WOODS HOLE, MASS. [Brown University] — Meghan Gonsalves, a first-year neuroscience graduate student at Brown University, spends most of her time studying imaging techniques used to measure brain activity in humans. So when she was asked to dissect the brain of a fruit fly — which is roughly the size of a poppy seed — she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it.
By later on the same January day, Gonsalves found herself gazing in awe at a video of a glowing fly brain. She had stained and imaged the brain using a confocal microscope to visualize neurons that affect fly behavior.
“To be able to manipulate your data through a microscope is pretty crazy,” said Gonsalves, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown as well. “I was really nervous doing this because I’m computational/behavioral-oriented. This shows I’m capable of doing more than I thought I was capable of.”
Gonsalves gained that experience as one of 19 first-year students in Brown’s neuroscience graduate program who participated in NeuroPracticum, an immersive workshop with hands-on rotations held in January at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Students spent eight days exploring various neuroscience techniques, from optogenetics (the use of light to control cells, such as neurons, in living tissue) and electrophysiology (the study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues) to tracking mouse behavior and analyzing the genes that make flies sleepy.
“The goal is to get students excited about doing science, and to get them learning what the various aspects are,” said Karla Kaun, an assistant professor of neuroscience who helped to organize this year’s NeuroPracticum. “MBL is a magical science space for students. This course is truly a unique opportunity for first-year students.”
This month’s NeuroPracticum marked the eighth since the program’s inception in 2013, and each year brings the opportunity to add new elements to the experience.
A feature for this year’s participants was computationally focused rotations for four advanced pre-doctoral candidates who are part of the Carney Institute for Brain Science’s new Interdisciplinary Training in Computational, Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience (ICoN) program. Launched in 2019, ICoN supports the training of Ph.D. candidates whose research incorporates a combination of empirical and theoretical approaches.
In a rotation led by Susan Harbison, a visiting faculty member from the National Institutes of Health, both ICoN and first-year students explored the basics of genome-wide association analysis in sleep data from flies.
“We recorded sleeping activity in flies, done previously, and the students are analyzing the data,” Harbison said. “This is real experimental data. I don’t know the answer any more than the students know.”