For more than a century, MBL courses have connected and inspired scientists and students from around the world. Now, a new intensive training program based on those courses introduces graduate students at the University of Chicago (UChicago) to one of MBL’s most popular offerings—the Embryology Advanced Research Training Course.

“One of the great things about the MBL courses is they make people brave,” said course co- director Victoria Prince, an integrative biology professor at UChicago.

“They’ve learned they can have an idea and be on the microscope and doing it that day. Maybe it works. Maybe sometimes it fails. But they’re learning about the process and learning to be less hesitant to try new things.”

The inaugural program, affectionately titled the “Mini-Embryology Course,” brought 10 advanced graduate students from UChicago to the MBL for two weeks for an intensive, hands-on laboratory experience.

Mini Embryology Course Photo 2022
2022 Mini-Embryology Course Photo. Courtesy: Victoria Prince

“The course was very hands-on. Oftentimes, in the lab, you can get bogged down in the little details and you can lose the wonder that science can be. This got us back to the wonder of science,” said Parisa Tajalli Tehrani Valverde, a second year Ph.D. student in the development, regenerative and stem cell biology program.

With the typical six-week embryology Advanced Research Training Course condensed into just two weeks, there was no time to get bogged down in the details.

“It was cool how fast-paced the course was because there wasn’t any time to get upset that something didn’t work the way you wanted,” said Sierra Schwabach, a fourth year graduate student in cell and molecular biology.

“You’re trying a new thing for the very first time and you only have one day to do this so you don’t have time to be upset if it doesn't work because science doesn’t work sometimes,” said Schewabach. “In my lab, if I’m working on my project and I try something new and it doesn’t work it can be upsetting… but [at the MBL] you have to keep going at all times, learning fast, getting your hands dirty, and moving onto the next thing. It just made it a really positive experience.”

The course was also designed to introduce the students to a range of equipment and research organisms, including several organisms that are not typically available for developmental biology courses taught elsewhere. There were modules in seven organisms: zebrafish, chicks, Drosophila, Parhyale, butterflies, Nematostella, and cephalopods.

Nematostella imaged during 2022 Mini-Embryology Course. Credit: Emily Fogarty
Nematostella imaged during the course. Credit: Emily Fogarty

Prince said this range of diversity was one of the most exciting aspects of the program for the graduate students. “Two-dimensional images can’t capture the complexity of the different species,” she said. Thanks to this course, the students got the opportunity to widen their range of understanding. “These are grad students. They’ll go on to do postdocs and I expect some of them will do something different in those postdocs because of the things they’ve been exposed to at the MBL.”

Schwabach currently works on Drosophila but was excited to work on zebrafish during the mini-embryology course. Lots of scientists do their graduate work in Drosophila and their postdocs in zebrafish. But after her experience at the MBL, she’s considering cephalopods as well as zebrafish.

“I was expecting to be distracted by my own work while I was here,” said Valverde. “But instead it was just so compelling, very exciting, and really useful to get my creative science juices flowing in ways that have helped me think about my project that I’m developing for my thesis.”

“This course exposes the students to the research and environment of the MBL in a way that a boot camp couldn’t. They’re really getting an in depth exposure seeing organisms here, the wealth of science going on here and learning the kinds of advanced research skills that will broaden their outlook in the developmental biology field,” said Prince.

"This new program gives UChicago graduate students an opportunity to experience much of what the MBL has to offer. It's also an entirely different from what they normally experience at their home labs. During the mini-course, the students not only learn new techniques, work with different organisms, but they get the opportunity to completely immerse themselves in the science in a new way," said MBL Director Nipam Patel, who co-directed the course with Prince and MBL Scientist Karen Echeverri.

A woman organizes her lab space during the 2022 Mini-Embryology Course at the MBL. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
A woman organizes her lab space during the 2022 Mini-Embryology Course at the MBL. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
A student in the 2022 Mini-Embryology Course sets up his microscope and workstation. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
MBL scientist Karen Echeverri points to something on a screen during the 2022 Mini-Embryology Course at the MBL. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
Three students in the 2022 Mini-Embryology course at the MBL look at an imaging sample in the microscope room. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh

In 2023, the MBL will welcome a cohort of UChicago graduate students for an imaging mini-course run the same way. The plan is for the two courses to run every other year going forward.

Valverde said she and her fellow students didn’t come to the MBL expecting to be a cheerleader for the course, but that’s definitely how it ended up. “I think we all ended up being cheerleaders,” she said.

Her advice to grad students considering the program in 2024? Do it.

“I would highly recommend it, especially if you’re feeling uninspired or in a rut. Just take the course and you’ll be re-inspired and have the energy and drive to finish your thesis, start your thesis or whatever you’re working on.”