Mindfulness in Science? That’s MENTAL!

(Yes it is, indeed: Happy Mental Health Day, everyone!)

Mindfulness and stress management trainer Sonja Noss, PHOTO: Sonja Noss

Can you believe it? What’s mindfulness got to do with a scientific conference? I am here to discuss excellent science, not to sit there cross-legged in front of a scented candle, to chant mantras or hug my colleagues”.

Fair point, because what you are talking about is not mindfulness. And yet, as a professional mindfulness facilitator working in a scientific high-performance environment, I encounter this type of statement fairly frequently. It used to upset me, now I usually respond with a smile: “Oh that’s not all. When you come in we will shave your head, put you in a yellow robe and hang a handmade flower garland around your neck”. (Which usually kicks off a more reasonable discussion).

Mindfulness? What is that exactly?!

Mindfulness, to me and in a nutshell, is shutting out the background noise of everyday life and focusing on what you would like to focus on – and being fully aware of what you are doing. Put bluntly, the practice of mindfulness entails a lot of sitting on your bottom / lying on your back / walking around and simply “shutting up”. Without being distracted. In fact, it’s very simple, and yet, not at all easy – otherwise it would not be called a PRACTICE.

Why is this relevant in a scientific surrounding?

In my opinion it is essential, since being able to pay and hold your attention on a certain matter practically equals having a superpower at work – or at a conference for that matter, for example during the last session at 8pm, in a lecture room with no natural light. Many would argue that time is the most limited resource in our working days, but I would argue that it is attention – which a myriad of beeping devices, colleagues, social media, new publications, methods and technological developments, as well as the publication of the daily lunch menu are constantly competing for.

In addition to that, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Health Services (UK) mindfulness can also have a variety of other positive effects on practitioners’ mental health, as the below figure shows.

Figure by Sonja Noss

 

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in science, with increasingly frequent articles in magazines like Nature and Science slowly starting to deconstruct the stereotype: the myth of the “Demi-God in White” doesn’t leave much room for suffering an anxiety attack before your PhD defence, for fear of speaking in public (hello, conference presenters!), for depression caused by glum career perspectives, or any other mental-health challenge. Mindfulness, and especially programmes like the well-studied MBSR programme, can make an important contribution to keeping sane in the pressure cooker that modern science has become. I see them as one pillar in mental health prevention, alongside other aspects such as physical exercise, getting enough sleep, a balanced diet, nourishing social interactions/feeling connected, a sense of purpose, as well as personal interests and hobbies (i.e. having FUN!).

Some simple (mindful) examples of what you could start trying to do in the workplace or at conferences if it is all getting a bit much:

  • In general: learn what your personal stress reactions are. How do you even know you are stressed? What are your personal stress symptoms? Do you get easily agitated or frustrated? Do you tend to suffer from headaches more when you are stressed? Do you suffer from insomnia? Attention to these details is the first step – and that’s already mindfulness.
  • As soon as you notice these symptoms – if you can- take a break. This does not have to be a long break. There are fantastic quick focusing and grounding practices such as this one from Prof. Mark Williams (Oxford Mindfulness Center). See if that makes a difference.
  • Move! Get up and take a walk around the block, if only for five minutes! Any wild animal just having sprinted for its life in the jungle will have broken down the stress hormones floating around its body by the physical exercise. As would the creature which has just fought for their lives. What do humans do? We go and sit down at our desks or stand at the bench… Get enough movement, fresh air, light (not in that lecture room, I guess!), and oxygen.
  • Establish a regular mindfulness practice. The easiest way to do this is with the help of an experienced teacher. Maybe you can contact your organisation’s HR Department or the Staff Association and ask for support in having a training on site?
  • If you have been feeling unwell for a long time (weather vs. climate), please seek professional help. Many organisations have options for coaching or therapeutic interventions available. If not, speak to a person you trust and ask them for help in finding a private coach or therapist. Asking for help is often the hardest thing – and you want to be a tough guy/gal/…, right?

