What happens when the microbiologists and immunologists of the Stanford University School of Medicine come together for three days at Chaminade in Santa Cruz?- A whole lot of cutting-edge science, as expected, but also a nine event Olympic-themed competition including mouth pipetting races, and plenty of sharing. That was the case at last week’s Microbiology and Immunology (M&I) Departmental Retreat.
The data talks were great and filled the house for all three days. The one-talk-per-lab policy highlighted the diversity of the department; a diversity that fosters open discussion of unpublished data and an eagerness to collaborate. However, the real value added of the M&I retreat was in the opportunity to interact with the other members of the department and form those networks that lead to the collaborations that produce the impressive science. John Boothroyd, an M&I professor, identified this in his opening address when he encouraged everyone to step outside their comfort zones, separate from the known, and embrace the unknown at lunch, during coffee breaks, and in the hallways.
Any tension that may have remained in the air was shattered at dinner the first night when an interview of another M&I professor, David Relman, included stories of treating bad trips, bioterrorism consultations, and being asked to define the line between “good” and “bad” experiments. During a series of breakout sessions we were encouraged to follow David’s example and share our passions outside of science and, in the spirit of developing networks, share our scientific problems and ask for helped. Based on the assistance requested, bioinformaticians must be outrageously popular. Everyone needs help handling and mining their data. Hopefully in the next decade, after campaigns like “Hour of Code”, science will not stall as scientist queue at programmers’ doors.
The last night addressed the dark cloud over the retreat, the shrinking academic job prospects for scientists. A career panel of Jonathan Jones, a management consultant at Genentech; Elizabeth Joyce, full time teaching assistant professor at UC San Francisco; Elizabeth Ponder, representing non-profits and a university research manager at UC Berkeley; and Gus Zeiner, a researcher at Agilent, answered questions on transitioning out of academia. They were open and honest and brought a ray of sunshine through that dark cloud. The academic scientist has opportunities off the tenure track!
Dr. Relman said it best, “Be thankful we are in a wonderful profession,” and that profession can offer the world if we step outside our comfort zone.