VBC PhD Retreat 2016 Report

This was something I wrote about two months ago. It was meant to be published on the VBC website but it’s been delayed so much I figured I might as well just put it out here. It seems a waste to just forget about it otherwise. I would’ve included some pictures but I’m not sure where my pictures are. When it gets posted on the VBC website there should be some pictures from other people.


A few weeks ago, the merry students of the VBC set off for the 2016 PhD Retreat – two days of science, fun and camaraderie – that was organised by the PhD representatives. This year was my second retreat and the location was the Schloss Hotel Krumbach , just a short distance outside of Vienna. Subsequently, Ines asked me if I would be willing to write a short report on the retreat and what follows are my thoughts. As I was not taking detailed notes, rather than just a run-down of what happened I have chosen to take some main events and expand upon them and how I feel they fit in a larger context.

Experiment 1: A rose by any other name?

The first activity of the retreat was a trivia quiz. However, instead of regular trivia, the quiz consisted of questions about Vienna and the VBC itself. Personally, I prefer a more traditional trivia quiz but it was interesting, although, when I will need to use information like that the GMI’s Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid is tied for having the longest name of a VBC group leader, I do not know.

There was something in the quiz that I found even more interesting, partly because of the reflection of current events in VBC politics and partly because it showed an interesting side of the internal politics. The final question of the quiz asked us to name and design a logo for the new IMBA/GMI coffee point that had only just been opened. That in itself was not unusual but what was strange was that there had already been submissions from the VBC for a name and then a vote from a shortlist. I am not sure what won the vote but it was not accepted as the name.

To me, this seemed remarkably similar to the controversy over Boaty McBoatface where the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council asked the public to vote for a name for a new research ship. The public chose Boaty McBoatface which was then rejected. Perhaps it’s not a big thing but, if that were the case, even stranger not to accept the name. Boaty McBoatface will still be the name of the submersible on the ship but it does seem odd to call for a public vote and then reject those democratic ideals when the outcome is not what you wanted.

More practically, I wonder how no proposal for the IMBA/GMI coffee point was considered acceptable after the vote but before that they were considered good enough to be shortlisted. If there were concerns that the names did not “[reflect] the primary purpose of the place” then surely that would be obvious before a public vote?

Experiment 2: Technology roadshow

The guest speaker for the first day was Dr Helge Torgersen from the Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA). I think it could have been quite an interesting talk as he tried to explain the different things that are taken into account during a technology assessment so that recommendations can be made to governments or other organisations. Unfortunately, the presentation was not as good as it could have been and served to detract from the message somewhat.

Nowadays, with technology affecting every aspect of our lives and issues of technology becoming more and more important, I can only think that technology assessment will become more important. Especially when decisions regarding things like climate change, nuclear, encryption, self-driving cars, genetically modified crops and more are made by politicians who are not trained in the various disciplines and whose decisions are biased by the need to appeal to voters rather than to evidence.

Regarding that, it was quite sad to hear that the ITA is not specifically called on to assist in specific decisions but seemed to more do its own thing. It seems to me to be a waste of what could be a very valuable and useful service.

Experiment 3: The power of drugs without the risks

Drugs have been used by artists and writers for years to enhance creativity but they come with a certain negative stereotype. However, our second speaker, Dr Anna Abraham from Leeds Beckett University, was a psychologist specialising in creativity and shared some tips and thoughts in a very interesting presentation.

This talk had some interesting points about creativity as well as ways of approaching problems. As with many aspects of psychology, I’m not sure quite how reliable it is and there is always disagreement. So Anna encouraged brainstorming as a way to increase creativity with a fairly simple example but perhaps for more complex decisions a “sprint” might be more useful

One of the major points that I took from it was that for creativity to work, both inside and outside of science, it is necessary to have a diversity of backgrounds and views. This is in direct conflict with the concept of hyper specialisation which currently permeates academia, something my previous head of department referred to as academic silos. On a side note, congratulations to him for being awarded the HUGO African prize this year. However, this attitude might slowly change as, as mentioned in the talk, research supports most interdisciplinary research being more highly cited than single discipline research and certain institutions are deliberately working against discipline divisions. I am thinking specifically of OIST, a new Japanese graduate school which has biologists complete a project in a physics lab and vice versa and even lacks departments and other barriers to communication.

The VBC can be proud of the PhD Retreat and the Monday Seminars which do their part to bring together different research groups, although it is still dominated by molecular biology and could perhaps benefit from bringing in other disciplines. I must admit that talks at the retreat, like this one by Anna, have been broader in background and the previous VBC PhD Symposium also brought in some nice diversity, for example by inviting an ecologist.

There are, of course, many other benefits to a broader scientific knowledge base, some of which were covered in the talk but which I don’t have space to go into. Hopefully, we will see a move in this direction in science in general as bringing together different ways of looking at the same question could take us in directions that a single viewpoint would never consider.

Experiment 4: Friends, Austrians, Scientists, lend me your ears.

The PhD Retreat is not all about listening to presentations though; it is an interactive retreat where all the participants present their research through either a three minute talk or a poster presentation. I gave a short talk about one of my projects, forgoing slides and drawings. I think this helped it stand out as most presenters still used PowerPoint slides with a few exceptions that preferred to draw their own illustrations. I was particularly impressed by Georg Michlits who integrated the drawings and talks of previous presenters to help sell his own message.

On the first evening we had the poster session. They often don’t get as much attention as a talk, which is a negative, but, on the other hand, if you do go to a poster and talk to the presenter you can get a much more in-depth understanding of the project. This can take time though so I would recommend only going to the posters that really catch your interest.

All students had the opportunity to vote for the best poster and the best talk. The best talk prize was awarded to Sean Miletic from the Marlovits group at IMBA for his presentation about the Salmonella type III secretion system. I should note that I did come second for the oral presentations and was only beaten by a single vote! The best poster prize was given to a member of selection, Julia Batki from the Brennecke group, also IMBA, for her poster on Piwi-mediated transcriptional gene silencing.


Overall I think the PhD Retreat is a great experience. For new students, it showcases the breath of research that is happening at the VBC and, for older students, it reminds you just what it is that your friends actually do during the day. The other obvious advantage is that not everyone socialises as easily as others and the PhD Retreat forces you interact and meet new people but in a low-stress way. When you know more names and faces at the VBC it helps make the experience better and it means you have more people for help or support when you needed it. Lastly, it is also a great time to just get carried away and discuss science. I look forward to next year’s retreat.


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