Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, September 18, 2015

Biological Sciences Retreat

Science & Celebration at the Annual Elizabeth Jones Retreat

Each year, as students returning to Oakland signals the end of summer, the Department of Biological Sciences prepares to converge in the Laurel Highlands at the Hidden Valley Resort for the Elizabeth Jones Retreat. The 2015 retreat was expertly organized by Dr. David Hackney. This year’s attendees included 25 faculty, 46 Ph.D. students, and 4 post-doctoral researchers in addition to researchers at the MBIC. As in past years, the meeting served as an interdisciplinary, intradepartmental conference, as well as a welcome to new students and faculty members. In addition to the first-year class of Ph.D. students, other first-time attendees included new faculty members Dr. Claire Cheetham (Assistant Research Professor), Dr. Andreas Pfenning (starting Fall 2016 in the Computational Biology Department), Dr. Huajin Wang (Special Faculty), as well as visiting professors from Allegheny Health Network’s Institute of Cellular Therapeutics: Dr. Rita Bottino, Dr. Yong Fan, and Dr. Nick Giannoukakis.

The retreat was organized around a series of short seminars presented by students and faculty, which showcased the most recent scientific advancements and future research directions of each participating group. The breadth of the department was reflected in the diversity of the talks, which encompassed many fields such as neuroscience, microbiology, molecular modeling, and immunology. The retreat opened with graduate student, Amanda Willard, presenting an overview of the recent work and technology development in the Gittis lab aimed at understanding Parkinson’s disease in a mouse model. Other speakers were veteran members of the department, including Dr. John Woolford and Dr. Bob Murphy, who both offered insights into the continued scientific development of their established research groups. An underlying theme addressed in many of the talks was the shift towards new ways of thinking about scientific problems, which was exemplified by Dr. Russell Schwartz’s challenge to the department to incorporate more computational tools into research and data analysis. The talks were complemented with a poster session on Saturday evening that allowed for one-on-one discussions of graduate student-driven projects.

As in past years, the retreat included time for both work and play, with plenty of opportunities for attendees to bond over shared meals and recreation. Although unrelenting rain clouds dampened the grounds of resort, the weather did not prevent the much-anticipated Saturday evening bonfire. Additionally, the second-year class, having gained a year’s worth of wisdom, entertained the crowd with a self-produced, short film (see below) poking fun at expectations vs. reality of grad student life, which (hopefully) did not frighten the first year students too much!

Events such as the annual Elizabeth Jones Retreat bring together the Department of Biological Sciences much like a reunion brings together a family. As with any good reunion, the attendees took time to reflect and remember those who had come before and helped to build the department. A touching tribute to the former department head and namesake of the retreat, the late Dr. Elizabeth Jones, was delivered by current department head, Dr. Aaron Mitchell, as part of the final session. The retreat proved to be an excellent experience for all in attendance, with scientific and interpersonal connections strengthened among all members of the department. 

By Karen Kormuth, Ph.D. candidate 

"Expectation vs. Reality of Graduate Students" - Video skit presented at the retreat, starring and produced by the second-year Ph.D. students (Rolando Cuevas, Dan Ackerman, Surya Aggarwal, Stephanie Biedka, Mengshen Chen, Ian Fucci, Jimmy Khor, Amber Lucas, Alan Shteyman, Elena Shuvaeva, Nat Williams, and Andrew Wolff)

Photos from the retreat can be viewed on the department's Flickr page here.