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The Black Hole

Laboratory “retreats” – strategies for young group leaders

Taking time out to ask why we do what we do in the way that we do it is really important.


My scientific training took place in two stages, both of which were based in reasonably big research groups (~15-25 members). Both of my supervisors bought into the idea of carving out space for “bigger picture thinking” across their research groups, in the form of retreats. For me, these were some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of my scientific training – a real chance to ask the big questions and try to devise approaches to go after them. So, naturally, when I started a research group two years ago, I was eager to replicate this culture.

The best retreat moments had discussions between experts in one area and those in another to get each other up to speed on what seemed to be decades worth of reading. The result: new ideas and approaches to outstanding questions in the broader field. Some of the best research studies I was involved in were seeded at these retreats and discussion was primarily driven by senior postdocs and staff scientists who had been in the field for what seemed like forever. Their new ideas were fact checked or challenged by others in the group and it was a great place to learn. But these were big research groups with people from all stages, and it turns out that new group leaders don’t have that luxury… we don’t have senior people to drive discussion. So, how do young group leaders make a successful retreat? Trial and error?

That’s pretty much what I started with and in the first two years, I’ve run three retreat-style meetings (each different in scope/scale) to try and hone in on the best approach, although I am certain there is still a lot to learn and things will consistently evolve. Some aspects are hopefully useful to share with other new group leaders considering their own lab retreats. First I will summarize the pros/cons of the three events and follow with some lessons learned:

Retreat 1 – hopped on a plane, left the country for 3 days

  • Pro: Properly “away” from the lab, bonded over meals, socials, activities, etc.
  • Con: Not everyone could join and lab members had to help offset expenses

Retreat 2 – a “mini-retreat” of just my group, 1 day, local college

  • Pro: Everyone came, more practical, less big picture
  • Con: Not away from the lab and no social/bonding

Retreat 3 – hybrid model – local, 2 days, 1 work, 1 social

  • Pro: Everyone came, big picture, open ended
  • Con: Not residential, more difficult to bond

Not all formats work for all people

First and foremost, we had to figure out a style that would work for multiple personality types. Experience from my previous labs helped here, and all three retreats sported a mix of big group settings and smaller breakout groups of three to four so that people could have more time to engage/contribute (the latter was good as well for hearing all voices in the lab). In one case, there was a fair amount of pre-retreat preparation and in another there was virtually no guidance. In the end, it seemed that some opportunity to think beforehand was welcomed.

Addressing the seniority issue

In order to combat the lack of senior people in my new group, I employed several tactics. First, I joined forces with the lab next door (another young group leader in a similar field) to at least have her and I as independent sources of experience in the field (and to fact check each other). However, this still left an “us” and “them” gap with no senior postdocs to challenge the dogma spouted by the group leaders. The second approach therefore was to invite along some postdoctoral fellows from neighbouring labs also in related areas and whose group we collaborated with. Together this created an effective mix of people so the knowledge base was broad enough and deep enough.

Giving people ownership over their project

One of the most important things a young scientist can have is a passion for making their project work, no matter what it takes. Sometimes this means long hours, other times it means awkward hours (hands up if you’ve been in the lab at 4 a.m. …), and other times it simply means trying something that you’re not very good at and failing several times before mastering it. The important thing is that you invest because the project is your baby – you invest because its success is your success. For this to occur, students and postdocs need to feel like it is their project – they need to help conceive the idea, they need to carry out the experiments and they need to drive it forward. All too often, students and postdocs are simply carrying out experiments for the sake of appearing productive. Retreats are great for this and there needs to be space provided for each student and postdoc to think about their project and decide between approaches as to which one will best answer their research question(s) – these aren’t things that are decided overnight, so protecting time for this is crucial.

Letting ideas blossom

The importance of having idea generators in your lab cannot be emphasized enough, and cultivating that culture in a research group is hard when the pressure is clearly on producing data (and papers) rather than producing novel research. Moreover, from the group leader’s perspective – you’ll sometimes feel like your ideas (from retreats, meetings, etc) were taken from you, but I fear that this is something one must get used to since it represents a large part of your job as a lab head… and besides, you probably (unknowingly…) picked up your former boss’ idea and ran with it during your own training.

At the end of the day, it still feels like the experimental phase is underway and we’re trying to create a system as a lab that works for us. Taking time out to ask why we do what we do in the way that we do it is really important and critical questioning of these systems and approaches will hopefully steer us clear of major disasters!

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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