7 tips to successfully deliver wet-lab-based training courses

Are you planning a wet-lab-based training course but don’t know where to start? There are so many things that could go wrong! After 6 years as a training lab manager at EMBL,  I have seen it all. Here are some tips that could save you time, nerves and wasted lab consumables.

Our final meeting with the organisers and trainers of the EMBO Practical Course: Humanized Mice, to go over the finishing touches of the lab practicals. PHOTO: EMBL Events

1. Identify your main contacts

Whilst the course organisers are the experts with regards to subject and course content, they are often very busy and trying to get hold of them can be a difficult task. Most of the time they will appoint an experienced colleague in their lab to help with the more practical and logistical aspects of organising the course. These people are the key players for my job – it is generally with them that I organise the practical set-up, because they know exactly what is needed, and when.

2. Timing is everything

Trainers are always surprised by how much longer people need in the lab for things they are doing for the first time. From my experience participants need twice as long in the lab as people who do the experiment regularly. So have this in mind when planning the schedule for a course. If possible, perform dry runs to get a better feeling of how long some experiments really take, and then double that time.

3. Back up, Back up, Back up

Not every experiment that we run during a course will be successful, but it is not the end of the world if you have prepared some back-up samples. The course days are already long enough – nobody wants to miss dinner to repeat a failed experiment, and troubleshooting is also a valuable lesson for the participants.

4. Everything clear?

Giving clear, coherent instructions is one of those things that sounds easy to do but in real life can actually be more complex, especially in a course setting. Some trainers don´t feel comfortable raising their voices to get everyone’s attention, meaning they have to repeat every single thing over and over again, which can cost valuable time.

5. Having good relationships to the main lab

You can plan a practical down to the smallest detail, but someone might still forget to tell you things like, “Oh, your incubator is actually too small to fit the instrument in there!” or “Oops! All my cells died over the weekend!”

In these situations it is key to have a good knowledge about who is doing what in the main lab and is willing and able to help out. Luckily my cheerful personality and baking skills have saved the one or other practical!

6. P p p poker face, p p poker face

As much as I love to have everything planned ahead of time, often this is not the reality when planning courses. Instructors often travel from abroad, and by the time they have arrived on-site, there are so many things that could go wrong. I refer to the first couple of days before the course starts as the “headless chicken mode”. But thanks to the experience and skill of our trainers, we always manage to overcome any difficulties that arise and are able to deliver our courses professionally – and the participants aren’t affected in the slightest!

7. Always be prepared for the unexpected

“It was working fine until this morning!”- This is one of the sentences nobody wants to hear during a course, but that is just how it is in the lab sometimes, and the training lab is no exception. You need to be a flexible thinker and be able to find a solution so the course can go on. Find a replacement instrument, shift the schedule around until the problem is solved. If there is no quick fix come up with another activity and cover the topic theoretically.

But to be honest in these cases I am so happy that I am doing this job at EMBL— because the EMBL people never let you down.

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: María

We are happy to announce the start of a new series where you will get to know the people who make our events possible. They are extraordinary people who work hard so you can worrilessly enjoy the events you attend at EMBL. They are the superheroes behind the show who keep everything running smoothly, but they are also people like you and me who, after a long day at work, want to put up their feet and enjoy Netflix.

So let’s get started! Meet María Bacadare – course organiser and occasional conference organiser. She is from Venezuela, always has a smile on her face and is constantly running around (seriously María, be careful!).

María Bacadare PHOTO: Carolina Cuadras/EMBL

At EMBL since:
2014 – 2017 EMBL-EBI
2017 – present EMBL Heidelberg

Number of organised events:
2014 – 2017 EMBL- EBI: 38
2017 – present: 32

Favourite place in Heidelberg:

I love to walk around the Philosophenweg as it is very relaxing and you can get a super nice view of Heidelberg from there. My favourite part is the ice cream you can get on the way down at Amami Gelato!

First thing you do before an event starts and first thing you do after it finishes:

On the first day COFFEE! Coffee keeps me going with the running up and down the building to make sure everyone is fine and has found their way to the training labs/auditorium.

