Memories of a lab retreat in Southern Spain

(Mood: Inspired)

The days are getting darker, lights and candles appear a little bit everywhere, and our moods are swinging as Christmas approaches: experiments to finish, gatherings with friends to arrange, presents to be chosen. I find myself wishing I were still in the beginning of November, when the whole lab travelled to Spain for a lab retreat under the sun. It was another of those grey November days in Stockholm. Meeting point: Arlanda Airport. This time we were not going to a conference but a lab retreat to celebrate 5 years since our PI started his lab. In about 4 hours we would meet our Helsinki colleagues (from the other half of the Katajisto lab) in Southern Spain for an exciting 3-day lab retreat in Alicante.

We were all very excited! Our boss was paying us to leave all our experiments to travel together to a warm destination where we could all have fun together (and discuss some science too). We had the right ingredients: 20 crazy scientists, a big villa in the outskirts of Alicante with a large courtyard, swimming pool and other entertainment facilities, a diverse program with scientific seminars in a cozy lounge in the basement, a grant proposal competition based on silly keyword combinations, sightseeing opportunities and karaoke evenings. Sounds promising!

So what is a lab retreat, you might wonder? It consists in a group trip with the goal of promoting interactions within the team in a neutral environment, getting to know more about our colleagues and their projects, and engaging in discussions that probably would not happen if we would be focused on our experiments like in every regular week. In our group, this is also an opportunity to strengthen interactions with those who work at Helsinki University, the other part of our lab, in addition to our remote discussions and meetings over Skype or Slack.

Our villa for the lab retreat

Time for inspiration

As we settled in our Spanish villa, our boss set the tone with an inspirational talk where he shared his experience on how it was to setup a lab, from an empty room, to a lab with one PhD student and one lab manager, to a slightly bigger group that could still fit in his dining room table for social gatherings. He shared with us that, as a new PI, he would have plenty of time to go look for his students in the lab and spend hours discussing their projects individually. What exciting times it sounded like! By then, everything seemed possible, funding was in place, and there was still no pressure to publish. Today, the Helsinki lab (the first branch) has grown to 14 members and the social interactions are a little less frequent, with a little more stress and pressure to finish theses and manuscripts. In the mean time, the KI branch started in 2016 with fresh ideas and a smaller group, mostly constituted by international post-docs, eager to integrate and make friends in a foreign country as well as developing new exciting research projects. Our KI lab is not independent but, instead, has been built on additional projects connected to the ongoing research in Helsinki. As a result, we all feel like a big family, always trying to overcome the natural communication issues to grow strong. We have evolved to a mature lab today whose research projects reflect our enormous diversity of skillsets, covering most of the aspects affecting adult stem cell functions in ageing. We now face an exciting but also critical period of proving our value in the field by publishing papers. We all felt touched by the gratitude expressed by our boss, thanking us for being there, especially in the harder times when his personal life required him to be absent. And we felt inspired and proud to be part of a group led by such a caring and enthusiastic leader, with a great vision and ambition to always do the best science in the best way.


Time for scientific discussions

Team-building activity – drawing each other’s portraits

After a relaxed breakfast under the sun, the scientific day arrived with seminars by some of the PhD students and post-docs where we informally and enthusiastically discussed long-term research plans. Perhaps it was the U-shaped sofa and the lounge-like setting that made most people so comfortable to give feedback to other people’s ideas, which triggered more and more discussion in every subsequent talk. Hopefully this will be something to continue doing in our weekly lab meetings! This science-packed day was not complete without a quick team-building activity where we drew portraits of our colleagues in teams. This was super fun and a great way to make people chat and laugh a bit about one’s drawing skills as well as realizing how others see us (maybe a little bit in an abstract way!). Today, we have a portrait exhibition in the lab, which reminds us of the fun times we spent in Alicante.

Time for reflection

Since we were all together in one place, we also took some time for a team-reflection activity. I provided everyone in advance 3 questions to reflect upon: (1) what we like the most in our lab, (2) what we should improve and (3) what each one commits to do in order to make them a better team member. People had time to think and leave comments on a virtual white board, which we projected and discussed there. It was clear that we all like our lab very much; we find we have a great boss and great people and a lot of freedom to explore what we are interested in. It was also highlighted that we are a group where people are excited about their research and enjoy discussing with others. However, it was pointed that we could have more social events, we should improve our communication with others and tidiness in the lab, and that we should collaborate more. Indeed, there is always room for improvement even when we feel our lab is very good. It was interesting to see also that the individual commitments focused a lot on communication, interactions, collaboration, respect and being on time for meetings. Hopefully these thoughts will make a difference towards the constant improvement of our team. I strongly recommend you to try this in your group and see what comes out of it!



Alicante 3 pics
Sightseeing in Alicante

Time for sightseeing!

Well, we love science but once in Spain, it would be a crime not to stroll around under the November sun! After a whole day of hard work, we enjoyed some sightseeing in sunny Alicante. A nice local guide took us for a walk around the big marble promenade facing the sea and beautiful narrow streets going up towards the castle while she told us about the tough times that the city went through during the world wars and long Spanish civil war. The city was destroyed and rebuilt many times until the tourists arrived and helped developing it to the lively touristic destination to where many Scandinavians escape from the cold and dark winters, just like we did. We had time for group pictures, relaxed chats, walks by the beach, ice cream, shopping and starting to realize this amazing trip was almost over.

Alicante beach

Time for competition and fun

Being the competitive (in a healthy way) group we are, we could not end this retreat without a real competition. After having received from the boss a set of keywords that not necessarily fit together, (e.g. my group got epigenetics, adhesion and Bollywood) we had to prepare a grant proposal based on them and present it to the group. The best 3 got prizes. My group was able to put up a project to test how a Bollywood dancing program is able to prevent ageing via epigenetic mechanisms, which loosen organ cell adhesion. We got the 3rdprize, probably thanks to our skills that made everyone laugh and move! After plenty of drinks and karaoke performances, it was time to return to Scandinavia, feeling even prouder to be part of the Katajisto lab.


And now that I got recharged with some imaginary sun after sharing this story, let me start another pre-Christmas working week.

Enjoy our calendar and leave us your comments!

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