Spreading the word: An intensive Course on Biological and Chemical crystallography

Manchester, January 2011www.chemistry.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/events/crystallography/index.html

[Manchester dinner] From left to right going clockwise: Chris Muryn, Dora Gomez, Stefan Kofler, Marco Martinez, Kaenket Surasak, Nerea Gallastegui de la Rosa, Madeleine Helliwell, John Helliwell, Simon Tanley, Jim Raftery and Robin Pritchard.

These are challenging times for crystallographic education as undergraduate courses are constantly under pressure to streamline content. Crystallographic results that make the headlines are still often included in such courses, along with the core basics of crystallography, and sometimes the latest methods research such as at synchrotrons or FEL X-ray or neutron sources.

After graduation new PhDs and postdocs, in addition to on-the-job training , can go to annual or biannual courses or workshops run by our various crystallographic associations, usually of 1 to 2 weeks duration, and mainly focused on a single discipline such as macromolecular or chemical crystallography. Excellently run and productive workshops are also run at the synchrotron and/or neutron facilities. There are also exemplar institutions like Birkbeck College, University of London, that have a long tradition in crystallographic education and now have online courses as well.

Can we do more? I know that the ECA is marshalling efforts in Europe towards a masters in crystallography. and Massimo Nespolo (Nancy) has taken the lead in applying for European funds to support this project. A notable national initiative, that has been run for several years, is the Spanish masters in crystallography and crystal growth led by Juan Ma Garcia-Ruiz.

At the University of Manchester, encouraged by an across-campus course of lectures to PhDs on macromolecular crystallography that I gave during my sabbatical 3 years ago, and by the head of our school, Christopher Whitehead, as well as helpful input from our NMR colleague Vasudevan Ramesh, we launched a 2-day intensive school for biological and chemical crystallography. Our vision for the course is to emphasise the unity of crystallography across these two disciplines and thus reverse the trend of separate courses. Our course also comprised both lectures and practicals, including using the latest software and CCD diffractometers. The practicals used the School of Chemistry PC Cluster and our Bruker Apex CCD diffractometer. Tutorials were given on publishing macromolecular papers at resolutions of 1.4 Å and 3.2 Å and at 30 Å by combining EM and SAXS data and a chemical crystal structure at 0.8 Å. A tutorial demo on Laue diffraction was also provided using the Daresbury Laue software package. The combined use of neutrons and X-rays featured prominently in a core lecture, which underpinned the subsequent chemical and biological crystallography. There was also a lecture each on powder diffraction and on biological and chemical databases (PDB, MESPEUS and CSD). Practicals were available on the use of small molecule graphics, twinning, structure solving, refinement software and CSD database usage, as well as macromolecular isomorphous replacement and metal atom occupancy refinement. The course lecturers and tutors/demonstrators were John Helliwell, Madeleine Helliwell, Robin Pritchard, Chris Muryn and James Raftery. The weblink is http://www.chemistry.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/events/crystallography/index.html

A Course dinner was held at our University’s premier dining place, Christie’s Bistro, located in the old library (pictured). A quiz on crystallography kept the brain cells whirring throughout the evening, especially with the prize being a two volume set of IUCr’s Crystallography Across the Sciences.

Did we succeed? We chose our course dates to be just before our NMR 2-day workshop, mentioned above, and to be a few days after the 2-day CCP4 annual study weekend (this year held at Warwick University, about 90 minutes by train from Manchester). The participants in our course included one person who also attended the NMR workshop as well as another who had attended CCP4. The countries of origin of the participants were Austria, Mexico, Spain/Germany, Thailand, Venezuela and UK. One participant took in the Manchester United versus Liverpool match during the weekend but we cannot guarantee such a fixture every year! The feedback from participants, written and verbal, was very positive. One person stayed a third day to do more work on the practicals, a feature we plan to add to next year’s course to be held January 10–12, 2012. The NMR course will be held January 12-13, 2012.

How can we improve the course? We started advertising the course too late. We posted notices on the CCP4 and X-rayMan Bulletin Boards and sent emails to our contacts in industry and other collaborators at the same time. We have started much earlier this second time around and posters will also be put on display at BCA Keele and IUCr Madrid. Could we reduce the fees? These were approx £500 for an academic and nearly £1000 for industry. These are set by the continuing professional development policy of the University, and ours were basically the same as the NMR Workshop. Are the fees justifiable? With our staff time, including secretarial and admin as well as IT support, as well as the use of equipment including the computer cluster and an X-ray diffractometer, and lecture rooms, I would imagine the fees are not far out. That’s just what it costs!

Acknowledgements are due to CCP4, COOT, OLEX, SHELXTL and WinGx whereby permission for free download and access to their software was readily given. Bruker kindly sponsored a PhD student bursary and Mitegen donated crystal mounting and manipulation packs, one for each participant. The IUCr donated the two Crystallography Across the Sciences books. We are very grateful for their help and generosity. We are also grateful to the PDB and CSD for their databases curation, which we all appreciate (and also to CSD for their Mercury software).

John R. Helliwell