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Keeping the molecular biology flame burning bright

A conversation with Jürgen Deka, PhD, Head of External Scientific Training, EMBL International Centre for Advanced Training.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is a guiding light in the life sciences — an intergovernmental organization with more than 80 independent research groups covering the spectrum of molecular biology. One of its core missions is to offer advanced training for researchers in emerging and ground-breaking topics. Around 30 conferences and 60 courses are run annually at all six EMBL sites, with the most being held at the impressive training centre in Heidelberg, Germany — the architecture of which was inspired by the DNA double helix. The programme promotes education, collaboration and cutting-edge research.

What are some of the hot topics in the 2019 programme?

Our conferences cover all aspects of molecular biology including genomics, cell and developmental biology, microbiology, molecular medicine and structural biology. Our flagship series co-organised with the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) are our EMBO|EMBL Symposia, which focus on interdisciplinary, forward-thinking topics. In April, we have a conference called ‘Reconstructing the Human Past — using Ancient and Modern Genomics’, which will look at what we can learn about the history of humankind and migration pathways by whole-genome sequencing of ancient DNA. In May, we are hosting the 9th EMBO Workshop ‘Chromatin and Epigenetics’, which will cover the latest advances in the field including chromatin regulation, nuclear architecture and developmental epigenetics. The symposium ‘Mechanical Forces in Development’ held in July will focus on the mechanical basis of cell and tissue morphogenesis. In October, we have a conference on ‘The Non-Coding Genome’ exploring how non-coding RNAs regulate and influence gene-expression output.

Why shine a spotlight on training?

We offer a wide range of theoretical and practical courses on the latest techniques such as optogenetics and genome editing using the CRISPR/Cas9 system. We also offer a number of courses on microscopy including super-resolution microscopy and correlative light and electron microscopy. Many of the ideas for the courses and conference programme come out of the research that is currently going on here. The aim of our programme is to pass on the torch of knowledge to the community. Around 60 to 70% of our courses are wet-lab courses and we have dedicated training laboratories furnished with the latest equipment. Applicants for a course must send in a motivation letter describing their level of expertise and the course participants are chosen on the basis of who would benefit the most. The majority of the conferences and courses are held at our main laboratory in Heidelberg. Around 25 of our courses focus on bioinformatics and take place at our site near Cambridge in the UK — the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). In addition, we have sites in Barcelona, Grenoble, Hamburg and Rome, which offer training in tissue engineering, structural biology, and epigenetics and neurobiology. We also offer online courses, particularly in bioinformatics, and are looking to expand this programme.

How are EMBL events attracting science’s bright sparks?

We are one of the leading providers of courses and conferences in the world. All our speakers are scientists with an international reputation who are at the top of their field. Seven Nobel laureates will be speaking at conferences in 2019. For example, three winners of the Nobel Prize — William E. Moerner, Stefan Hell and Steven Chu — will be speaking at the symposium in October, ‘Seeing is Believing — Imaging the Molecular Processes of Life’. Our events cover cutting-edge topics offering researchers the opportunity to hear about the latest findings and ideas. In fact, we actively encourage speakers to present their latest unpublished results. The atmosphere at our events is outstanding and the Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg is purpose-built and architecturally stunning. Poster sessions are held in the part of the building that mimics the DNA double helix and we have enough space so that posters can stay up during the whole conference. Our conferences host up to 500 people, attract a very international audience and provide a lot of time for networking. At many of our conferences we offer speed-networking sessions giving researchers the opportunity to make connections with a large number of people at the beginning of the meeting. In addition, we have an excellent operational support that makes sure the events run smoothly.

How can people benefit from training?

Training broadens your horizon — sparking learning that goes far beyond what is published in the literature. Bringing together researchers from different disciplines leads to innovative thinking and creates synergies. Today, more than ever, science advances through the exchange of knowledge, concepts and ideas. Our courses are cutting-edge, giving researchers hands-on experience with the latest techniques and tools. They are also designed so that you learn while doing and can easily apply the techniques you’ve learnt once you are back in your own lab.