Q&A: Dr. Daniel Peterson Discusses His Courses on Microscopy and Stereology

Talk of zebrafish and Spaceballs probes make Dr. Daniel Peterson’s microscopy and stereology courses sound intriguing. But Dr. Peterson says it’s the hands-on instruction that students enjoy most about the biannual workshops he teaches in Chicago. From August 15-19, 2011, the Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at The Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, welcomes students to Chicago’s Club Quarters for five days of  instruction on all aspects of state-of-the-art microscopy, stereology, and histological analysis.

He spoke to us about the atmosphere in the classroom, what kinds of students take his course, and what aspects of the workshops participants get most excited about.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?
The week or so before the course, I start wondering again why I was crazy enough to do this. After all, I am running my own lab and there is the constant worry about grants and getting our papers out, etc. However, when I am in the midst of the course, I find it very rewarding when the participants acquire new tools for their research and discover new ways to assess their experimental outcomes. As we discuss their research objectives, I find I am always learning new things and this helps make it all worthwhile for me.

Is there anything new you’ll be introducing in next week’s workshop?
I will introduce a session on estimating length of structures within tissue. This will be, in the end, an explanation of the principles behind the Spaceballs probe in Stereo Investigator®. More and more participants have wanted to use this probe, and I believe this represents an expansion of the use of stereology within research laboratories.

What’s the atmosphere like in the classroom?
An interesting transition takes place over the week. In the beginning, you have a group of 15-20 strangers who probably think they have little in common. Very quickly, participants start to realize they share similar objectives and face similar problems. Individual personalities emerge and friendships start to form. By the end of the week, when we have our farewell dinner, there is usually genuine sadness about parting ways. In many cases, long-term personal and professional friendships form between the participants.

Do most students arrive equipped with their own projects and research materials, or do they use materials offered in the course?
The participants can vary widely in their starting points. Those who are brand new graduate students often arrive without their own material. However, most of the participants, including technicians, come with their own material and spend a considerable amount of time working through their personal objectives over the week. We have material for general instruction, but there is really no replacement for evaluating your own material as you learn new skills.

What aspects of the workshop do students seem to get most excited about?
Working with the equipment. Instead of getting demonstrations or watching someone else drive, course participants get to do the driving themselves. Though ending the night with the group out at the bar is probably a close second!

What kinds of backgrounds do the students have?
Some are completely new to the field and are starting from scratch. Others are senior professors who need to add another form of analysis to their program and are pragmatic enough to know they can benefit from an intensive introduction. However, for the most part, participants have some experience and some even are quite expert already.

Are there any prerequisite skills students should have before taking the course?
I try to teach the course at the graduate level and I recommend that it is suitable for advanced technicians and those at a post-graduate skill level in biological sciences. Nevertheless, we have had Bachelor’s level students who have performed quite well. It is really less a matter of credentials and more about some having a sense of curiosity about how microscopy and stereology work.

What are some examples of research fields the students come from?
Neuroscience represents about half of the participant population. A similar proportion comes from academic research labs. We have also had participants from government labs, regulatory bodies, and industry labs. Some of the fields represented include pathology, immunology, vascular physiology, kidney disease, cancer research, heart disease, and a variety of stem cell research applications. We have routinely had participants bring material from humans, non-human primates, and of course, mice and rats. We have also had more exotic samples, including zebrafish and even whale brains.

Do you teach the workshops alone?
In this course, I give all the lectures myself. This is a circumstance where a single voice is more effective while building the story from specimen preparation to imaging to quantitation. I do have help with the tutorials as one person can only stretch so far.

How far do participants come to take your course?
One of the enjoyable parts of the course is the understanding of the global nature of science. We have had participants from Sweden, Germany, Spain, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, South Africa, India, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Canada—the list goes on. In some cases, more than half of the participants come from institutions outside the USA. In one course, we had a large group of Spanish-speakers from Spain, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Argentina and I think about half of that session was conducted in Spanish.

What kind of response do you get from the students after they complete the workshop?
I am happy to say that participants have nearly always expressed satisfaction for what they have been able to achieve during the week. I credit this mostly to the fact that the instruction covers the theoretical basis, but mostly it emphasizes pragmatic and practical approaches. In addition, the students actually get to do something, rather than watch, which is always more satisfying.

What’s your favorite part of the workshop?
The farewell dinner—my job is done and I can finally relax.

Get more information on Dr. Daniel Peterson’s confocal microscopy and design-based stereology courses at www.neurorenew.com.

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