stem cells in their environment

Wattlab Retreat 2016

27 July 2016
By Matteo Vietri Rudan

Ah, the Summer! Long, hot, sunny, days: the ideal time to enjoy the blue skies in the countryside with your colleagues and friends—

What? 'Summer' is not the right term to use here? Oh, ok, let me start again...

Ah, the British Summer! Long, intermittently cloudy and not really warm days, punctuated here and there by the occasional thunderstorm or the ever-rare (but most sought-after) heatwave.

In the weeks building up to my first WattLab retreat, the weather prospects did not look great, with constant rainy days and temperatures stuck in the 15-19°C range. We were to spend three days in beautiful Hampshire at the edge of the New Forest and I was dreading being forced to enjoy it only indoors, looking at the rain outside while putting on another sweater to keep warm. Instead, just days before our departure from London Waterloo, the all-knowing Met Office announced a sudden heatwave was bound to hit Albion right at the time of the retreat. And what a retreat it was!

The train was gliding through sunlit meadows and fields topped by a dazzling blue sky as we travelled towards Salisbury. Some people were giving the final touches to their presentations, others spent the time relaxing – indulging in Wasabi that they managed to grab on the way and chatting – and some were just staring out of the window at the landscapes passing by.

A short cab ride from the station and we reached our destination: Burgate Manor Farm, just outside the little town of Fordingbridge. Just enough time to get the luggage into our cottages (and, for some, to change into shorts!) and the first afternoon of sessions could take off. An update on the latest genomic techniques (still can’t believe there is actually a PARTY-seq!), the status quo of our Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative (HipSci, which we learned can be pronounced HipSee, HipSki or HipSigh, depending on your attitude and mood) and an overview of the Athena SWAN Charter, were followed by a multi-speaker presentation in which some of the more "seasoned" scientists in the lab tried to give a few pointers to the budding talents on how to make the most out of their postdocs.

As the last embers of discussion cooled off, a lovely French/Portuguese dinner was served and we enjoyed a first night of table football, singing, dancing, stargazing and... yeah, some drinks too, obviously!

Tuesday morning kicked off with Team Warfare: a game of brawn and wits in which the teams had to brave the fierce heat during three physical challenges intercalated with science-related quizzes. Morning training for body and mind for the WattLab!

The adrenaline unleashed by the game was then channelled into a long and very interesting conversation about whether or not there is a reproducibility crisis in science (yes, there is!) and how we could make things better.

Thereafter we got to meet none other than Mr Monopoly (or rather his blonder, younger sibling) as we tried to get some revolutionary ideas funded for commercial applications in a role-playing setup.

Talking about some of the problems and the unfairness in modern day science during this session may have left some of us a bit disquieted, but an excellent Indian curry followed by some (much needed) ice cream was enough to soothe our spirits.

The early afternoon faced us with a food crisis: due to a mistake in our food delivery, we had no courgettes for our evening pasta! The horror!! Luckily, a team of courageous WattLabbers ventured into the heat and recovered enough of the missing green squash, before coming back in time for the first afternoon session.

A thorough catalogue of some of the latest technologies that might be useful in the lab was presented: among talks of DNA glues, live-cell microscopy, multiple-emission fluorescent probes and skin-rejuvenating polymers (I still can’t believe they missed the perfect chance for a "Back to the Future" reference there!) most of the people in the steaming-hot 'seminar barn' were probably longing for some rather low-tech electric fans or tempted to make a hand-fan from whatever they found next to them!

Finally, in the last session of the day a debate on how to make the lab run more efficiently could only be quieted by some good ol’ Italian dinner: bruschette (pronounced "bruskette" not "brushette", by the way), pasta and an amazing tiramisu refreshed everyone’s bodies and souls and made us ready to enjoy the night.

It was then time for the famed WattLab Cocktail Competition of which I had heard in several tales, but which was still rather shocking to witness. This year a new challenge was introduced: each team had to pick a "secret ingredient" from a mystery bag that they then had to use in their cocktail. While some teams got away with grenadine or a fruit coulis, some others were less lucky and picked lemon curd or peanut butter (urrghh)! After concocting the cocktails, the teams devised settings to present their cocktails to whoever wanted to try them. The thematic range of these presentations was wild! It went from the Indiana Jones-inspired jungle adventure to the cheerful fairy tale, from the rural countryside barn to three religious-themed presentations (perhaps surprising for a scientific retreat): an Indian temple setting, a more classic – and moderately intimidating – medieval Christian church, and a downright eerie and rather disturbing matriarchal slave sect (true story!). Is there still anyone out there who doubts the creativity of scientists?

After the winners were announced, the night continued with lots of chats, dancing and some more singing before exhaustion took over and people started heading for their beds.

The alarm sounded too early for some of the late-nighters (I may or may not be talking about myself here) and strong coffee was certainly needed before the last sessions of the retreat could start. On the last day we learned how to best face a negotiation process, and how trying to find mutual advantages and having a constructive approach are often the best strategies to get the most out of a deal.

Finally, in an inspiring last session, we talked about how we can be motivated and how we can seek happiness in our work and personal lives, with some useful advice and an interesting reflection on how happiness is something different for each and every one of us. After that, it was time to eat that bit of remaining tiramisu, tidy up and get in the cabs heading for the station.

On our way back, the scenes on the train looked quite similar to the ones on our way out. There were again some chatting, some dreamily looking out of the window at the flowing trees and low hills, and many people with their eyes closed, resting after three intense days of science and fun among colleagues and friends – contemplating, pondering over all of the discussions. In a nutshell, the retreat was truly a brief science-mixed-with-f(s)un getaway!

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