Neuroscience by the Sea

Summer course helps budding researchers get their feet wet
Story by Matt Windsor • Photos and videos by Jeff Myers, Laura Thomas, and Steve Wood
Photo of students examining effects of light on optic nerve at Dauphin Island Sea Lab; headline: Neuroscience by the Sea
Summer course helps budding researchers get their feet wet
Story by Matt Windsor • Photos and videos by Jeff Myers, Laura Thomas, and Steve Wood
The lab responsible for launching hundreds of high-tech research careers carries the faint whiff of old fish.
Open the door, and you’ll understand why: white sand beach, blue waves, sea breezes, spectacular sunsets. For two decades, Dauphin Island Sea Lab on Alabama’s Gulf coast has been the summer home for UAB’s Introduction to Neurobiology. That’s the course that acquaints new neuroscience graduate students with classic experiments, state-of-the-art equipment, UAB research luminaries, and—perhaps most important—each other.
The three-week Introduction to Neurobiology covers a lot of ground, “everything from molecules to behavior—DNA to reflex circuitry,” says course co-director Christianne Strang, Ph.D., a research instructor in the Department of Psychology. Strang took the course as a first-year UAB student in 1998. She returned two years later as a teaching assistant, and has been part of the course every summer since. “We’ve gotten very good at taking students from disparate backgrounds and helping them come to a place where they have a shared language and shared experience,” she says.

Illuminating subjects

Every morning there’s a lecture led by a UAB expert on electrophysiology, neurochemistry, cell signaling, or a related subject. Every afternoon there’s a lab, where students observe these phenomena in action and learn to use the right research equipment. Meals and accommodations are communal, with students and faculty side by side. At night, there are study sessions, the occasional break on the beach, and often trips back to the lab to explore experiments in more detail.
When scientists are in charge, time matters little. On a recent trip, someone noticed the arrival of bioluminescent plankton, or dinoflagellates, in the waves at night. Soon enough, a crowd was wading into the surf to enjoy the magical glow—and then scampering into the lab to put a sample of the tiny creatures under a high-resolution microscope. The average beach trip doesn’t include an impromptu lecture on autofluorescence at 3:00 a.m. But this is definitely not an average beach trip.

Immersion learning

The course began in 1997 as the brainchild of two young faculty members, Kent Keyser, Ph.D., and Paul Gamlin, Ph.D. They modeled it on a legendary summer course at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I had the opportunity to help with that course,” says Keyser, now UAB’s associate vice president for research. “When I was recruited to UAB and learned about the Sea Lab, we decided to put together something similar.”
“We realized it was valuable for students to learn these techniques in an immersive environment, and we wanted to replicate that,” says Gamlin, a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology.
Having a course at the seaside is an opportunity to practice science “outside the normal environment,” Keyser explains. “You don’t have to worry about cooking, going to class, walking the dog—you can focus on one topic exclusively for three weeks. I’ll meet former students at scientific meetings who took the class 15 years ago, and they still talk about it.”
“It’s tough to be a Ph.D. student,” adds Lori McMahon, Ph.D., dean of the UAB Graduate School, director of the UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Center, and Jarman F. Lowder Professor of Neuroscience. “You need a support network to succeed, and our students are able to develop lifelong friendships here.”

(Above) Experience the sun, sand, and science of the Introduction to Neuroscience Course at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. (At top) UAB graduate students conduct an experiment to examine how light activates the optic nerve.

It came from the sea

Neuroscience and oceanography have been linked for decades, McMahon explains. “The field of neuroscience really started in the mid-1950s with the discovery of how action potentials [the electrochemical “firing” of neurons] work in the squid giant axon [nerve fiber],” she says. “No one knew how it happened until they saw it in action on a large scale in the squid.”
Likewise, many discoveries about human retinas and circadian rhythms, for example, sprang from examinations of the horseshoe crab, Strang adds. “Students can see light responses in the eye, how stretch receptors work, and what happens at the neuromuscular junction. In certain preparations, they can see down to individual ion channels.”
Ryan Vaden of Florence, Alabama, who is in his fifth year in the UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences, was a teaching assistant for the Introduction to Neurobiology course in the summer of 2017. He took the course when he arrived at UAB and says that the historical context and summer-camp camaraderie help students “start on the right foot,” building a foundation for more advanced classes. “It puts everyone on the same playing field.”

Island time

“Students come to graduate school at different levels,” Strang adds. “Some have lots of experience in labs, some none at all. This gives them a common experience and knowledge base. You know that everyone knows how to use a dissecting scope and a pipette.”
In many cases, the students won’t regularly use this equipment once they reach their home labs nearly 300 miles away in Birmingham. “They may never touch an electrode again,” Strang says. “But they will collaborate with others who do, and that knowledge will be useful.”
Not that everything always goes according to plan. “Students see that real science doesn’t always work,” says Mark Bevensee, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Cell, Developmental, and Integrative Biology. “They have a better sense of what life is like for a working scientist.”
“They see us get excited — doing it over and over again until we get it to work,” adds Robin Lester, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Neurobiology. “It’s more relaxed. This is tough knowledge, but we can take our time. And then after class, we’re available to answer questions. We don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Keyser has come to Dauphin Island year after year since he helped launch the course. He says he wouldn’t miss it. “In our day-to-day lives, we get jaded,” he says. “But even if the world seems to be going down the drain, you get to Dauphin Island, and there’s a new crop of students, so smart and inquisitive. It recharges me every time.”

Published December 2017