EACR Travel Fellowships are co-sponsored by Worldwide Cancer Research and provide funds up to €3,000 to early-career cancer researchers. For more information on how to apply for Travel Fellowships, you can visit the EACR website.
Home Institution: The Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK
Host Institution: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory course in Chromatin, Epigenetics and Gene Expression, New York, USA
Dates of visit: 24 July 2017 – 14 August 2017
Reasons for the visit
I applied for the CSHL Course in Chromatin, Epigenetics and Gene Expression as it offers a great opportunity to be immersed in the techniques and technologies available to biologists who are interested in interrogating gene expression. Being new myself to the field of transcription and gene expression, this course offered a great opportunity to build knowledge through lectures from experts in the field, combined with extensive practical sessions covering everything from basic biochemical techniques all the way through to high throughput methods such as ChIP-seq, and HiC.
My current postdoctoral project focuses on the elucidation of the role of a protein sub-unit of RNA polymerase III in breast and lung cancer. As there is very little known about RNAPolIII itself in cancer biology, this is very much an exploratory project, which will merge basic and translational research to try and understand whether overexpression of this protein is an oncogenic driver, and whether modifying the levels of this protein can be exploited therapeutically. In order to do this, I had to develop my skillset in techniques used to detect altered gene expression including some complex high throughput assays such as RNAseq, ChIP-seq and HiC.
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is an iconic place for biologists, being one of the leading basic research institutions in the world in molecular biology and genetics.
Choosing the host lab
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is an iconic place for biologists, being one of the leading basic research institutions in molecular biology and genetics in the world. A number of advanced laboratory courses and conferences run at their campus in Long Island (New York State) every year, and they pride themselves on educating the next generation of biologists. I chose their course on Chromatin, Epigenetics and Gene Expression, as it is the one of the most intensive, as well as extensive courses available in this field. This means that it was extremely competitive to secure a place: from hundreds of applications, only 16 people were lucky enough to be offered a place on the course, and I was one of them!
How has it helped my research
In the space of three weeks, we performed 19 experiments, listened to talks from 17 external speakers, had overview lectures on techniques and current research from 4 course instructors and 5 teaching assistants, and analysed and presented data obtained during the course to the other participants. Starting at 9am every day and working until 10 or 11pm meant that we had little time to do or think about anything else other than what was happening in the course. This ensured that our full attention was given to the tasks at hand and the learning experience was extraordinary.
The instructors kept asking us “What is the question you’re trying to answer? Are you doing the best experiment to answer that question?” and that is something that has stayed with me.
I will definitely be using several of the techniques I learnt in the course during my own research; I have already modified my experimental protocols for quantitative RT-PCR to include extra controls and ensure that the data I obtain is the best I can get, I have helped a colleague with nucleosome reconstitution experiments and I am now able to fully engage in lab meetings where biochemical data is presented, since I got to perform and interpret similar experiments during the course. The technical aspect was not the only helpful one: during the course, we were encouraged to think critically about our science and the science of other people. The instructors kept asking us “What is the question you’re trying to answer? Are you doing the best experiment to answer that question?” and that is something that has stayed with me. Often when doing experiments we tend to stay close to what we know and do things without questioning the motivation and the answer we get at the end is not a satisfactory one. I believe that this course has helped me to change my mentality, while at the same time it has provided me with the experimental tools needed to probe certain aspects of biology that I was previously unaware of. Having the support of EACR was extremely important for me, as the cost for this course was very high due to the laboratory aspects.
Interesting activities while I was there
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is located on the north side of Long Island in New York state. Having said that, we only got two days off during the entire three weeks of the course! I spent one of these days in New York City, where I did some sightseeing and watched a Broadway show, and I spent the other day canoeing in the harbour. A local activity we did with the rest of the course participants and instructors was a sailing trip on Christeen, the Oldest Oyster Sloop in the US. We learned some of the history of the area, saw the oyster farm, and swam in the bay. It all made for a very enjoyable afternoon and it helped us to learn a bit more about the area and one other.