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What is the Frontiers in Neurophotonics Summer School like?

Summer School participant Owen Ferguson shared his experience of the 2021 edition of the Frontiers in Neurophotonics Summer School: 

We often think that there will be a point in our science education where we must choose between one of biology, chemistry, or physics – and this is true for many career paths in science, but there is a glaring exception in the field of biophotonics. This is the kind of program where you look to your left, look to your right, and the three of you have entirely different backgrounds and projects: there is a biochemist looking at the zebrafish brain with Hi-Lo microscopy, a physicist building a super-resolution microscope powered by machine learning, and a biologist culturing human stem cells to look at the mechanisms of neurodegeneration. Despite the vast differences in knowledge, these students are all taking the same classes and even working in the same labs. There is a common passion in the biophotonics program where we are interested in using optical tools to answer an incredibly wide array of biological questions. There is also a common issue amongst biophotonics students: we don’t know which direction we want to take our projects in because we want to move in every direction all at once.


One of the most difficult aspects of pursuing multi-disciplinary subjects in graduate studies is the process of refining a broad range of interests down into a single project. How do we know which aspects of a project will end up being our favourite? How do we know what to specialize in before we test all of the cool new techniques we keep hearing about? With so many different ways to tackle the same problem and such a diverse cast of experimentalists working on new methods, the field of biophotonics quickly became a melting pot of science; it would be impossible for students to explore each and every interest on their own. This is where the Frontiers in Neurophotonics Summer School comes in.


The summer school at Université Laval is a two week long adventure (yes, adventure) with a primary focus on exposing students to the work being done at the forefront of the biophotonics field. The summer school is split into two distinct weeks: the first week has students attending lectures and demos, and in the second week, each student works on a mini-project with goals focused on collecting data and gaining hands-on experience in a new lab under the supervision of an experienced tutor.

Every morning in the first week of the summer school consists of two talks from professors in the field of biophotonics both from Université Laval and from abroad. These talks range in topic from basic lectures in optics, to the development of new fluorophores, to using machine learning in an attempt to replace the need for animal models. After a total of ten talks in the first week, this aspect of the course still manages to keep the students interested because the topics rarely overlap from one talk to another, again taking advantage of the biophotonics melting pot. The afternoon sessions in the first week tend to be the favourite for the eternally curious. In the afternoons, students move in a group from lab to lab and watch experimental demos take place in real-time. The experiments tend to take just over an hour to complete, but the questions from the students easily stretch this to two hours per demo. These demos provide a perfect opportunity to ask any and every question that comes to mind while watching an experiment take place right in front of you. With two talks in the mornings and two demos in the afternoons, the first week of the summer school gets pretty busy. Aside from a few nights reserved for practical lectures on topics like programming and machine learning in biophotonics, most evenings are free for students to do what students do best when they have free time.


After seeing ten talks and nine demos in the first week, the second week gives the students an opportunity to specialize in one of the topics. Each student picks a mini-project based on their favourite demo, and they work in that lab with an experienced tutor for three full days – often with another student in the summer school. The goal of the second week is for the students to get more comfortable and familiar with a new technique, collect some data (assuming everything works), and create a presentation to explain the technique, the experimental question, the methodology, and any results they could get in the three days. This section of the summer school gives us a chance to see where our interests lie and explore them in more detail than we could ever get with lectures and textbooks.


The summer school at Université Laval is a whirlwind experience that peels back the many layers of biophotonics and gives students opportunities to understand each aspect that the field has to offer. An introduction to many important topics followed by an intense and short-lived specialization in one of the topics better prepares us for the multi-disciplinary nature of the field and drives our passion and understanding of science deeper and more effectively than any other two-week course could. The Frontiers in Neurophotonics Summer School is educational, demanding, and fun – but mostly just fun.