After a long lockdown, Whitehead Institute community comes together
For many years, nearly the entire staff of Whitehead Institute has travelled to Waterville Valley, New Hampshire every fall to share their science and bond as a community. Trainees frequently cite the Annual Retreat as one of their favorite experiences at Whitehead Institute, an invaluable opportunity to exchange ideas, spark collaborations, and celebrate the innovative science being done in their labs. Sadly, in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic made it necessary to hold the retreat virtually. However, in 2021, with a high percentage of the community vaccinated, Whitehead Institute Director Ruth Lehmann felt that the benefits of bringing the community together in person were worth the challenge of figuring out a way to safely convene.
“There’s no substitute for the experience of gathering in person and sharing ideas to strengthen our community and our science,” Lehmann says. “I am just so impressed by our community’s ability to adapt quickly to overcome the challenges of Covid-19 in order to make the retreat happen.”
Because the usual extended stay in Waterville Valley was deemed too risky, retreat organizers had to find an alternative venue. They landed on one close to home: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Kresge Auditorium, a venue large enough to allow social distancing of attendees during talks. To keep the event safe, all participants were required to wear masks, be vaccinated against Covid-19, and submit a recent negative Covid test. With these precautions in place, and thanks to herculean organizational efforts by administrative staff, the majority of the Whitehead Institute community—approximately 300 people—assembled together in person for the first time in more than eighteen months.
Whitehead Institute staff were joined at the retreat by, among others, Whitehead Institute Board of Directors members Susan Whitehead, Susan Hockfield, and Robert Satcher; Scientific Advisory Board members Dan Littman and Geraldine Seydoux, and Director of The Koch Institute at MIT Matthew Vander Heiden.
Opening talks by Lehmann and Board of Directors Chair Sarah Williamson kicked off two days full of rich discussions, during both the formal sessions as well as the many informal conversations that the retreat so crucially fosters.
Over the course of the retreat, representatives from each lab presented a talk on the lab’s current research, followed by a brief Q&A. Many more trainees, as well as members of Whitehead Institute’s Core Facilities, shared their research in poster sessions. Sessions were split around a lunch break, during which much of the community could be found eating together outside, enjoying each other’s company and the early autumn weather.
Trainees take center stage
This year, many of the scientific talks were given by trainees, rather than faculty. Trainees say that this chance to share their projects and receive feedback from the wider community was hugely valuable.
“My favorite part was hearing trainees speak about their own work in front of the whole Institute. Their pride and passion pours through, and I find it very compelling,” says Gavin Schlissel, a postdoc in Pulin Li’s lab. “Everything worked better in person than it did remotely—there's just an energy that you can feel when someone is excited about sharing their work. Also, now when I see my fellow trainees around the building or around town, I know a lot more about them than I did before, so it's definitely helped me meet more of my peers.”
A number of trainees began their tenure at Whitehead Institute during the Covid-19 lockdown, such as those in labs that joined the Institute during that time. For many, the retreat was their first chance to really engage with the larger community.
“I made a poster and it was the first time I talked to people in the broader Whitehead community about what I’m up to,” says Zeb Levine, a postdoc in Jonathan Weissman’s lab. “It was very much an excellent opportunity to get some feedback while I’m early in a project, integrate it, and think about potential collaborations and directions that I can take things.”
“I just moved with the lab to Cambridge this year, so this was my first time hearing about everyone's projects and all the amazing science being done at Whitehead Institute,” says Mariyah Saiduddin, a graduate student in Ruth Lehmann’s lab who presented at the retreat. “It made a huge difference that it was in-person even if it wasn't at its usual location. People are so much more engaged and able to connect when they're physically standing across from each other.”
Outside perspectives spark internal conversations
In addition to the internal scientific talks, each day of the retreat featured a keynote talk from an invited speaker. Friday’s speaker was Linda Griffith, Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering Director, Center for Gynepathology Research, MIT. Griffith spoke about her work engineering better models of human tissues and multi-tissue systems, and her research on endometriosis, an underdiagnosed and understudied disorder of the uterus.
“I have been collaborating with Professor Griffith for three years and every time she presents her work, I am always amazed by the technology she has been developing with her trainees in the lab and her collaborators all over the world,” says Alessandra Dall'Agnese, a postdoc in Richard Young’s lab. “Her discoveries are bringing significant improvements in the way we study human physiology and disease and how we perform drug discovery.”
Saturday’s speaker, who presented virtually, was David Asai, Senior Director for Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Asai spoke about reframing how we approach diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts as institutions and individuals. He then opened the floor for discussion, and engaged Whitehead trainees in a variety of conversations on the challenges of making science a more inclusive and welcoming place for everyone.
“I thought having David Asai talk about diversity and inclusion was a very necessary addition to the retreat's program, since it started a conversation that the community sorely needed,” Saiduddin says. “It was really great to hear perspectives from different members of the Whitehead community on their experiences, and their hopes for the future. I hope we can continue to have these discussions in the future.”
Celebrating our community
As per Annual Retreat tradition, the Institute took the occasion to present awards to some of its trainees, intended to recognize their outstanding research or educational outreach efforts and support their future endeavors. This year, the Abraham J. Siegel Fellowship Award went to Alexandra P. Navarro, a graduate student in Iain Cheeseman’s lab. The Margaret and Herman Sokol Postdoctoral Awards went to Liguo Zhang, a postdoc in Rudolf Jaenisch’s lab, and Maria Mikedis, a senior research associate in David Page’s lab. Finally, the Harvey Lodish Service Award, for exemplary science outreach, was presented to three members of the Cheeseman lab, postdocs Ally Nguyen and Mary Jane Tsang Mui Ching and research technician Brittania Moodie, largely in honor of the work they have done bringing science education to middle school students through Whitehead Institute's summer science program, Expedition: Bio.
After the final talk was given, Lehmann took the stage to share her appreciation of seeing the Whitehead Institute community all together after such a long time apart, and her hope that this would mark a return to more time spent together. As attendees left the auditorium, they were welcomed by the sight of a gorgeous rainbow arcing across the sky, as if Cambridge, too, were celebrating the promise of sunny days visible through the clouds.
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