I have been teaching mindfulness and stress management at EMBL for over 3 years, and the initiative has been a great success. Once set up and piloted with the support of the Administrative Director and other departments, the 8-week programme quickly made a great entrance into EMBL General Training Programme. It has become one of the organisation’s most popular courses, with sessions running in parallel to meet the demand.

If you are interested in my Coaching services or would like to bring mindfulness to your organisation, get in touch via www.sonjanoss.com.

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New EMBL Course and Conference postcards

We know how much our course and conference participants love the postcards at the registration desk, so we have created a new batch. These will be available from October on for you to take as a souvenir or send to your loved ones. EMBL offers a postal service on-site, so you can even send them right on that day!

A pop-art vision of yeast cells. Design by Petra Riedinger

EMBO Conference Series: Protein Synthesis and Translational Control; Graphics: Petra Riedinger · Image: Marietta Schupp
EMBO Workshop: Imaging Mouse Development; Image: Manuel Eguren/EMBL
EMBO Workshop: Integrating Systems Biology: From Networks to Mechanisms to Models; Graphics: Beata Science Art
EMBL Conference: The Human Microbiome; Graphics: Petra Riedinger
EMBO Conference: Quantitative Principles in Biology; Graphics: EMBL Design Team
EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Organoids: Modelling Organ Development and Disease in 3D Culture; Graphics: Beata Science Art
EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Systems Genetics: From Genomes to Complex Traits; Graphics: EMBO Design Team
EMBO | EMBL Symposium: The Four-Dimensional Genome; Graphics: EMBO Design Team
EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Quality Control – From Molecules to Organelles; Graphics: EMBO Design Team
EMBO Conference Series: Protein Synthesis and Translational Control; Graphics: Petra Riedinger · Image: Marietta Schupp
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How does the environment play a role in biodiversity?

Biodiversity – in all its forms and interactions – is the variety of life on Earth. Climate change is exacerbating biodiversity loss, and vice versa. Ahead of the EMBO | EMBL Symposium ‘The Organism and its Environment’ (1–4 March 2020), we talk to Scientific Organiser and EMBL Director General Edith Heard about the impact the environment has on biodiversity and the role of research in solving global challenges.

Does the environment play a large role in the creation of biological diversity?

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth. This life, in all its shapes and sizes, occurs in the context of ecosystems: it relies on and interacts with other organisms and the physical environment. Biodiversity represents the collective ‘knowledge learned’ by evolving species over millions of years, about how to survive the vastly varying environmental conditions Earth has and is experiencing. These varying environmental conditions cause natural variations in biodiversity, as well as genetic and epigenetic changes, within and between species over time. Today, scientists are trying to understand the basis of these natural variations, as they will allow us to understand how life evolves.

Fish populations have declined at an alarming rate, and half the world’s shallow water coral reefs have been lost in just 30 years.

But biodiversity is also a measure of the health of any ecosystem. Recent trends in biodiversity loss show very clearly that humans are destroying ecosystems on a massive scale. According to the Director General of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), increased pollution, deforestation, climate change and other manmade factors have created a “mind-blowing” crisis. The WWF Living Planet Report 2018 (WWF LPR, 2018) also states that freshwater fish populations have declined by more than 80% on average since 1970 and half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs have been lost in the last 30 years (WWF LPR, 2018). Alongside this, deforestation of tropical rainforests means we are currently losing more than 100 species of plants and animals a day (Holley, 2017). In short, human’s influence on the environment greatly impacts biodiversity and we are currently burning the library of life.

How can you determine the effect of the environment on an organism?

The environment can affect an organism in a multitude of ways. The impact can be transient or longer term; within an individual or across generations. The environment can also lead to molecular, cellular, physiological or behavioural changes. For example, the expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the external environment, such as where the organism develops or factors associated with where it is located. Gene expression could also be influenced by an organism’s internal environment, including hormones or metabolism. Finally, the genome itself – genetic factors that vary between individuals in natural populations – could also influence gene expression.

