Not long after I found out I had been accepted to the Guarda Evolutionary Biology Workshop, I was at the airport waiting for my flight to Basel. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Switzerland. In my mind, I had images of beautiful snow topped mountains and lots of wildflowers (and, of course, amazing chocolate). I was certainly not disappointed. Even in my exhausted state (it seemed like a good idea to head to the cinema to see Jurassic World before my 4.30am airport trip!) I couldn’t help but be awed by the incredible scenery, particularly by Lake Zurich. On the train, I also met a few people headed to the workshop, which was a nice way to start the trip.
After our scenic train journey, we arrived in Guarda to be greeted by some of the course faculty. We were dropped off at our houses for the week (there were 6-8 people sharing a house) and allowed some time to get acquainted with our new housemates. One thing that will always stick with me about Guarda is how interesting the houses in the village are. Each one is completely different – different colour, different shape, a different number of rooms- but it all works to create a unique and quaint little village atmosphere, much like one would expect to find in The Alps.
On our first night, we headed to the faculty house for our first meeting. Here, we were introduced to the faculty: Dieter Ebert, Sebastian Bonhoeffer, Richard Lenski and Rosemary and Peter Grant. This was also the beginning of the “Armchair Lecture” series, which was definitely one of the highlights of the course. Each of the faculty members would take a night to sit down and informally discuss their life and work- no slides, no flip charts, no internet, just directly from their mind. This “no frills” approach was soon apparent as a strong theme of the Guarda workshop. These talks were very engaging and had a personal feel as they gave an insight into not only the researcher’s work but to their life as a whole.
Building a relationship with the faculty was something that was strongly encouraged. Each house would host a different faculty member for dinner each night, allowing us to chat with them about anything at all in a small group setting. One topic that seemed to arise frequently was that of sexism in science (no doubt fuelled by the Tim Hunt scandal which had just occurred).
We were assigned to groups to begin work on our grant writing skills. Group assignment was based on what we had identified as our broad areas of scientific interest. The challenge for the week: Create a proposal for a research project. This is something that researchers can take months to do … and we had to start from scratch! It really challenged how I thought about approaching science and reinforced how important it is to think logically and critically.
Throughout the week (we worked in our groups from 9am-12pm then 3pm-6pm each day) faculty members would visit. Sometimes they would just listen to our conversation, especially if we were in the middle of a heated discussion. Most times they would offer advice, this would prove very useful as often it would feel like we had the best idea in the world and then we would suddenly hit a brick wall! They also helped focus our efforts and ensure our projects were making sense from an outsider’s point of view. I don’t know whether it was the lack of internet or the isolated surroundings of the Alps, but writing the grant became an almost all-consuming task. I genuinely began to care for the grant as though my scientific career depended on it!
On our (well deserved) day off, some of us chose to go to the Swiss National Park. It was simply breathtaking and a great chance to put grant writing to the back of our minds and just enjoy our surroundings. It was also nice to hang out with the other students without any pressure. We saw a lot of wildlife: mainly marmots but also a few deer and what we believed to be an eagle. We were also fortunate enough to get some lovely weather (it rained every other day!).
After our break, it was time to polish off our final draft and prepare for our presentation. Watching the presentations on the final day was a real highlight, as so many different projects were proposed and tackled from so many different angles. Everyone had truly excelled under the pressure, no doubt motivated by the BBQ celebrations prepared for the evening.
Working as a team pushed me as an individual. I was encouraged to think, properly think: No books, no google. Cut off from all internet, scientific journals and books, I was forced to use the scientific logic and reasoning that I’d developed throughout my undergrad and few months of PhD studies. It really seems like something we, as scientists, should try to do more often as it was in these conditions that some of the greatest scientific theories were postulated (Darwin had no access to Wikipedia!).
All in all, I would recommend this course to anyone who is currently enrolled as a PhD student or thinking of that pathway. Facts are necessary to be a scientist, no doubt, but what makes a great scientist is the ability to think about the scientific process, really probe into a subject and think about why a question should be asked and how we go about finding answers. These are critical aspects of developing a research project and this course really homes in on tackling those issues. The course is intense but the grant (and your team) become quickly very important to you and the idyllic scenery, alongside that feeling of “being away from it all”, is an added bonus.