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Special Topics Course R25: Biology of the Inner Ear

November 19, 2019
Virtual Workshop

Workshop Summary

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In 2007, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) supported the first inaugural course of the Biology of the Inner Ear (BIE), held at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The BIE course was modeled after other premier neurosensory courses as a two-to-three-week immersive experience in scientific concepts, experimental questions, and hands-on methods, aimed at graduate students and early career faculty. The inaugural course directors were Jeffrey Corwin, Jeffrey Holt, and Janet Cyr, and the faculty roster comprised first-class investigators and clinicians in the auditory and vestibular sciences. The course was immediately successful and has been held in alternating years since 2007 (seven times).

The original goals of the course were to identify talented scientists, especially those with little access at their home institutions, interested in moving in to inner-ear-related research. The course provided opportunities to teach them some basics, including fundamental questions and how to access inner ear tissue from different model organisms, and to expose them to the possibility of more sophisticated approaches and methods. An additional goal was to enhance networking and mentoring among students, teaching assistants, and faculty, within and across career stages, and in so doing, to build community and provide resources that far outlast each course experience. The desired course outcome was to increase the likelihood that early-stage scientists would pursue careers in the auditory and vestibular sciences. These fundamental goals have not changed. With each course iteration, the faculty roster has been refreshed, and content and teaching approaches have evolved to reflect participant feedback and research developments.

Selection of students is based on applications that include their research experience and goals. Students must have credentials in science and be at the graduate level or beyond. Students of course directors are excluded from the competition, and only one student per home lab (research group) is admitted. A typical day for the participants starts with morning seminars by experts, followed by afternoon and evening experiments. There are research seminars (distinct from teaching seminars) on some evenings, to enhance the exposure to current research approaches and leading scholars. To avoid participant burnout, the lab is closed to students after midnight every evening and for one full day per week. The multi-week course concludes with student presentations. Student evaluations of the course experience are typically enthusiastic, consistent with other advanced research courses at MBL.

New course director candidates are selected by current course leaders for approval by the director of MBL education, which is standard MBL procedure. Proposed candidates are selected for their experience teaching at BIE, their expertise (complementary to one another and important to the course), and their willingness to commit to three course iterations (a six-year commitment). Following 2011, the inaugural directors were succeeded by Paul Fuchs and Stefan Heller for the courses in 2013, 2015, and 2017. In 2019, Ruth Anne Eatock, Andrew Groves, and Philip Joris (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium) co-directed the first of up to three courses. In addition, there are two assistant course directors (“course managers” in MBL parlance), who are invited by course directors based on their research and teaching expertise. Both current directors have significant specific course experience: Jennifer Rowsell (St. Mary’s College) has participated since course inception and brings invaluable course memory, and Brad Walters, a former BIE student and teaching assistant and now a faculty member, exemplifies the course goal of bringing early-stage investigators into the field.

The implementation and launch of this type of course required commitment and perseverance. The NIDCD thanks Lenny Dawidowicz, Amy Donahue, and Jeffrey Corwin for their dedication to higher learning in the auditory and vestibular sciences. The NIDCD also thanks the stellar course directors and faculty who have participated throughout the years.

Workshop Discussions

The 2019 workshop to discuss the continuing utility of the Biology of the Inner Ear course was planned following conversations with the current director, Ruth Anne Eatock, who also chaired the workshop. Meeting participants had the opportunity to hold pre-meeting conversations using a private blog.

The major themes of the workshop allowed the discussants to consider whether the course should continue and if it so, how it should change. Topics included: value to hearing and balance research, venue, interval, and governance.

  1. Does the course have continuing value for the community of researchers in hearing and related sciences? Without exception, discussants spoke highly of the course’s achievements and future value. Objective indicators include: 
    • The enthusiasm of faculty participants: nearly 100% of invited faculty accept the offer to participate, and the acceptance rate for those re-invited is excellent.
    • The number, quality, and research breadth of student applicants.
    • The continued interest of BIE trainees in hearing and related research.
  2. Should another venue or a rotation of venues be considered? Support for continuing to hold the course at MBL was unanimous and strong. Reasons include:
    • The stature of MBL as a site for advanced research courses, arising from its unique history of distinguished summer research courses taught by leaders in their fields and attended by students who have become leaders.
    • The expertise, professionalism, and dedication of the MBL education department, with seven full-time staff who provide year-round support to the hosted courses, and who are flexible and creative in accommodating scientific and personnel needs.
    • Well-supplied laboratories and deep connections with external vendors that are essential to laboratory-intensive courses and have no counterpart elsewhere.
    • The isolated venue and intense program, which ensure daily mentoring interactions between faculty and students in the ordinary course of meals, lectures, tutorials, informal discussions, and side-by-side work at the bench, microscope, or rig.
    • The scientific ambience: unlike college campuses, MBL comes alive every summer with the energy of parallel research courses and open scientific events.
    • The beauty of the setting, which helps make three weeks of hard work fun.
  3. Should the course be held annually instead of every two years?
    Discussants noted two disadvantages to the biennial schedule. First, qualified students have fewer opportunities to apply during their training period. Second, MBL staff and suppliers are more accustomed to the annual repetition of other courses. Even so, students have re-applied successfully, and MBL and suppliers have worked well with BIE directors to make space, equipment, and supplies available as needed.

    Advantages to the biennial schedule were discussed. Past and current directors noted that the breadth and complexity of the BIE course would be difficult to sustain on an annual schedule. Directors and assistant directors work in the intervening year to organize and develop the course and acquire funding for the course year. An additional advantage is the excellence of current students; given the size of the field, the current acceptance rate of ~25% every two years may be optimal.

    An intermediate suggestion was to hold a specialty course, with smaller scope, in the off years. In considering how to best meet demand, the panel discussed making available teaching protocols and videos of BIE lectures and demonstrations.

  4. Should there be significant changes in a) governance? b) course organization? c) course content?
    • Governance has been a partnership between the MBL education department and current and past course directors. A suggestion was made to add a panel of advisors to assist with the transparent selection of course directors. The panel felt this to be a good idea but stipulated that designated course directors retain autonomy in decision-making for course content and management.
    • No major changes to course structure were recommended, as the current arrangement has been honed with feedback from students and faculty. Given that the desired student cohort includes some with cellular training and some with systems training, there was discussion of plans to devote more time to introducing novices to practical methods from each research area (e.g., pipetting and sound stimulation).
    • All forms of course content are updated with each iteration to keep abreast of developments in the field. A balance is sought between demonstrating cutting-edge technologies and providing opportunities for hands-on data collection on more stable platforms.
  5. Should there be significant changes in the student candidate pool? Both BIE leadership and MBL are committed to enhancing diverse representation of students, teaching assistants, and faculty. Student cohorts have generally been well-balanced in a number of key ways (including gender, institution, geographical area, research area), and have included students and faculty with hearing impairment. Going forward, more advertising should be addressed to universities with relatively high proportions of under-represented groups. More recruitment of diverse faculty also has many likely benefits, including increased diversity of applications.
  6. How do we measure the impact of BIE? While there are multiple exemplars of research success in BIE alumni, MBL and BIE wish to generate more systematic information relevant to the impact of the course on alumni and on the field. Data will be collected on the post-BIE careers of alumni, including career choices, career progression, and scientific products (papers, educational works, and industry contributions). Efforts will also be made toward long-term tracking.
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