Retreat to Cirencester

It can be difficult to forge a strong research community when everyone works in disparate groups on distinct problems and in different labs. To get round this problem, this year the WTCHG held a retreat for post-doctoral researchers over two days in June. Feedback from the event has been very positive, and it is likely to become a fixture in the Centre’s calendar.

To make the process truly immersive, the participants stayed overnight at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester. The college’s Cotswold stone buildings and the rolling countryside nearby provided a suitable contrast to the modern Old Road Campus, while it also provided everything needed for an intensive two days of talks and activities.

The event was organised by a team of volunteers: Roberto Amato, Mohammad Bahar, Liz Batty, Jonathan Elegheert, Olga Platonova and Jenny Shelton, and with support from Sue Wilson. The idea was to mix academic talks with activities designed to throw participants together in constructive ways, with opportunities to relax together over coffee or in the bar.

Team-building to speed-dating

The first day opened with talks from Chris Spencer and Claire Palles, after which events took a more active turn. Organised into teams, the participants competed in vigorous outdoor games designed to foster cooperation and teamwork. Barely had they drawn breath than they were back indoors for a frenetic bout of ‘scientific speed-dating’, exchanging their research ideas with fellow participants in rigidly-policed two-minute slots. Fortunately the rest of the evening was dedicated to dinner and free time.

The next day five more of the participants (Kyle Gaulton, Katherine Plant, Gavin Band, Daniela Moralli and Jonathan Elegheert) gave short talks on their research, with question-and-answer sessions afterwards. A talk on public engagement presented by Georgina Ferry, a science writer currently advising WTCHG on communications activities, included a team-based exercise for the participants helping them to focus on the audience, topic and medium that might form the basis of a public engagement activity. The event ended with a keynote lecture from Mark Sheehan, Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) Ethics Fellow at the Ethox Centre, on ethical aspects of biomedical research.

Vote of confidence

Just under half of the 40 participants responded to a request to contribute to a survey evaluating the success and usefulness of the retreat. Most of their responses were enthusiastically positive, all but two of the respondents saying that they thought it would be beneficial in encouraging more collaboration within the Centre. One commented that the most enjoyable aspect of the retreat was: ‘the opportunity to interact with colleagues within the building whom I would otherwise probably never get to know. I believe the retreat helped make the department a slightly friendlier place.

Participants gave particularly high marks to the location, the team-building games (‘a great ice-breaker, gave everyone something to talk about, encouraged collaboration as much as competition’), the post-doc talks and the public engagement session (‘very informative and inspirational, provided a really good overview’). Less popular was the scientific speed dating (‘much more "quality" and less "quantity" overall would have been better’).

All appreciated the hard work of the organisers: ‘A big thank you to the organizing team for having done a fantastic job. Exceeded all reasonable expectations and many unreasonable ones as well!’