Once everyone has left the building the fun part starts with the tidying up of the rooms, taking down the signage and so on to start getting ready for the next meeting… but not before walking the participants/speakers down to the bus to wave goodbye!

If you weren’t an event organiser what would you be?

I would definitely be working at a bank and spending hours on excel sheets.

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened at an event?

The fun never ends in the ATC! We’ve sometimes found ourselves running down the helices or down the hill to get participants to the bus on time. But I think the funniest thing that ever happened on one of my shifts was the time a participant thought he had locked himself in the toilet as the sensor lights went off, and we could hear him screaming for help at the registration desk. We had to calm him down and ask him to wave his arms in the air to activate the lights. He was fine and we were all laughing afterwards.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?

I wish I could fly so I could be home with my family more often.

Favourite recipe:

Arepas! Easy, simple and delicious and not a single Venezuelan can live without them.

Upcoming events in 2020 María is organising: 

EMBL Course: Analysis and Integration of Transcriptome and Proteome Data. 2 – 7 February 2020, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany

EMBO|EMBL Symposium: The Organism and its Environment. 1 – 4 March 2020, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany

EMBO Practical Course: Microbial Metagenomics: A 360º Approach. 20 – 27 April 2020, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany

EMBL Course: Hands-on Flow Cytometry – Learning by Doing! 25 – 29 May 2020, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany

EMBO Practical Course: Molecular Geobiology. 19 – 24 July 2020, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany

EMBL Course: Cryo-Electron Microscopy and 3D Image Processing. 23 – 31 August 2020, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany

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Cooking for EMBL Events

Head of the EMBL Canteen and Cafeteria Michael Hansen (front, in grey) with his dedicated team. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL

Anyone who has ever set foot in the EMBL Canteen is sure to go away wanting more. It’s no coincidence that the canteen has a reputation for serving some of the best food in the Heidelberg area.

So what is their secret?

Head chef Michael Hansen’s team of 29 (23 people in the canteen and 6 in the cafeteria) work tirelessly to cater for over 800 members of staff daily and over 6000 conference and course participants annually. Besides the great dedication of his staff – which involves regular evening and weekend shifts – he places great emphasis on the quality and freshness of the groceries they use.

“We buy our meat, fruit, vegetables, bread and eggs from local suppliers. For us it is important that the groceries have the shortest route so that they are as fresh as possible when they get to us. Our furthest supplier is 90 km away. For food that is not produced in Germany, such as olive oil, we do have to order from abroad, but we do that directly with the producers without going through a distributor.”

Everything is then freshly prepared and cooked before it is served, with close attention paid to nutritional value. This is especially important for the EMBL kindergarten, which caters for over 100 children of staff.

In 2018, the EMBL Canteen cooked for 6430 course and conference participants, and for this purpose used:

  • 32 crates of salad
  • 160 kg onions/garlic (imagine how many tears must have been shed!)
  • 225 kg fish
  • 225 kg potatoes
  • 290 kg meat
  • 803 kg fruit
  • 935 kg vegan/vegetarian dishes
  • 1,607 kg vegetables
  • 1,376,020 l coffee was served

“In the EMBL spirit, the canteen team is truly international, employing people from 12 nations who, despite their differences, have one thing in common – their love for cooking!  One of the reasons I became a cook is because of food’s power to unite people. And here I see this every day. Preparing one meal requires real team work. Everybody gets together and takes one step of the process so that all is done in the most efficient way, but still has great taste.”

Here is one of the canteen’s most popular recipes, named after Thomas Graf, EMBL Alumnus (1983 – 1998) and currently Senior Scientist at the Centre for Genomics Regulation in Barcelona, Spain:

Thomas Graf potatoes

1kg potatoes

100 ml oyster sauce

1 clove of garlic (pressed)

1 tsp honey

Pinch of salt

Black pepper

1 tbsp oil

Wash the potatoes and cut them into wedges without peeling them. Add all the ingredients and mix well. Preheat the oven to 180°C, place the potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for 40 min.


PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL
PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL
PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL
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Fostering friendly collaborations across organisations

Guest blog post by Jürgen Deka, Head of External Scientific Training, EMBL

The International Day of Friendship (annually on 30th July) got me thinking about our friends in the scientific training field, and our collaborations with them which enable us all to deliver our high-level scientific conferences and courses.

It’s important to have a goal to work towards, and at EMBL Events we generally benchmark ourselves against Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Keystone Symposia in the US, and the Wellcome Genome Campus in the UK. A bit of healthy competition is good for the soul, and I think we all thrive on challenges! It allows all four of us to provide top-class training to benefit as many scientists as possible throughout the world, and in this sense we all have the same aim.

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”    

Franklin D. Roosevelt

If you are looking to establish and foster friendly collaborations in scientific training, here are 6 tips that can help you achieve your goal:

  1. Keep in regular contact
  2. Align your goals with each other
  3. Be aware of what the other organisations are doing and talk to them openly so you can adapt your plans accordingly
  4. Don’t arrange meetings with the same audiences too close together. If people are going to attend both meetings – either as speakers, participants or sponsors – there needs to be some space in between
  5. Find ways to work together in order to highlight and complement your strengths
  6. Learn from each other, but don’t try to be like the others – work on developing your own strengths

Here’s how we work with our counterparts to allow us all to offer the best science possible worldwide:

  • Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: With the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory we have very close ties. We alternate one of our most popular conferences with our friends at CSHL, the EMBO Workshop ‘Protein Synthesis and Translational Control’. We align our programme plans in order to provide added value for our scientific community. Discussion and exchange between the programme heads and other members of staff takes place on a regular basis.
  • Keystone Symposia: As with the other research institutes, EMBL’s collaboration with Keystone Symposia is a long-standing one. We exchange our thoughts and ideas and align our conference programmes once per year. Our friends at Keystone Symposia have been particularly open and collaborative with regards to the alignment of their symposia taking place in Europe.
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Creating an oasis for our participants

In the 21st century, it seems like there is always something to do or some place to be, and the constant enhanced stress levels can sometimes reach boiling point. Often it’s the little things that can help make us feel more balanced, and the EMBL Course and Conference Team have been taking steps to make sure our participants leave our events feeling as relaxed as possible.

Yoga / meditation / prayer room

A couple of years ago we set up a spacious room to provide an oasis of peace and quiet during the sometimes loud and hectic conference environment. The room is equipped with comfortable floor mats as well as yoga and prayer mats. The lights are dimmed to ensure a calm, relaxing atmosphere.

Brain food

Spending hours on end listening to fascinating scientific lectures is great, but it requires a lot of concentration! Our coffee and lunch breaks have therefore been adapted to include more healthy snacks and brain food such as fresh blueberries, dark chocolate, nuts, pumpkin and chia seeds, as well as a range of fresh fruit, vegetables and salads.

Environmentally friendly catering

Although we have always been very conscious of being environmentally friendly when it comes to catering for our guests, we are striving to further reduce the amount of single use food and beverage packaging at our events. Our catering team has also significantly increased the number of local produce suppliers who provide us with the delicious food loved by our participants.

Cosy Corner

In order to create a more relaxed atmosphere, a cosy corner was set up in the Advanced Training Centre where participants can sit back, relax and recharge their batteries.

Increased networking opportunities

Because scientific meetings are not just about sitting through lectures, we have a range of networking opportunities to allow our participants to meet fellow scientists, such as speed networking sessions, meet the editor sessions, science slams, gala dinners, conference parties, organised woodland walks and photo booths.

Childcare options

We know that balancing work with family life can be difficult, and as a result EMBL and EMBO are both working to make attending scientific events easier, with EMBL providing onsite childcare at our conferences and symposia in EMBL Heidelberg, and EMBO offering childcare grants to cover the costs of having a child looked after while one or both parents attend an EMBO funded course or conference. More info can be found here.

Help us to continue improving our services to participants – is there something that you’d like to see at our events?! Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

 

 

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