23 April 2018

Jeroen Pasterkamp on the Summer School Neural Circuit Development and Plasticity

Basic knowledge of the brain in just one week

Dynamics of Youth will be offering a variety of Summer Schools this summer. What will the students learn, and who is behind it all? This issue, we’ll be talking with neuroscientist Jeroen Pasterkamp, coordinator of the Neural Circuit Development and Plasticity’ Summer School.

How did this Summer School come about?

“Utrecht has a unique position in the field of brain research in the Netherlands, as we do a wide range of experimental work, have an excellent microscopy department and good culture models in the lab. Over the past few years, a research group has developed with a unique expertise, which is entirely focused on brain development and plasticity [the brain’s capacity to adapt to changes - ed.].”

“So we thought: wouldn’t it be great if we could express that in the Netherlands and abroad. I came into contact with the people who organise the Summer School, and we started talking about how that would work, and how we could do it. This year, we’ll be organising the Summer School for the sixth year in a row, again supported by Dynamics of Youth. The course is a collaboration between the Brain Center Rudolf Magnus at UMC Utrecht and Utrecht University's Faculty of Science. I will be organising it together with Harold MacGillavry, Corette Wierenga and Lukas Kapitein.”

What can students expect from the course?

Student tekent brein

“Harold, Corette, Lukas and I will explain all of the basic principles to the students on the first day ourselves: how is a neuron created? How are contacts made in the brain? What kinds of technology do you need to study all of that? We will conclude the first day with a barbecue, in order to build a team spirit. For the four days that follow, we have scheduled three speakers each day, all of them leading scientists in their fields. Each of the speakers will give a one-hour lecture in the morning, with plenty of opportunities for discussion.”


The students will have the opportunity to turn the knobs and push the buttons themselves.

“In the afternoon, we will organise workshops on topics such as research techniques, or on papers by one of the leading scientists. How did their research come about, and did they really write it all down the way it was? We will also deal with ‘soft skills’, such as how to apply for subsidies and how to start a lab. We will also take tours of the various organiser’s labs, so the students will have the opportunity to turn the knobs and push the buttons themselves.”

Who is the Summer School intended for?

“We will focus mainly on Master’s students and PhD candidates. Some of them will come from the Netherlands, but the majority will be international students from China, Japan, Russia, America and the rest of the world. We speak all over the world, so we have plenty of opportunities to advertise. In fact, we already have a mailing list, and people already know about the Summer School. We will admit a maximum of 30 students, to keep it interactive.”

“Several ‘neuro-people’ whose studies relate to the topic will be there, but we also have doctors and people from completely unrelated fields who just want to learn more about the subject. The course will have a bit of everything - theory and practice - so by the end of the week you’ll be up to speed. We’ll be selecting the participants, so we ask the applicants to write a letter of motivation. You don’t have to have a neurological background, but you do need a certain thinking capacity. We ask our speakers to provide a good introduction to every lecture, so you don’t have to start with hardcore molecular science right away.”

We ask our speakers to provide a good introduction to every lecture, so you don’t have to start with hardcore molecular science right away.
Dr. Jeroen Pasterkamp.
Hersencellen in reageerbuizen

What has changed over the past years?

“In the beginning, we had five days of speakers. But we noticed that it was too much, so now we start off easy by giving the introduction ourselves. That gives you contact with the whole group right from the beginning. The rest of the programme has remained the same. We occasionally hear people saying that they would like more practical work, but we can’t achieve that in just one week.  For the rest, we always receive positive reactions, so we continue to do what we’ve always done. We’ve also noticed that many students come from the same labs around the world.”

“The students, however, have changed a bit over the years. They’re more assertive, and they know what they want. That’s a reflection of society as a whole, I think. It’s the way they are raised, and their education is much more oriented towards giving presentations.”

What do you gain from organising the Summer School?

“It has two sides. You come across the students later on at conferences and other gatherings, so you can watch them as they progress in their careers. It’s very interesting to talk to the students about where they come from, what they do and what they want.”

Jeroen Pasterkamp and Corette Wierenga are now working on the interdisciplinary project The first 1001 critical days of a child’s life within the hub Child Expertise Center.

You gain inspiration that you can take back to your own lab.

“But it also gives us an opportunity to invite a large group of our colleagues to Utrecht every year, which is a fun aspect. Our speakers give interesting lectures with lots of new data. They’re all people who publish at the highest level, in periodicals such as Nature, Neuron, and Cell. We have also occasionally invited speakers who were approaching retirement to talk about their careers. That’s fun, because people see how far we’ve come over just the past 15 years. It’s also handy for your own work, because you gain inspiration that you can take back to your own lab.”

Related content

Dynamics of Youth

In dealing with social problems, you need to start with the children. Utrecht University invests in resilient youth. Within the research theme Dynamics of Youth, scientists from all fields of expertise work together in order to better understand child development. How can we help young people to grow and thrive in our rapidly changing society?