I recently returned from a weeklong evolutionary biology workshop in Guarda, a small village in the Swiss Alps. Now that I’m back, people are asking, did you learn a lot?
Well, yes. But that’s not exactly the point of the workshop. There’s an “armchair lecture” from a member of the staff every night after dinner, 45 minutes of speaking from the sofa with no powerpoint or visuals. Other than that, the workshop is about how to work together to develop scientific ideas, and it’s about the process of, well, thinking about science. I think that’s an incredibly important thing to work on, every bit as important as sitting in a classroom listening to lectures – if not more important.
And this style of workshop got me really excited about science after a long spring doing a project that really burnt me out in a country where there’s so much paperwork and administration that it’s sometimes hard to focus on research. No internet, no resources? At Guarda, you had to use your head and your logic to think about scientific questions. And it was really fun.
More than that, though, I was incredibly inspired by the people around me. Both the professors and the 26 students made up a very diverse group. It surprised me how much this meant to me since I am in an international masters program with students from all over the world. The whole point of my masters is to bring diversity and provide a wealth of different opportunities in various areas. But in MEME, I am one of the oldest students. With only a few exceptions, most of the students have come straight out of their universities. Yes, the academic experiences we have had are diverse, and the countries we come from are many, but there still seems to be, for the most part, one path towards a career in science: undergraduate, masters, PhD, beyond.
By contrast, look at the picture above. We’re all white, we’re all from Europe and North America. In that sense, not diverse. But these were the people I lived with in a flat for a week and we had an amazing wealth of experience. The photographer, Marie-Eve, is from Quebec. She went to culinary school and worked as a baker for a while. On the left is Lina from Switzerland, the only one to go straight through. Robyn, in the blue shirt, took time off to work some conservation jobs at home in England. Raphi, in black, owned a bar and managed ten employees before returning to science, and also works as a sound engineer for bands at live performances and helps run a music festival. Ewa studied pharmacology and started working at a community pharmacy for a few months before, as she likes to joke, “I knew that if I had to keep standing there handing out aspirin pills I would kill myself.” Instead, she’s now doing a PhD trying to find better model organisms with which to study the complex mental health diseases that appear in humans and have no analogs on which to test causes and treatments.
Then there’s me.
Spending a week with these people was like a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief at the same time. They were all so passionate about their research areas, and also just lot of fun to be with. One of the professors had studied music before becoming a computational biologist, and is an amazing cello player who was having a concert the day after the workshop ended. In Guarda, nobody judged you for not taking the straight path to a PhD. Instead, they appreciated what additional insight these life experiences might have brought you, or the fact that you must have returned to science because you were really motivated – after all, it would maybe have been easier to keep being a pharmacist, a bar owner, a baker…. a ski journalist…
So we worked hard on our projects all day, trying to reason our way through tough questions and find model organisms for our projects. We bashed heads, agreed to sorta-agree, moved on to the next step, started over again. It was exhausting. At lunch we would slink back to our flats for lunch and then head out into the mountains for the rest of the break, breathing in the cool alpine air and letting the endless diversity of floral shapes and colors inspire us some more.
The first lunch break was amazing. We still barely knew each other, but here we were, wandering around this paradise. It took me about five minutes the next morning to run the same distance that we made it up the trail that first lunchtime, because we spent so much time stopping and taking pictures. All around us was so much splendor, it was hard to keep moving.
Usually I think of hiking or walking as an opportunity to go some significant distance; I want to get exercise, and I take in the views at the pace of a run or walk. But I had absolutely no problem wandering off into a meadow and realizing 20 minutes later that I had barely moved.
Nevertheless, the next day we were determined to cover more ground, see more sights. We walked past the meadow that had diverted us the day before and climbed steeply up through the trees. It was sort of hard going, especially with the altitude, but the reward was that after not so much distance, we were already high above the village. We found a small pond and lingered for a few minutes. In one corner there was a nursery of tadpoles and we enjoyed watching them swim around frantically until the water seemed to be boiling every time a shadow passed over the water.
That day we did cover more ground. But there was a healthy dose of botanizing and naturalist-talk too. One of the things that was so fun about hiking with these other students was that so many knew something about plants or animals. There were birders and botanists. I was behind the curve trying to translate my knowledge of Rocky Mountain flora to Europe; sometimes I’d recognize a genus or a plant that looked to similar to something in Crested Butte that I would swear it must be the same species.
But few people were complete experts on alpine flora and fauna. Instead, they brought hefty volumes of Flora Helvetica and we would all gather round, peering over each other’s shoulders as we identify that purple orchid in the boggy part of the meadow. We’d see a beetle or a frog or a butterfly (or a dead mouse in the trail) and the default response was, how cool!
Curiosity was the theme of the week. That, and making the most of these new friendships that we had for the week – no internet to distract us, no e-mail to the outside world, just enjoying each other’s company on adventures both intellectual and alpine.