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Lab Scientific Retreat: “Pathways to Impact”

By Sonali Roy, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

Posted Feb. 27, 2019

“Build together: Success is a result of collaboration, not standing alone,” advocates the Noble Research Institute in its value statement.

Indeed, many scientific discoveries are a result of good collaborations — between mentors and mentees, between colleagues, or between national and international research laboratories. Great ideas are, of course, inherent to all successful projects, but great relationships are also vitally important; we seek to collaborate with people we trust. Yet in the humdrum of our busy lives and with the immediacy of deadlines and tasks, it is easy to forget to make the effort to connect with colleagues.

Scientific retreats provide an effective opportunity to connect, get creative, discuss science, foster productive collaborations and solve problems. In the fall of 2018, five years after the Functional Genomics Laboratory hosted its last retreat, our supervisor, Michael Udvardi, Ph.D., decided it was time for another lab retreat with his new team of postdocs and research associates.

“Build together: Success is a result of collaboration, not standing alone.”

There are many stories of how interactions in casual settings are conducive for great scientific ideas. In fact, the Eagle Pub, which Watson and Crick frequented during their work on the DNA double-helix structure, is a must-visit for biology enthusiasts traveling to the University of Cambridge in England.

In anticipation of the next Nobel (read: Noble) Prize, therefore, we followed the “Ten Simple Rules on How to Organize a Scientific Retreat” (Ponomarenko et al., 2017). What worked for us as a group and the takeaway messages for any other lab trying to organize a retreat can be summarized as follows:

1. Selecting a theme, “Pathways to Impact,” helped streamline events.

Our two-day retreat at the Lake Murray Lodge had a theme this year. Dr. Udvardi wanted participants to “sketch out how your work could potentially impact knowledge of biology on the one hand, and practical agriculture on the other”; both routes are in essence “pathways to impact” society. This not only gave a focus to our talks but also ensured that we used this opportunity to present our research in a different light — one that was different from our lab meetings or departmental seminars.

Group selfie

2. Making all decisions democratic ensured the agenda was inclusive.

From the retreat venue to the choice of social activity, all participants voted anonymously for their interests. This took into account personal family responsibilities, travel time to and from the venue, scientific topics of interest, research experience, and number of years in the lab. Including everyone in the decision-making process ensured 100 percent participation from members.

A time of discussion

3. Discussing the broader impact of our projects ensured we don’t lose sight of our responsibilities to science and society.

Working at the bench, engrossed in the minute details of our experiments, it is easy to forget about our real motivations in pursuing scientific careers. As each of us presented the “broader impact” of our research, we were reminded once more of the true challenges facing agriculture: water shortage, nutrient unavailability, excessive fertilizer usage and fine-tuning interactions with soil microbes.

Guided boat tour of Lake Murray

4. We got to know each other (again!) and had fun.

One of the few agenda items everyone unanimously agreed on was that the objective of the retreat was to “relax and have fun!” We started with an icebreaker in which we scored our ability to correctly guess the identities of our lab mates from a list of unknown facts; surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), our boss had one of the highest scores! We then had a “10-minute project” idea contest, in which randomly sorted groups of four participants had 10 minutes to come up with a project idea using the skills of each of the participants. One of the ideas that arose from this exercise was an app for farmers to predict crop yield using available local climate and soil information for any given crop year.

On the day of the retreat, even the weather cooperated with us, bringing with it the warmth of a bright and sunny day. Needless to say, we took advantage of our good fortune and went on a guided boat tour of Lake Murray only to learn more about Ardmore’s history as the summer home for the William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, Oklahoma governor in the 1930s.

It was a good day to be Noble!