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September 5, 2005
Volume 83, Number 36
pp. 78-79


International summer school brings students of both disciplines closer together


8336ed2_groupcxd PHOTO BY AMANDA YARNELL

ALL ACCESS Informal tutorials at the Spetses conference gave students multiple opportunities to ask Seeberger (far left) and the other speakers both scientific and philosophical questions.

Sea, sun, sand, and ... science? This summer, an international group of graduate students and postdocs in chemistry and biology spent their summer "vacation" on a beautiful Greek isle, learning from and mingling with world-class chemists and biologists.

Nearly 100 promising students from 31 countries gathered in July on Spetses, a tiny island southwest of Athens known for its picturesque beaches, calm waters, and sunny weather. They were there for "Chemistry Meets Biology: Science at the Interface of Chemistry, Biology, and Medicine," an intensive two-week summer school combining world-class science and teaching.

"Our ultimate goal was to increase future interactions between the two different scientific cultures and to communicate the exciting possibilities of interdisciplinary research to young scientists from both scientific cultures," said the school's organizer, organic chemist Manfred P. Schneider of the University of Wuppertal, in Germany.

The school was primarily sponsored by the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) and the University of Wuppertal, with additional support from a number of pharmaceutical companies and the American Chemical Society, among others. FEBS has a long history of organizing intensive summer schools in the biological sciences. In fact, it was after attending a FEBS summer school in biology that Schneider first hatched the idea of holding one on the interface of chemistry and biology. That first summer school, held in Spetses in the summer of 2002, earned rave reviews from both students and faculty. This year's version boasted broader international participation and a beefed-up scientific program.

Organizers asked the summer school's 18 speakers to deliver several hour-long lectures spread over the course of two weeks. This format allowed the speakers to spend ample time educating students about their fields as well as to present their latest results. "It gave students a good crash course in modern chemical biology," said Gregory A. Petsko, a structural biologist at Brandeis University who taught students the basics of X-ray crystallography and described his lab's current efforts to use the technique to probe the mechanism of various neurodegenerative diseases.



A full half-hour was devoted to questions after each lecture, giving students plenty of time to discuss the science presented. "The program gave me time to absorb information in a way that classes just do not deliver," said Christine Crane, a third-year graduate student in medicinal chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich.

Alessio Ciulli, a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, in England, said that attending the course allowed him to "learn more than just what a handful of top-notch scientists are working on right now." He also believed the meeting had given him a more general feel for the forefront of chemical and biological research.

"It's given me a wealth of great ideas," Crane added. "I wish I could have come to something like this earlier in my Ph.D."

Renate Van Well, a graduate student at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, said that, as a synthetic chemist, she was especially happy to be exposed to so much biology during the two-week course. "The training it's given me has been very valuable," she said.

"The program gave me time to absorb information in a way that classes just do not deliver."

THE BIOLOGISTS in the crowd also took something away from the summer school. "I'm a biologist using chemical methods," said Kathrin Renner, a newly minted Ph.D. in biology currently at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, who uses nuclear magnetic resonance to profile metabolic differences elicited by standard treatment regimens for leukemia. "I want to know more about the methods I am using, and the summer school has been perfect for me."

Students seemed to especially enjoy the school's many opportunities for informal interaction with the lecturers. Students and lecturers mingled in the garden during coffee breaks and in the warm, blue-green Mediterranean during afternoon breaks. During informal late-afternoon "tutorials," small groups of students had ample time to ask individual faculty members deeper scientific questions or more probing philosophical or career inquiries. Group boat trips to more remote beaches and even to the ancient Greek city of Mycenae and a traditional Greek theater performance gave both students and speakers time to get to know each other better. They even ran into each other in the isle's restaurants and bars.

"During your graduate and postdoctoral training, there are very few occasions that you can really speak to professors," said Milan Balaz, a postdoc in synthetic organic chemistry at Columbia University. "So it's great to talk to professors in this casual setting, where you can start talking about science but end up having a philosophical discussion."

"As a student, when you have a scientific conversation with faculty in other places--even in bars--it's always more formal," added Chu-Young Kim, a postdoc from Stanford University's department of chemical engineering. "Here, there's a relaxed atmosphere that encourages free discussion. It's been great."

The lecturers seemed to enjoy these informal moments, too. California Institute of Technology's Jacqueline K. Barton said students in her beachside tutorial "asked me about everything--from specific scientific questions to my philosophy on how to do research to the future of research at the interface of chemistry and biology. It was wonderfully low-key."


IN DEPTH Chemistry professor Andrew Miller (center) of Imperial College London took time to explain the finer points of gene therapy to students.

Students also used the tutorial sessions to ask career-related questions. Peter H. Seeberger, a chemistry professor at ETH who started his career at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, answered frank questions about the pluses and minuses of running a research group in the U.S. versus Europe. Laura L. Kiessling, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discussed how she balances the demands of teaching, running a lab, starting a company, and spending time with her family. And Brandeis' Petsko fielded questions about the future career prospects of structural biologists as X-ray crystallography becomes a more routinely used laboratory tool.

Many of the synthetic chemistry students C&EN talked to said that the experience had influenced their thoughts about what to study during their postdocs and even the kind of research they'd one day like to pursue as independent investigators. Radka Snajdrova, a graduate student in synthetic organic chemistry at Austria's Vienna University of Technology, said she "learned what is possible with molecular biology" at the summer school. As a result, "maybe I'll do a postdoc in molecular biology," the Czech native said.

"The diversity of the science discussed has opened my eyes to new career possibilities," Cambridge's Ciulli added. He said the experience had encouraged him to think about doing a postdoc in a field he hadn't previously considered.

"Conferences like this one help teach biologists how to talk to chemists, how to tell them what you need."

FACULTY MEMBERS also reaped benefits. "I've recruited some great postdocs during these schools," said Petsko, who has participated in a half-dozen science summer schools over the past 15 years.

Such intensive summer schools are relatively common in Europe, but less so in the U.S. "I didn't even know things like this existed," said Erin E. Carlson, a chemical biology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The science has been great. Plus the school really focused on the needs of students," building in ample time for questions and casual interactions between speakers and students. Carlson urged the organizers to do more to encourage those studying in the U.S. to participate in the future, perhaps by holding a school stateside.

Both students and faculty were eager to see the summer school repeated in the future. "The future of chemistry lies in its connectedness to the life sciences," Petsko noted. The promising young chemists and biologists who attended the school came away with a better understanding of the cutting-edge research going on at the interface of the two disciplines, he added.

"Biologists are just beginning to ask chemists for molecules," noted Alexey Rak, a structural biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology, in Dortmund, Germany. "Conferences like this one help teach biologists how to talk to chemists, how to tell them what you need."

Kiessling predicted that the summer school would spark long-lasting connections among the students and the disciplines. The students clearly forged strong bonds during the two-week experience, she noted. "It has brought together students from different countries who are interested in a similar scientific area. I think we'll see the school is a mechanism for starting new interdisciplinary, international collaborations in the future."

Renner concurred, adding that "the experience has brought all of us--both chemists and biologists--closer together."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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