Retreat and revive

Every year graduate students and post-docs at WTCHG have the opportunity to down pipettes and head off into the countryside for a couple of days of intensive talks, practical exercises and team-building, all aimed at building cohesiveness in the research community and practising ‘soft skills’. Patrick Albers, a student in the McVean and McCarthy groups, was one of this year’s organisers.

Group shot by the lake (Suzanne Snellenberg)

Group shot by the lake (Suzanne Snellenberg)

This year the Centre’s Student and Post-Doc Retreat (24-25th June) took place in Cirencester, at the Royal Agricultural University, in the Cotswolds. The Centre invited graduate students and post-docs from all its research groups, with transport, food and accommodation all provided free (including generous quantities of drinks in the bar).

The first day began with ‘elevator pitches’ for the post-docs – short introductions and background on their own research. The students went through a ‘science speed dating’ session, in which random pairs had one minute each to explain their thesis projects. This was designed to give them practice in quickly providing the key features of their own research, and to attract interest. However, it all got out of hand, as students became involved in more elaborate discussions about their research, after finding mutual common ground.

The next challenge for the students was to present past research that had led to a Nobel Prize. Working in groups, they had to read up on the background of their assigned Nobel Prize, and then to explain it to the other students in the most creative way. One group managed to perform a short play about how 2007 winners Mario Capecchi, Martin Evans and Oliver Smithies generated the first knockout studies in mice.

In the afternoon, post-docs and students explored the beautiful town of Cirencester in a treasure hunt. Following a series of directions, each group collected clues that formed an apparently nonsensical solution. But most groups quickly discovered that the solution was an anagram for ‘Peter Donnelly’, which within the plot of the treasure hunt, was able to crack the code and save the town from destruction (and help the winners to more free drinks).


Tense discussions during the pub quiz (Patrick Albers)

An evening ‘science pub quiz’ filled 3 hours of drinking and intense discussions. In the end, the group ‘Methylation-of-Smaug’ won the quiz by a small margin, which led them to share their prize, a bottle of champagne. Questions covered a wide range of scientific topics and the quiz was enriched by interactive sessions to solve number series, anagrams (related to the WTCHG), and Oxford-related photo-questions.

The next day began with more elevator pitches and speaker sessions. The students’ section included a discussion of ethical dilemmas that they might face in their research. Many reported that they had in fact experienced similar situations, and explained how they resolved them.

Lastly Dr David Grimes, an Oxford-based senior post-doc in cancer research, science journalist, and media expert, gave a talk to the students on science in the media. His talk gave insights into the strange world of journalism, its high likelihood of misunderstanding science, and how scientists are at risk of being taken out of context when talking to the general public.

He also highlighted that even well-reputed scientists can cause damage when taken too seriously on issues they know very little about. The bottom line was that scientists have to be careful when talking to journalists, but that skills in encouraging the public in scientific discourse are essential for everyone working in research.

Blindfold team-building - a test of trust in the group

Blindfold team-building – a test of trust in the group (Suzanne Snellenberg)

Following the more academic sessions, everyone was chauffeured to a team-bonding session, conveniently located next to a beautiful lake. Different challenges had to be solved by working as a team. These ranged from crossing a ‘river of lava’ using a human chain of stepping stones, or to defuse a ‘bomb’ by using random items to construct tools (very MacGyver-like).

The evaluation at the end showed that the overwhelming majority of people enjoyed the trip and all sessions received very high marks. Nobody indicated that this was a waste of time. On the contrary, many wrote that they ‘loved it’ and will be back next year.

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