Lab family retreat: building stronger connections (Fung Lay)

As lab-based researchers, we spend so much of our daily waking hours surrounded by people with whom we share work areas, research problems, and our latest findings (good and bad).

We share a lab identity. We are connected. But how well do we actually know our lab colleagues outside of the work sphere? What are their interests? Who are their partners? How much have their kids grown since they last popped in for a visit after a childcare pick up?

In the Hulett and Poon labs, where I’ve been fortunate to work as a postdoc for many years, we make it a point to take time out at the year’s end to reflect and celebrate our collective successes (from grants, conferences, awards, publications to student completions). This could be over lunch (that could span much of the afternoon), a day trip to the zoo (we’ve visited all Victorian attractions by now), or a picnic after a memorable ride on Puffing Billy.

Members of the Hulett and Poon labs. Photo courtesy of Fung Lay.

In 2015, we had an offer by a PhD student who had completed Honours in the lab the year prior (Georgia Atkin-Smith, now a successful postdoc in the lab) to host a camp-out at her family home in Quantong. This started a new tradition of the “lab weekend retreat”. The initial motivation, which still holds true today, was simple: Let’s have fun and get to know each other better.

What are the machinations of pulling something like this off?

It takes research (e.g. where do we go, how much it will cost each person), planning (e.g. what are the sleeping arrangements, what will we do when we get there) and execution (e.g. drivers, shoppers, cooks). Fortunately, these are skills that our group have in spades.

A couple of members will take the lead and do the scouting for the idyllic venue, using those much-practised skills of research by internet. Once decided, the budget for accommodation and food is set (very reasonable for a weekend away and covered by member themselves), and designated shoppers are tasked to do the big shop for the weekend ahead. Topping the shopping list is ensuring there's enough bacon and eggs to cover our breakfasts!

On the Friday of the adventure, most of us invariably gather at work. Downing the pipettes early, we’d proceed to pack the cars with luggage, food and people, before making our way to retreat central for a weekend of R&R and team bonding.

Assignment of duties on-site are generally self-appointed. For myself, I gravitate to the BBQ (where I once put on a spectacular fat-fire show for the team) and cooking the mountains of eggs for breakfasts.

The only agenda for the weekend is to mentally unwind, relax and enjoy just being in the moment.

So, who actually comes to these retreats? The answer is simple – the 'lab family'. This includes lab heads, postdocs, research assistants, graduate researchers and honours students, as well as undergraduate students who volunteer in the lab. Importantly, partners and immediate families are invited, as are lab alumni. Such is the culture of the Hulett and Poon labs that 'once a member of the lab, always a member of the lab family'.

Lab residential retreats - 2015-2018. Image courtesy of Fung Lay.
We’ve been running these retreats for the last four years. Our destinations have included a camping experience, complete with bonfire and marshmallows, at the Atkin-Smith family home (2015), to stays in large single dwellings in Rosebud (2016) and Eildon (2017), to a quaint a set of cottages in Deans Marsh in December 2018.

Such excursions from the norm certainly enrich and support a more holistic side to the whole research team endeavour. The ability to share laughs over beverages and well-cooked home meals with the chance to connect at a more personal and social level, beyond that which may exist at the workplace, are invaluable. The positive flow-on effects for team cohesion, relatability and morale become evident.

For finishing Honours (especially those continuing to PhD) and new members, it reinforces that the lab culture is strong and that support will be there for them in the years ahead. The partners and children also get to know where and with whom their loved ones spend much of their days.

Research is not a short-term pursuit so enjoying where you work, with the people you work with, is key to success and positive outcomes.

So, could you and your group benefit from a retreat (over a day or weekend) to mentally disconnect from the hustle and bustle so that you can recharge and reconnect? It may be the spark that sets your research alight!

Photo courtesy of Fung Lay.

Dr Fung Lay is a lecturer and research supervisor in the Master of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics course and an honorary research fellow in the Hulett lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Genetics at La Trobe University. 

He has had 26 years of continued association with La Trobe University, gaining BSc(Honours) and PhD (molecular biology and protein biochemistry) degrees and extended postdoctoral research years in the laboratories of Professor Marilyn Anderson and Dr Mark Hulett.

In addition to research and teaching, Fung enjoys sports. He is an honorary life member of the La Trobe University Taekwondo Club and an avid dragon boater with the Chinese Youth Society of Melbourne.