By Diana Kenney
Paul Maddox is in the basement of his North Carolina home, a blanket strung between cinderblocks serving as his rough-and-ready video backdrop. No matter, he has an audience of nearly 70 students and faculty on Zoom for a session of MBL’s first-ever video course, Virtual Analytical and Quantitative Light Microscopy (AQLM). Setting a tone of fun plus instruction, Maddox, co-director of AQLM, introduces the session’s speaker, Nico Stuurman.
“Nico Stuurman is an old friend of the course. He has pioneered several things, one of them being Micro-Manager, a revolutionary way for biologists to interact with their microscopes. I admire Nico for a lot of reasons, one of which is he always seems to be wearing sandals. And he is always tinkering and moving forward, which is a really important trait.”
“Thank you for that very nice introduction, Paul,” Stuurman replies from California. “I have to confess, I’m wearing socks right now.”
“Socks and sandals?” ribs Gary Laevsky, lab director for the course.
Today, AQLM will wrap up more than two weeks of daily Zoom webinars delivered by far-flung faculty from their homes and offices. After the MBL had to cancel many courses this year due to COVID-19, Education Director Linda Hyman invited the course directors to reach out to their students who were accepted for 2020, but who can’t come to Woods Hole until next year. AQLM co-directors Peter Kner, Wendy Salmon, and Maddox landed on the concept of a Zoom lecture series as a way to connect. They also invited past AQLM students to join in, as well as course faculty and teaching assistants.
“It’s more about community building than being instructional,” Maddox says. “It’s a chance for people to be distracted from whatever they are doing and think about microscopy for a while. It’s like the view from 30,000 feet of AQLM. You could almost see this as a detailed brochure for what the course actually is.”
Each session features a 30-minute talk on some aspect of microscopy, followed by a brief update on the speaker’s research. Then the floor opens up for questions and general banter.
Shalin Mehta, a former MBL scientist now at Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, talked about label-free microscopy and the Biohub’s effort to develop an open-source antibody test for COVID-19 exposure. On a lighter note, Perrine Paul-Gilloteaux gave a talk on “French Gastronomy and Bio Image Analysis Workflows.” “Because of the distance, I thought it would be nice to have you travelling a little bit,” she said from France. “I want to show you how cooking and bio image analysis are similar.”
The course directors have been happy with the plentiful attendance and the interactivity of the webinar series. ”I had low expectations for it,” Maddox says. “It’s a weird time. I thought, people aren’t going to want to do this, they don’t want any extra pressure. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well attended it’s been, and consistently so. I think all the faculty who have lectured have really enjoyed it.”
In real life, AQLM participants have daily lectures followed by a 3-hour lab. True to the vision of the late Shinya Inoué, who founded AQLM in 1980, the faculty is a mix of biologists and microscopy developers from academia and industry.
“The initial part of AQLM is a crash course in optics,” says Kner. “We build some stuff, a ‘toy’ microscope. For the rest of the course, we use cutting-edge equipment from commercial vendors and learn about all the different [imaging] techniques.”
“There is no grinding of glass! But plenty of, how does a microscope do magnification and resolution?” Maddox says.
Abhishek Kumar, an MBL-CZI imaging investigator, greeted the Zoom students with “On behalf of myself and the MBL, I can say we are really missing the AQLM course. It gets us started for summer and brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm.” He then whetted their appetites for next spring by showing a drone video of the MBL campus on a sunny day, with the Gemma entering Eel Pond.
“The online lecture series has been wonderful for keeping the community of AQLM connected while providing the new students with a taste of the content and connections that are formed during the course,” says co-director Salmon. “These connections are transformative for long-term collaborations and information sharing and are a huge value of the course. But, oh, how we miss being at MBL!”
But for the time being, Virtual AQLM has brought the course together, if not physically in Woods Hole, in thought and spirit.
“I’m proud of everyone, and I hope you are getting a lot out of this,” Maddox told participants as the virtual course neared its close. “Just to see everyone and have some kind of interaction is a positive thing.”
Top photo: A student-generated image after learning super-resolution techniques in AQLM 2018. Credit: Mary Ann Collins