as suggest future studies.

There is fun to be had at FIR as well: periodically throughout the 6 weeks of the course, and typically as each of the two-week sections draws to a close, a special event (barbeque supper, international dinner, ferry trip) is scheduled. These are casual and fun gatherings allowing the FIR community to relax and play together, taking advantage of the beautiful seaside surroundings and summer pleasures of Cape Cod. On the occasional weekend when there is free time, FIR course students are welcome to independently organize short trips to Boston and/or other surrounding towns.

FIR provides a collegial, focused and intense learning and teaching atmosphere. While some have likened the FIR experience to a scientific “boot camp,” others consider it a “theme park for investigators.” Regardless, this high intensity level is maintained for the duration of the course and is viewed by many participants as a formative experience in their career development. Lastly, despite the remarkable diversity to be found within each class of FIR students—and perhaps because of it—long-lasting professional relationships and friendships are also formed during the course.