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Networking in mass spectrometry: the more you learn, the less you think you know

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Topic: Science  |  Series: My Journey to PhD
Dubrovnik as seen from the top, Courtesy of Anne Lisa :-)Dubrovnik is a wonderful place! Finally we can confirm that. Finally, after several months of listening to fabulous comments on this Croatian city, all made by our boss every now and then. He visited Dubrovnik couple of times during the past years, the purpose of his visit being always the same: the summer school on Mass Spectrometry in Biotechnology and Medicine. Its seventh edition took place this year and it was my greatest pleasure to participate on it.

Honestly, I could not wait to get to Dubrovnik. My last scientific travelling was done back in February and I really felt like spending some time in a group of science-geeks. Moreover, I had not seen sea for several years (not counting the Dutch sea I run along in the Lowlands), and I was really excited to plunge myself into the fabulous blue Adriatic.

The preparation for the travelling included not only buying several items such as sunglasses and sun lotion (you do not need those very often in Holland, indeed), but especially preparation of an abstract, poster and couple of slides for a short presentation of my project. I kind of expected to be ready with that within one or two days, but in the end I spent the whole week with the poster content & design arrangements. Each participant of the summer school was asked to sum up the scientific work that (s)he was working on. No breakthrough-type results were required, the idea was more about making the others familiar with one’s research. My poster was based on two of my current projects aimed at mass spectrometry imaging of certain lipid classes in very distinct regions of mouse brain. We are working with mouse models that were knockout on a particular gene, thus lacking a certain protein. These knockouts result in lipids accumulation within the mouse brain and are manifested either as a hyperreactivity of brain neurons and epileptic seizures, or as abnormal cramping effects in the mice.

Hence, after a week or so of serious preparations, I finally took the plane via Dubrovnik together with two of my colleagues from AMOLF. We reached Croatia on Saturday night. During waiting on our baggage at the airport, we managed to get acquainted with another summer school participant; the representative sign as is typical for these occasions: a tube with poster. The day did not end by reaching the dormitory since our boss was hanging out with some other teachers, and we were keen on joining them and having beers together.

The summer school was opened in Sunday late afternoon, so we took advantage of the free half a day and set off to the beach on the island of Lokrum. Later on that day, all the participants and teachers gathered in the lecture room for the plenary lecture and welcome talk followed by a banquet in the courtyard. The plenary lecture was about doping control in sport. I managed to talk to the lecturer shortly after that. It was more than clear that our opinions are in a superposition (we really did not discuss Peter Sagan’s fabulous spurt of TdF from the previous day). Later I went to meet the other students. I really love the process of meeting new people with whom you are about to spend some time; the initial careful introduction which gradually proceeds to the feeling of having good friends.

The week was very intensive not only what regards the learning part but also the socializing events. There were two sets of lectures interrupted with a longer lunch break and shorter coffee breaks planned every day. (Except Wednesday, when we had a free day on the beach, enjoying the sun and playing volleyball - with peacock cheerleaders.) Next to the didactic lectures on all different aspects of mass spectrometry, it was also the participants, who were presenting their research in the form of short talks. In the free time, we were also supposed to work on several mass spectrometry related assignments.

Social events usually followed after the whole day of a learning programme. They included lot of good seafood and drinksWe had an excelent opportunity to get to know each other a bit better, to consult our research, scientific plans, and to discuss other various things both, science related or science-free. Sometimes we managed to have vigorous debates on for instance protein fragmentation patterns at midnight on the beach. I enjoyed talking to people who were working in slightly different scientific environment. I realized that even if I understand everything from my research field (which is unfortunately far from being true), I will never be able to encompass knowledge also from all the others. So once again, one could see how necessary is to build the scientific bridges and networks.

I actually expected to leave the school with this feeling "Yeah, now I know really everything about mass spectrometry." However, my feelings were sadly just quite opposite. On one hand, I learned a lot of new stuff (also about myself), and I understand some other better than before. But participation on the school also gave arise to plethora of new questions in my head. So in the end I have an exclusive feeling that I know nothing. Which is in the end no groundbreaking finding at all :-)

Nevertheless, as implied already, the school was not only about learning about FTMS or about spectra interpretation. Building and strengthening the scientific network was another important aspect. And from that point of view, we all did a very good job! I will never forget an advice which I received last year on the MSI conference in Spain: "The best science always begins with a glass of wine after dinner." (Umm, for those who know, the advice-givers were Liam and Garry. Which is probably not very surprising either.) At the beginning of my PhD I tended to get to bed always early enough to be ready for the next set of lectures during a conference. I saw the lectures as the most important part of the meetings. However, thanks to the mentioned advice I am now fully aware that creating a strong net of contacts within and also beyond your field is equally, maybe even more, important than the knowledge itself.

To wrap this up, I met a bunch of great people in Dubrovnik, and had a really great time with them. All that gained knowledge on mass spectrometry is a pleasant bonus on top of that. We managed to plan a new project and other promising co-operations are emerging. I feel urgent need to thank to the organizers for having such a great idea, to all the teachers for being there for our questions, to all the students for making me feel I am not alone lost in the maze of science sometimes, and basically to all of you guys for making my life again a bit better.

And what to say in the very end? Well, if any of the next year lecturers needs a personal assistant in Dubrovnik, just let me know. I will be ready! For now, however, my introvert spirit needs to recover from the extravert shock. At least for some time. :-)


P.S. I would additionally like to thank to the girl Slavic crew, and especially to Magda, the source of a significant peace increase in my PhD student soul. As well as David for the same.

P.P.S. Comments on photos.  
I stayed with Anne couple of days later after the school and we managed to participate on the “kayak adventure”. Ehm, it was a bit ridiculous. But as we agreed, team building is necessary.

Please, share your photos if you like (I would especially welcome some lectures pics… 

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