Photonics meets Biology summer school IV (PMB IV) – Blog from James Crowe

A PhD candidate working on the MESO-BRAIN project, James Crowe attended the Photonics meets Biology summer school IV (PMB IV), which took place in Tarragona, Spain. James discusses his attendance of the conference where he presented his research. This year’s biennial Photonics meets Biology summer school was held in the Catalonian city of Tarragona. The summer schools brings together expertise in leading-edge research, and focuses on the union of photonic and biological sciences to revolutionise the use of lasers in the biomedical field.

Day one (Monday): A place of learning

Although the summer school program started in the evening, I arrived early to attend an eventful consortium meeting of the MESO-BRAIN project, whose senior members organised, gave talks for, and ran the PMB IV conference itself. On arriving to the conference centre ‘El Seminari’ in northern Tarragona, I was struck by the beauty of the venue in the afternoon sunlight.

Its prior function was the Pontifical Seminary of Tarragona, a place of learning (as it would again be tomorrow), and it is now a magnificent example of modern design, providing a thought-stimulating environment for the meeting and welcome talk.

Surprise! Hidden inside the Seminary itself was a chapel.

Day two (Tuesday): Transparent tissue, student talks and posters

Photonics is a fascinating field, due to its wide and varying applications within biomedical research and science at large, as I learnt from the first morning’s talks. Whilst I sometimes struggled to follow the mind-bending physics behind these technologies, I appreciated their translation to a clinical setting, and considered how photonic innovations will surely improve worldwide healthcare in years to come.

The first keynote given by Valery Tuchin (Saratov University, Russia) who focused on optical clearing of tissues. With the current trend of stem cell-derived 3D tissue models (e.g. Organoids), one of the biggest problems scientists face is the ability to see deep (> 1mm) into tissues whilst they’re alive, rather than dissecting dead samples. This is critical for observing brain models, as otherwise we can’t measure neuronal activity or development! Better yet, this may mean less invasive surgery is required for exploring organs for cancer or abnormalities – leading to a higher success rate for operations.

Cutting-edge research was presented by early career scientists, which was great for me, a first year PhD student to see. Matteo Bernardello (Institute of Photonic Sciences, Spain) gave a talk on his role in designing a modular light-sheet microscopy setup which allows high-throughput 3D imaging. Within the MESO-BRAIN we are hoping to use this novel microscopy method to look at how the neurons we grow interact with each other. To that end Estefania Estevez Priego (University of Barcelona, Spain) presented an interesting talk on how neural networks recover after damage, making great use of calcium indicator dyes, that fluoresce whenever cells are active. Estefania won an award for best student talk, congratulations!

The final gathering of the evening was the poster session, which was a great opportunity to discuss my own findings with world-class researchers. It was priceless to receive feedback, as well as debate new ideas with scientists from both biology and photonics, and make a few new contacts at the same time.

Happy to show my support of the MesoBrain project in front of my poster with our trusty flag! #TeamMesoBrain

Day three (Wednesday): Nanoscale printing and network connectivity

On day three, Boris Chichkov (Laser Zentrum Hannover, Germany) highlighted the abilities of two-photon polymerisation to 3D print structures at a nanoscale resolution, alongside creating nanoparticles and placing individual cells via photonic pulses. These technologies can be implemented for scaffolding in bioengineered tissues, creating nanoscale circuits or defined cell placement.

Due to its parallel to my own work, I was looking forward to Jordi Soriano-Fradera’s (University of Barcelona, Spain) talk ‘Calcium imaging in neuronal cultures’ which was extremely enlightening. I learnt that connectivity on a global scale can be an indicator of network health in neurological disease. In Sanfilippo syndrome, a neurological disorder due to insufficient lysosomal storage, the minority of neuronal hubs had most of the connections, leading to a highly disconnected network whenever a major hub was lost. Furthermore, Jordi demonstrated the tools neuroscientists use to explore cortical activity, including genetically-encoded calcium indicators and optogenetic stimulation.

Later in the day we toured the Cavas Freixenet winery, and learnt about history producing local sparkling wine. As well as learning about the many varieties, we took a train tour of the bottling plant and tasted some delicious cava! This gave everyone the opportunity to relax and resulted in several interesting discussions.

Day four (Thursday): Workshops and a roman city

Whilst Thursday had many fantastic talks, what really stood out were the workshops for scientific writing and data analysis in neuroscience. For the first workshop on scientific writing we had the combined talents of Peter Andersen (DTU FOTONIK, Denmark), an editorial board member for many photonics journals, and Lina Perscechini, an associate editor for Nature communications. Whilst I haven’t yet got to the stage of writing scientific papers, the advice Peter and Lina gave me will help guide my choices on where to submit, and how to ensure I write an excellent piece of research. The second workshop was hosted by Jordi Soriano-Frader, who demoed a new (free) tool for analysing network connections, known as NetCal. I was completely blown away by its capabilities, and can see it being quickly adopted by many neuroscientists.

In the evening we went on a guided tour of Tarraco, the ancient roman capital of Catalonia that the city of Tarragona was built upon. The square that a great temple once stood on now holds Tarragona Cathedral, “unfinished” due to the black plague during its construction. We descended the steps infront of the Cathedral to the remnants of the roman circus, where chariots would race. Finally, we travelled to the reconstructed amphitheatre, which would have housed 15,000 spectators within its walls. It was fantastic to hear about the local history, and really gave you a sense of the cultural pride present in Catalonia.

Day five (Friday): Farewell and festivals

The final day of the summer school was a fantastic summary of the areas of photonics and biology that are most interesting for future research. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Paul French (Imperial College London, UK) who was investigating single molecule resolution microscopy – which could be extremely useful for researchers investigating the effect of new medicines. Eric Hill (Aston University, UK) my supervisor, highlighted how photonics is the currently best way to investigate a living system, as exampled in our work with stem cell-derived neurons, but that we still have limitations to overcome.

To my surprise, I was awarded 1st prize for the poster session, and a prize of $150 which I decided to use on buying a new bioengineering textbook! By the end of the week it was difficult to say goodbye to many new colleagues and friends, but also exciting to consider to new avenues of research that are opening to young scientists.

In the evening after the goodbye talk, Tarragona was celebrating the festival of Saint Tecla (see the mannequins above!). It was wonderful to end the busy week surrounded by happiness, community spirit and delicious tapas!