20 years of the York confocal course

Posted by , on 11 September 2023

The confocal course at the University of York has been running for 20 years, and I caught up with newly elected RMS President Peter O’Toole at #mmc2023 to discover the history of the course and to find out why it is so successful. With many alumni from the course at the meeting, including at the stands of many of the companies represented in the exhibition, this seemed the perfect place to grab a few minutes with Peter in between his presidential duties!

Can you cast your mind back 20 years and tell us about the beginnings of the course?

I was very fortunate, in 2001, to be chosen to go on an EMBO microscopy course at EMBL in Heidelberg, which covered advanced light microscopy imaging. Organised by Rainer Pepperkok and Philippe Bastiens, it included all the big names of the time, for example Ernst Stelzer, Stefan Hell, Petra Schwille and Adriaan Houtsmuller. This course really inspired my career choice. There were fantastic lectures followed by lots of hands-on practical time. I was very lucky to be chosen for that course; it was an EMBO sponsored course and selection was based on your CV and I was lucky that my supervisor was well-known. At the time, I thought it was unfortunate that people couldn’t just go on the course. When I started at York, I had permission to run courses, so I thought I’d run a course, but operate it on a first come, first served basis rather than selection, with delegates having to pay to cover the base costs.

Quick break to collect a coffee!

I’m a big believer in teaching through practice, rather than just lectures. Personally, I learn far more pressing buttons, and seeing what works, what doesn’t work and seeing why that should be done in a particular way. And that EMBO course was very practical. Timo Zimmermann probably had the most memorable practicals. We were using one of the latest Leica microscopes, and every time he left the room, he’d come back to find that we’d crashed it. He’d ask, “what have you pressed now!?” We were essentially beta testing it for him. But he allowed us to do that, which gave us confidence. We started courses to, not exactly emulate that because that is a flagship, but to try and teach the fundamentals. I learnt so much during that course, not just the high-end stuff, and I think if I done the course earlier in my PhD I would have done even better in my studies. So, that’s why we started a confocal course and then set up a hands-on flow cytometry course along the same principles, with small groups that work together through the course.

How has the course evolved over time, and what has stayed the same?

I would say it has evolved gradually but not hugely. Light microscopy is light microscopy, confocal is confocal and the basics, the fundamentals, are the same today as they were 20 years ago. Obviously, the way you spectrally look at light has changed, the lasers we are using are different, there are new detectors that we can demonstrate to explain the advantages/disadvantages of different systems. But ultimately multicolour, z-stacking, FRAP, FRET, spectral unmixing and tiling are still the same.

I have a very good team who have stayed with us at York, which means that I haven’t had to train many new tutors. They are really proficient in how to train; how to make things go wrong so the delegate understands why you do things right. They will deliberately make mistakes in each course, probably each day, to help the delegates realise why we do it the right way. I guess the course does mature, and slowly evolves. We have more content about super resolution (SRM) and a more diverse range of SRM comes into the last day. And of course, tips and tricks do change. The biggest challenge is probably not to add too much. There is always a temptation to add more, but then it becomes too complicated, too information dense, especially for any beginners on the course. However, the delegates are in small groups of four and they can ask any question to go as deep as they want to go at any point, so that still get the complex information where and when needed. We also try and tailor the sessions for the groups during the course.  

On social media, people bemoan the fact that new users just want to take pretty pictures and don’t want to spend the time optimising their experiments. Do you spend time on optimisation during the course?

Yes, optimisation is an important part of the course. In fact, day one is pretty pictures; day two is good scientific data, when we suddenly make them take unpretty pictures that are scientifically more accurate!

Another brief interlude as Peter’s coffee order is wrong!

Do you know what the alumni of your course have gone on to do?

Yes, quite a few! At the very first course we had Jeremy Sanderson, who has just won the RMS President’s Award at this meeting. So, I got to give Jeremy the award some 20 years later. Quite a few of the commercial companies exhibiting here have people that have been on the course. There are also quite a few that came from ‘cores’ that are now running facilities across the world. And what’s really nice is when they send their own staff to come on the course – that’s a proper endorsement!

Peter’s coffee order is now correct – hooray!

What do you put the success of the course down to?

The courses are really fun. They are entertaining, engaging, with lots of laughs. The small group format means that the groups knit together really well. It’s always interesting, you will have vocal people, quiet people but by the end they will click. It is very seldom that they don’t form a good bond. We do a couple of evenings with the delegates as well, so they get to see us in a different light. I think the fun keeps them alert, but it also adds more memory to what they’re learning at the time, it’s not as forgettable. We’ve had feedback from people saying that they didn’t realise that you could have so much fun when you’re learning!

And over the years, the attendees have been very multinational. Sometimes it might be 100% UK, sometimes 100% overseas, and probably averages 50:50. The delegates are anything from PhDs to postdocs, technicians, even academic staff; everyone, on day one, comes to the same level. We’ve had a few come back for repeats. They might ask, “do we have to do day one?”, and although we tell them that it is their choice (although they still must pay the fee for the entire course), they usually attend. The delegates always say they have learnt so much more by attending. I think it is because it is multilayered; we realised that those who are more advanced are learning different bits to the beginners, but no-one feels like they are missing out.

I think another attraction of the course is that it doesn’t focus on cell biology, it doesn’t focus on microbiology. The samples that we use are really diverse, so you can go from plants to human tissues to cells and it doesn’t matter what the sample is; we’re using the samples to best exemplify how to use a microscope, not making the microscope work for a specific sample type. This means that no one has an unfair advantage of knowing the samples better than someone else.

Do you have any collaborations that have arisen during the course?

Yes, just this week I got an email from someone that came on the course in 2017. Actually, I’ve still got to reply – this week has been a busy week! Netta, who came on the flow course in 2017, did some plant ploidy tests with us. We set it up and optimised it as a one-to-one at the end of the course. And she’s come back to ask if we can co-author and help with the analysis of that work from back in 2017. So yes, we certainly have had collaborations! We have published with a few of the past delegates where they haven’t necessarily had the higher end technology, so we’ve done that side of it for them as part of the collaboration afterwards. We can carry on after the course, providing support and advice.

Is there anything else that I’ve missing that you would like to say about the course?

I’d like just to encourage people to go on it, because for both the confocal and flow cytometry, you can always learn. It’s engaging and interactive. It’s a good time to find your passion or rediscover your passion for microscopy, or cytometry.

As Peter mentions, he has been lucky to work with a consistent team of instructors, and I also caught up with one the team, Graeme Park, who has been involved with teaching and the scenes work since 2006. I asked Graeme why he thought the course was success, his favourite moments and where the course will be in five years:

I think the course has been successful thanks to the way that it has been structured; the delegates have a lecture to introduce the concepts of the experiments they will be doing, and then they split into small groups of four (plus a demonstrator) and they operate the machines. My job is to help direct them and explain the underlying principles of the machines so they can understand how to use the techniques in their own research. The small groups encourage the delegates to be open and also gives the opportunity for each person in the group to be hands-on with the equipment. Being able to operate the equipment and see the effect of altering parameters can give a better understanding of the hardware. 

The moments that always stand out are when a delegate is not understanding a concept, we have to then try to explain in different ways, and the moment they understand is really gratifying, one of the best bits.

The course is always adding new parts, recently introducing more super resolution techniques such as Airyscan and the Elyra, so we always try to keep up with newer techniques and concepts, whilst not forgetting the underlying principles of confocal microscopy.

Thanks to Peter and Graeme for sharing their insights into the York confocal course. I hope that this year’s installment is as successful as the previous 20 years of courses.

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