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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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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Meet the Team – The EMBL Event Survival Kit

The external training programme runs close to 30 conferences and over 60 courses per year, as well as running the EMBL visitor programme. Serving so many scientists mean there are a few things we need to help get us through the year!

Head of External Scientic Training & Head of Course and Conference Office
WHISKEY – To calm the nerves

Jürgen DekaGeoffrey Barnett
Jürgen & Geoff

A blend of German intensity and British stoutness, the Head of External Scientic Training (Jürgen Deka) and the Head of the Course and Conference Office (Geoff Barnett) perfectly complement each other with their dignified and slightly nutty characteristics. With a subtle malty aroma, they are a balanced mix of dryness and spice. Best enjoyed diluted and in small doses, this smooth duo ensures that the external training team consistently performs as a top notch, blended team.

External Scientific Courses & Visitor Programme
VITAMINS – To optimise performance


Yvonne, Elisabeth & Claudia

These essential minerals are vital to keeping our external training programme running and healthy. The 100% natural, maximum-strength team work well together to produce an optimised result, with all carrying out their diverse biochemical functions. Fine to consume on a daily basis, however be sure to do so in small amounts to prevent toxic reactions. They are a convenient cure all for all training related problems, with proven premium-quality side-effects.

Courses Team
CHOCOLATE – To keep up the energy levels


Maryann, Christina & Maria

Chocolate doesn’t ask silly questions, chocolate understands. It is always there when you need it. The Courses team are the quality chocolate production line when it comes to running great scientific courses. Rich and satisfying, this delightfully sweet team owes its success to the relentless and uncompromising pursuit of excellence, constantly aiming to please. Although at times bitter sweet, it is easy to become addicted to these premium beings – you are guaranteed to keep coming back for more!

Conferences Team
COFFEE – To stay awake after the conference parties


Tim, Nathalie, Lisa, Lea, Inna & George

The unmistakable aroma of this fragrant team is what makes the conference team unique. Carefully selected, they are roasted to perfection in order to keep you going from conference registration to the closing remarks. According to chemistry, coffee is a solution, and that is certainly true in the case of this earthy yet spicy group. Although there may be some fake, instant coffees out there who are intent on taking shortcuts, at EMBL we have the real thing, and guarantee that we have created the perfect brew for a successful conference.

Marketing Team
CHAMPAGNE – Because who needs an excuse to celebrate?


Julie, Nicola, Krasimira, Carolina & Assol

Focused and bold, the marketing crew make up a very strong team with a truly distinct sparkle of genuine creativity and freshness. Dazzling character that slowly develops along with the organisation of an event, embarking on the endeavours of analysing, proofing, advertising, as well as the subtle capturing of sponsors. Quite youthful, bubbling a myriad number of new and innovative ideas.

Administration
CAKE – To bring some sweetness to the team


Anna & Kathy

The perfect accompaniment to a hard day in the office. Perfect in design, bursting with a broad mix of flavours and characteristics, there is an option for everyone depending on their requirements. Often crisp on the outside but fluffy in the middle, these angelic cakes are devilishly good at what they do. Everyone has their favourite – whether zesty or wholesome, this perfectly presented, irresistible duo help everyone make it through their daily grind!

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