View of the Marine Biological Labs across Eel pond

The Value of Summer Courses at Marine Stations

When the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory first opened in 1892, it offered summer courses in fields such as zoology, studying the diversity of marine organisms found in Monterey Bay. It was said at the time, “there is no field in science more inviting nor more promising of large results than those pertaining to the morphology and physiology of marine forms. The time has certainly arrived when those among us with scientific inclination and ambition can turn their attention with profit to these inviting fields.” 1 In today’s era of new technologies and the ability to revisit age-old questions with new perspectives, those words ring just as true now as they did then. Indeed, marine stations have a rich history in summer course work and great opportunities continue to exist to bring leading biologists together.

Initially, Hopkins offered courses for schoolteachers who wanted to learn about natural history, and opportunities for the undergraduates, graduates and faculty of Stanford who wanted to work at the laboratory. Interestingly, in America, the research imperative for marine laboratories, though always an important aspect of their formation, was originally secondary to teaching. Once marine stations became more secure and permanent, the focus turned away from teaching, and more towards research. For a period, summertime at marine laboratories was essential in building the community of American biologists as they traveled between stations, sharing research problems and techniques. As historian Keith Benson put it “In short, marine laboratories played an important role in creating the institutional identity of American biology.” 2

These days, summer courses, particularly for graduate students, educators, and visiting scientists are far less common. Instead, marine stations are far more likely to host undergraduate students for research experiences, particularly through the umbrella of the National Science Foundation (REU, Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. These programs are fantastic, and I personally benefited from these experiences, spending time at the Marine Biological Lab (MBL) in Woods Hole and the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Science. It is not totally clear why there has been broad shift in the focus of marine stations to no longer offer summer courses, though it could be attributed to a change in funding priorities from sources such as the Office of Naval Research, National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health.  

There are some marine stations in the U.S, which still teach graduate summer courses. Friday Harbor Labs offers courses in marine botany, marine invertebrate zoology, marine subtidal ecology, and ecology and conservation marine birds and mammals while the Duke University Marine Lab hosts “Duke Global Fellows in Marine Conservation” for a 5-week summer term. The best example of a rich summer curriculum would be the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole which attracts over 500 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from more than 300 institutions and over 30 countries.

In 2019, I had the great fortune of participating in an intensive six-week summer embryology course at the MBL. The Embryology Course at the MBL was established in 1893 and is an overview of the field of developmental biology through lectures and labs from some of the most well-respected scientists in the field. Over the years, six students and eight faculty from the course have gone on to become Nobel Laureates and the course has become the gathering place for students and teachers alike.

From my own experience, the course was one of the most intense, but scientifically rewarding times of my life. We had the opportunity to learn from some of leading minds in the field, the hardest working TAs, course assistants, and course directors steering this ship of exploration. My classmates enriched the course with diverse perspectives from their backgrounds, experiences, and countries. We often worked late into the night running experiments but also bonded over meals and on the softball field. This course in embryology, the instructors, and my classmates helped me understand the important findings and trends in the field and the big questions that have yet to be answered. It did not fully sink in at the time, but now I have a network of peers in my discipline that I will continue to interact with for years to come.

Dr. Tatjana Piotrowski preparing zebrafish embryos for cell transplants
Dr. Robert Zeller illustrates developing ascidian embryos for genetic manipulation  

I would argue there is a great opportunity to bring back summer courses and marine stations as nucleation points of biological community and discovery. While topics such as invertebrate zoology or embryology at marine stations may have been driving topics of study in the early 1900s, the advent of molecular biology and genetics towards the middle of the century narrowed the number of systems that biologists worked on. However, with the new age of cutting edge genetic and genomic tools that allow scientists to return to unexplored species3. Most of what we know about comes from the study of a small group of model organisms, the broader diversity of marine animals offers unique and untapped opportunities and the potential for novel insights into the flexibility and constraints of fundamental biological mechanisms.

The last time I wrote here on the High Tidings blog was back in June 2018 when I highlighted “Developmental Biology in the Ocean” one of the few summer graduate courses that has been taught at the marine station. While the ability to teach graduate students at the marine station still has been limited during the last two summers due to the continuing global pandemic there is, in this humble graduate student’s opinion, a great opportunity to bring together scientists from across the country to marine stations to expose them to the ecology and biological diversity that sits just feet away from the doors of Hopkins.  

Acknowledgements:

We thank Nia Walker and Don Kohrs for their helpful discussions on the writing of this article. We also thank the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Florence C. Rose and S.Meryl Rose Endowed Scholarship Fund, and Dewar Student Enrichment Grant that supported my participation in the 2019 Embryology Course.

References:

1. Jenkins, Oliver Pebbles. (1893). The Hopkins Seaside Laboratory. Zoe, 4: 58-63.

2. Benson, Keith Rodney. “Summer Camp, Seaside Station, and Marine Laboratory: Marine biology and its institutional identity” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 32:1 (2001): 11-18.

3. Sánchez Alvarado, A. (2018). To solve old problems, study new research organisms. Developmental Biology, 433(2), 111–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ydbio.2017.09.018