This August was the 25th year of the Methods in Computational Neuroscience course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. This intense four-week course has fostered many careers in the field. The course was founded by Jim Bower and Christof Koch, and has changed directorship every five years: David Tank and David Kleinfeld, Bill Bialek and Rob de Ruyter, Bard Ermentrout and John White, me and Michael Berry. The directorship will be taken over in 2013 by Mark Goldman (pictured above in the illustrious Class of ’97) and Michale Fee.
This year’s class had several special features. Lectures and celebrations brought almost all of the past directors to visit; Jim Bower memorably embellished many of the grand stories of the early years of the course. Greg Gage of Backyard Brains ran a practical session in the first week where students constructed a miniature neurophysiology rig. The Backyard Brains outfit stayed on throughout the course working on upgrades to their home physiology kits and shared the results with the students and course kids: new electrodes to measure EMGs and suction electrodes to record from jellyfish. We were amazed and delighted to see calcium spikes from Venus flytraps and to watch squid chromatophores dance to iPhone signals. The correlated variations in chromatophore size recorded in Roger Hanlon’s lab were the subject of Emily Mackevicius’ course project. We concluded the course with four talks aimed at pointing toward the future of computational neuroscience from Sebastian Seung, Bill Bialek, Larry Abbott and Haim Sompolinsky.
25 years truly is a milestone for the field. Many departments and neuroscience programs now include theorists, and a growing number of experimentalists are adept both in physiology and in analytical approaches. Despite, or because, of this, the rapid experimental advances in in vivo recording, imaging and optogenetic manipulation, high-throughput physiology and anatomy are posing deep new challenges to bring theory closer to experimental reality, while still seeking fundamental underlying principles. As said Haim: “We are approaching the end of the golden era of ignorance.”