Research groups at EMBL look at how variety in organisms comes about

Untangling the impact of genetic and environmental variation can be very challenging and for a long time, scientists have tended to focus on minimising variations in the environment in order to understand how changes in genotype affect phenotype. This, alongside the deeply embedded “one genotype = one phenotype” metaphor, has meant that environmentally induced phenotypic variation has been ignored in favour of ‘‘more useful and precise’’ study of genetic polymorphisms. This is despite the fact that from as far back as the early 1900s, scientists have known that the phenotype of an individual depends on the interaction between its genotype and environmental cues! Today, we finally have the power to consider the impact of the environment on phenotype. We can make precise measurements at the molecular, cellular and organism scales in controlled environments that can be varied and we can sequence genomes at the same time.

We can also take human data paired with environmental data – for example in the context of some of EMBL’s research interests such as infectious disease and microbiomes – to understand the quantitative effects of the environment and its influence on human biology. Pioneering projects such as Tara Oceans have also allowed us to research the interactions between organisms and the environment by generating reference data, discovering emergent ecological principles and developing predictions about how ecosystems will be affected by a changing environment. Understanding how organisms exist together and in changing environments is of fundamental importance for our understanding of biological principles and our knowledge of life.

What challenges are currently being faced in this field?

Studying organisms in their environment will become increasingly important.

Understanding the behaviour of individual molecules, cells or whole organisms is already challenging. Understanding how the environment influences an organism – or populations of organisms – represents a whole new scale in complexity. This is an area that I think EMBL could uniquely contribute to in the future. It will be necessary to shift from researching organisms mainly in the laboratory to studying them in their environment. We will also need to ensure the rapid development of technologies and tools to meet these scientific needs. Alongside this, we need new approaches to integrate large, complex data sets and make sense of them. To rise up to this challenge, we need theory. We are now in a unique position to address the dynamics and complexity of living matter across multiple scales and in the context of changing environment. But we need theory to address societal and planetary issues too. We must aim for a rate of scientific discovery that outpaces the rate of calamity such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, epidemics and climate change.

What can be done to prepare for the future with regard to biological diversity, the organism and its environment?

Research, research and more research! Environmental problems such as the hole in the ozone layer or acid rain were solved by sound scientific approaches. We need to learn from these past scientific and societal successes. Today the ever-increasing numbers of new technologies are allowing us to collect, measure and store data at unprecedented scales. We also need to bring ecologists, zoologists, population geneticists and environmental experts together to address these research questions. Together we can apply cutting-edge technology with rigour, attract new scientific talent and disseminate knowledge to global communities.

What inspired you to organise this symposium?

As a geneticist and epigeneticist, I have explored the intersection between genotype and the environment and how that produces a phenotype. From observing many areas of research – ranging from social insects such as bees and ants, to plant vernalisation and variations between identical twins – I felt that the time is ripe to bring together scientists from many different areas. I also wanted this to be a symposium that would attract scientists from different areas to EMBL.

At EMBL, we want to understand the molecular basis of life. Until now, EMBL has been known for exploring genomic, molecular, structural and cell biology at the level of individual organisms. Looking ahead, we want to study organisms in the context of their physical and biological environments not just in isolation. In order to truly understand life on Earth, we need to study organisms in nature, not just in the lab. One way to understand life at the molecular level will be to try to bring relevant ecosystems back to the lab, to measure and perturb them under controlled conditions. The speakers we’ve invited are experts from many different areas of biology or ecology, and will bring exciting new perspectives to our research.

The EMBO|EMBL Symposium: The Organism and its Environment will take place at EMBL Heidelberg, Germany, from 1-4 March 2020

What is the greatest benefit of this symposium for the scientific community?

The symposium is an opportunity to address how organisms are influenced by a changing environment. It will bring together different research disciplines and go beyond pure genetic or ecological perspectives of phenotypic variation. Geneticists, molecular biologists, evolutionary biologists and ecologists do not necessarily meet under ordinary circumstances. This meeting will enable such interactions and cross-fertilisation.

What will be the main highlight of the symposium?

