A group of 240 scientists, faculty members and students from the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Chicago, including Argonne National Laboratory, came together recently on the UChicago campus to explore a broad range of ideas for joint scientific research and educational programming.
The MBL-UChicago retreat from Feb. 8–10 was the largest joint scientific meeting since the two institutions launched their formal affiliation in July 2013. It sparked excitement and animated discussions among researchers who got to know their colleagues through panel sessions, “lightning talks,” roundtables, chats during breaks and spontaneous side meetings.
“There is so much energy around the affiliation, and intellectual vigor to make it work. It’s wonderful to see the exchange of ideas and exuberance emerge,” said Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy at UChicago.
Shubin, senior advisor to the president and to the vice president for research and national laboratories at UChicago, leads a faculty advisory committee that is charged with fostering scientific collaboration between the two institutions and developing the affiliation through research and education initiatives such as workshops, courses, student fellowships, program seed funding, joint appointments or shared facilities.
The retreat was one step in an ongoing process of discussion and engagement that will result in creating meaningful programs that capitalize on the affiliation’s complementary strengths and have lasting value for their student and research communities, Shubin said. A second retreat will be held in May on the MBL’s campus in Woods Hole, Mass.
Participants said the retreat delivered on the promise of bringing researchers at MBL and UChicago closer together. “The spirit of collaboration is here,” said Zhe-Xi Luo, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at UChicago.
“Where we go from today is up to all of you,” said Jonathan Gitlin, deputy director for research and programs at the MBL, to the many students and postdoctoral scholars at the retreat. “I urge you to take this opportunity—with a brilliant university with limitless intellectual capital and an extraordinary place of discovery like the MBL—and become part of our conversation, drive us forward, change the world.”
The first morning’s program was designed to better familiarize the affiliation partners with each other. MBL President and Director Joan Ruderman gave an overview of the MBL and its three intersecting parts: advanced summer courses, resident research in biological and environmental sciences and visiting research conducted by investigators from a host of universities and institutions worldwide.
“The MBL is one of the few places in the world that provides lab space, housing and other support to a large number of researchers from different universities, to catalyze and enhance scientific collaboration,” Ruderman said. She outlined ways in which students and scientists from the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory can take advantage of new and existing opportunities at MBL.
Shared research values
John W. Boyer, dean of the College at UChicago, described the historical development of the culture of learning at the University, distinguished by its rigorous core undergraduate program, dual faculty appointments between the divisions and the College, a tradition of strong interdisciplinary cooperation among departments and a flexible quarter system to allow time for creative and investigative sabbaticals.
“MBL seems to have a culture of risk taking: if something doesn’t work, try something else. Chicago faculty are also like that,” Boyer said. “They are empowered to follow their noses in research.” The institutions also share core values of interdisciplinary research and collaboration, he said.
The ingredients that power the MBL’s renowned research-immersion courses were the topic of talks by former physiology course co-director Ron Vale of HHMI/University of California, San Francisco, and MBL Director of Education Bill Renzikoff.
“We create an intense, collaborative, interdisciplinary environment in the courses centered around solving real research problems,” Vale said. While publications are not an emphasis or goal of the courses, students often continue to collaborate with faculty on projects started in a course and eventually end up with a research publication, he said. “Many students are literally crying at the end of the summer because they have to leave this special environment that they and the faculty have created to explore the joy of doing science.”
Developing new avenues for growth
Participants discussed undergraduate research and diversity initiatives, and faculty members pitched creative ideas for new courses. Next, five-minute “lightning talks” on current research at the University and the MBL yielded fruitful questions and conversation.
In an effort to capture the growing flood of ideas in the room, Mark Westneat, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at UChicago, encouraged everyone to submit their favorite idea on a Post-It note or via Twitter. These were sorted and posted at an “Idea Mutator” reception in the afternoon.
An illustrated talk on the rich history of collaboration between the MBL and UChicago was given at dinner by Jane Maienschein, the Regent’s, President’s and Parents’ Association Professor at Arizona State University and adjunct senior scientist at the MBL.
The second day of the retreat was devoted to a deeper exploration of how the scientists at the two institutions can collaborate effectively. After a discussion of core shared-use facilities on each campus, the attendees chose thematic roundtables. Enthusiastic conversations began to crystallize as “big ideas” and potential projects, and participants passed on their ideas for consideration by the affiliation’s faculty advisory committee over the next few weeks.
“I have never been to a meeting that was so broad,” said Karl Matlin, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and a member of the retreat planning committee. “We are only two institutions, but it seems like 1+1=1,000 when we come together. That is the beauty of this affiliation.”
Shubin said the ideas from the lightning talks and roundtables showed the affiliation’s immense potential. Now his objective is to keep that conversation going and make the potential real.
“This affiliation is yours,” Shubin said to the gathering. “Your ideas, your teaching, your research programs will define it.”