How the JUSTL Programme Began

21 May 2020

Professor Andrew L. Miller described to me how the Joint Universities Summer Teaching Laboratory (JUSTL) programme came about. He told me that before he came to work at HKUST he spent 7 years as a year-round scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and every summer he used to look forward to the summer scientists coming and the summer courses starting because it was a great opportunity for him to attend the lectures and learn about the latest findings of these world-class researchers in the areas of embryology, physiology and neurobiology.

When ProfessorMiller came to Hong Kong, he continued to go back to the MBL each summer, and he thought that it would be a great idea if some of his own students could take the summer courses. One of Professor Miller’s PhD students, Omi Ma applied for the Embryology course in 2004, and he was lucky enough to be selected as one of the 24 students that year. Omi very enthusiastically threw himself into the course and he did so well that at the end, the Director of Education at the MBL, Dr Lenny Dawidowicz asked Professor Miller if there were any other students like him in Hong Kong as they should be encouraged to apply for one of the courses. This was the fantastic impression that Omi made.

Professor Miller considered Dr Dawidiwicz’s suggestion, discussed them with his collaborator and friend, Professor Robert Baker from New York University Medical School who has been an MBL summer visitor since 1972, and together they decided to try to set up their own course as a means to provide a unique educational and research experience for post-graduate life sciences students in Hong Kong. The students would not be able to attend the practical sessions of the MBL Summer courses, but at least they could go to the morning lectures, which were (and are) open to everyone. In addition, to give the JUSTL students some laboratory experience, the idea was that the Director would rent laboratory space so that the students could work on their own project in the afternoons and evenings. Also, in many cases students would have the opportunity to work in the laboratory of one of the year-round scientists or one of the visiting summer scientists who were willing to mentor a JUSTL student. In most cases, when researchers were contacted and asked if they wanted a hard-working dedicated student helper for the summer months for free (because the programme would pay for the flights, accommodation and food), most found it a very attractive offer and of course said yes.

Professor Andrew L. Miller Director of the JUSTL programme

So the idea that evolved was that six of the brightest, most promising life science post-graduate students from Hong Kong would be selected to go to the MBL for two months each summer. The only challenge was to raise funds to support this programme. However, in 2006, the Hong Kong Croucher Foundation most generously provided financial support to Professor Miller. Funds were initially provided by the Foundation for a period of three years. However, after being awarded funds from the Croucher Foundation, funds were also sought from the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HK SAR) via their “Matching Funds Scheme”. This application was also successful, which meant that Professor Miller could run the JUSTL programme for six years rather than the three years he originally proposed. The JUSTL programme proved to be a major success among the Hong Kong post-graduate students, and so once these initial funds were spent in 2012, the Croucher Foundation very kindly provided funding for a further year, and Professor Miller was successful in obtaining additional matching funds for one year from the Government of the HKSAR. After these funds were finished, the Croucher Foundation again very kindly provided some extra funds, which allowed Professor Miller to take three students for the final year as well as to wrap up the programme at the MBL.

ProfessorMiller took the first group of six participants to the MBL in 2007, and by the end of the JUSTL programme in 2015, a total of 49 post-graduate students and young researchers had experienced what the programme had to offer in terms of their career and personal development.

During the first year of the JUSTL programme, ProfessorMiller asked the Croucher Foundation if they wanted him to take one student from each of the Hong Kong universities to ensure that they had an equal distribution across the higher education institutions in Hong Kong. However, the Croucher Foundation replied that he should take the six best students who applied. This followed Noel Croucher’s basic philosophy about building science and giving the best students the opportunity to expand their careers.

Most of the students came from The University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Science and Technology and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, because at the time that the programme began, these were the main powerhouses of research in Hong Kong. However, over the 9 years that the programme ran, students from City University of Hong Kong, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Hong Kong Baptist University also participated in the programme.

Although it was initially quite difficult to persuade the MBL to allow the programme to run due to concerns about the nature of the programme and availability of laboratory space, Professor Miller recalls that the right people were there, and he and especially Professor Baker had the ear of the important people at the MBL, who were persuaded to let them try the programme out. In addition, one problem with Woods Hole during the summer is that in addition to attracting researchers from all over the world, it is also a very popular New England holiday resort. The islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are nearby, and so housing is hard to come by and very expensive in the summer. So a key to the success of the programme was that the MBL were willing to provide housing for the JUSTL students. The accommodation wasn’t very luxurious but it was what Professor Miller called “all part of the MBL programme experience.”

The JUSTL programme ultimately ran between 1997-2015, and in that time most of the JUSTL participants were mentored by researchers at the MBL. Some of these were year-round scientists who were based at the MBL year round, but the majority were visitors from other universities and institutions who rented a laboratory at the MBL for two or three months during the summer. Several of the JUSTL participants were not affiliated with laboratories at the MBL but instead worked on projects with scientists based at the WHOI or at the NMFS.

In addition to their laboratory-based projects, most of the JUSTL participants regularly attended lectures and workshops at the MBL. Most went to the daily morning lectures of the Neurobiology, Embryology or Physiology courses, but others found the lectures of some of the other courses, such as the Microbial Diversity course and the Neural Systems and Behavior course, to be more relevant to their field of research interest. As well as the daily summer course lectures, the JUSTL participants also regularly attended the Friday Evening Lectures. These lectures are a long-standing tradition at the MBL having been started in 1890 and run each summer since, with the speakers being selected for being superstars in their particular field. Since 1970, for example, 30 Nobel Prize winners have given a lecture in this series. In addition, during the course of the JUSTL programme Professor Eric Betzig (2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry), Professor John B Gurdon (2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine) and Professor Osamu Shimomura (2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry) all gave lectures in the Friday Evening Lecture series, which were attended by the JUSTL participants.