Today we are in a unique position to address the complexity and dynamics of life at multiple scales, from molecules to ecosystems. We also need to consider the idea that change including in the environment is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, without change, evolution could not occur and none of the amazing biodiversity of life on our planet would exist! I hope that a highlight of this symposium will be some wonderful new insights into evolutionary processes.

 

References

Holley D., (2017). General Biology II, Organisms and Ecology. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 898.

World Wildlife Fund, (2018). Living Planet Report: Aiming higher [PDF] https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/ [Accessed 25 July 2019].

https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/

However the WWF DG is quoted by several articles as describing the crisis as mind-blowing, for example: “https://www.voanews.com/science-health/report-earth-has-lost-60-percent-its-wildlife-1970

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We’ve proved it, biologists can also program

“Like punning, programming is a play on words.” Alan J. Perlis.

You don’t have to be a programmer to have programming skills. Writing code is an essential part of being a programmer (duh!), but is also a vital component of being a scientific developer, software developer or computer scientist. You can utilise computer programs to automate tedious and repetitive tasks, extract results from experimental data, apply models to solve your research questions or purely have fun with your own projects.

Today is Programmers’ Day (yay!🥳) and we want to recognise all those who submerge themselves in the deepest mysteries of code (especially their own) and aim to automate the future.

If you’re looking to start venturing into the programming world or embark on your next project, get some inspiration from some scientists who are helping out at our EMBL Events’ courses.

Florian Huber PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL

“What do I love about programming? It allows me to go from zero to one: gaining new biological insights from data.” Florian Huber (Postdoctoral Fellow, at the Typas Group in EMBL Heidelberg and the Beltrao Group at EMBL–EBI in Hinxton).

 

 

 

 

Ullrich Köthe PHOTO: Ullrich Köthe

“Automated image analysis has always been an interesting and fun field of research, but thanks to the deep learning revolution and the wide availability of wonderful neural network libraries, we can now actually solve hard practical problems.” Ullrich Köthe (Group Leader in the Visual Learning Lab Heidelberg).

 

 

Valentyna Zinchenko PHOTO: Carolina Cuadras/EMBL

“Programming skills allow you to automate the routineparts of your job and focus more on the exciting ones. At some moment you just have so much data, that you would not want to process it manually. You would not wash your clothes by hand if you have a washing machine, would you? Then why analyzing your data manually, when you can have it done by a machine as well?” Valentyna Zinchenko (Predoctoral Fellow in the Kreshuk Group).

 

Adrian Wolny PHOTO: Carolina Cuadras/EMBL

“Whenever I build something, be it a new machine learning model or my pet project, I always try to make it easy to understand and generic enough so that other people could use it in their work. I try to open source my projects whenever I can and contribute back to the community. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your little piece of software used by others to find answers to their own research questions.” Adrian Wolny (Visiting Researcher at EMBL and PhD candidate at Heidelberg University).

 

Pavel Baranov PHOTO: Pavel Baranov

“The relationship between computer science and modern biology is akin to that between mathematics and physics.” Pavel Baranov (Professor of Biomolecular Informatics, University College Cork, Ireland)

 

 

 

 

It’s no secret that managing biological data efficiently can be overwhelming and feel impossible. If you’re a biologist who’s interested in learning how to process, analyse, organise and interpret your almost innumerable data sets – preferably with the most suitable and state-of-the-art techniques and tools out there – EMBL Events has got you covered.

EMBL Course: Deep Learning for Image Analysis, Apply by 20 September 2019

EMBL Course: Exploratory Analysis of Biological Data: Data Carpentry, Apply by 5 November 2019

EMBL Course: Analysis and Integration of Transcriptome and Proteome Data, Apply by 10 November 2019

EMBL Course: Immune Profiling of Single Cells, Apply by 10 November 2019

EMBO Practical Course: Microbial Metagenomics: A 360º Approach, Apply by 27 January 2020

EMBO Practical Course: Measuring Translational Dynamics by Ribosome Profiling, Apply by 9 February 2020

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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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