Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Seaside fun!

I'm writing this on the train from Devon back to London.

I've just spent a fortnight at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, attending the 28th annual Microelectrode Techniques Workshop. Two weeks of very intensive work - lectures, demonstrations, practical sessions in the lab, and an excellent lunch every day in the common room overlooking Plymouth Sound and the Americas Cup.

I have to say this course has been a real eye-opener for me - I first learned whole-cell patch clamping 3 years ago, but this is the first time I've really been taken through the physics and electronics of what the technique involves. It's one thing to know to press this button and twiddle that knob until the spiky bits go away, it's quite another to understand where that capacitative transient comes from, and how the compensation circuits work that can remove it from your signal. (This is no reflection on my teachers by the way - it reflects rather my own laziness and lack of curiosity.)

The very first day in the lab exemplified the approach - a solid lecture on electronics, followed by a happy day soldering up various op-amp circuits in various configurations: current to voltage converter, voltage follower, differentiator.

A huge amount of learning was packed into these two weeks. Lots of time in the lab, which was kitted out with many rigs of various kinds, gave me opportunities to try out several techniques, including iontophoretic cell injection with sharp electrodes, and single channel recording. The demonstrators were friendly, dedicated, and in many cases pretty distinguished. There was also a generous schedule of lectures, with highlights for me from Boris Barbour on amplifier electronics, and David Ogden on photolysis.

Another highlight was a fabulous morning spent on the MBA research vessel trawling for crabs and shrimps and miscellaneous denizens of the deep.

We finished about 7:30pm each day, and went in 6 days a week, which has left me tired but exhilarated - my head is buzzing with ideas for things I want to try out when I get back to the lab at UCL. I would recommend this course without hesitation to anyone who wants to be a better electrophysiologist. One clear lesson I have come away with is this - a good scientist does the homework to really understand the techniques they use. It's not good enough to just copy the protocol from a paper you read once, blindly following someone else's recipe.

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