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Memories from Retreat by Maria Chiara Masone

If “well begun is half done”, the pouring rain that welcomes our early departure on Monday morning bodes nothing good. But we aren’t used to be daunted that easily, and we make our journey with the authentic spirit of teenagers on a school trip. At our arrival in Paestum, the beautiful location and an embarrassing amount of mozzarella help us to recovery from the tiredness and get us ready for our TIGEM retreat to start.

The head of the Scientific Office, Graciana Diez-Roux, breaks the ice with a great talk that dictates the line of the retreat mood: informal, relaxed and funny. Although we find out soon that “who we are and where are we going” is just about TIGEM and not the start of a free psychoanalysis session, we listen with interest to the story of our institute, its growth over the years in terms of groups, people, topics and resources, and the direction we are taking: a nice discovery for the new TIGEM people, a renewed feeling of being part of something important for all the rest. To pay tribute to the historical city that hosts us, Graciana pulls out some archeological remains dating from the past century: pictures of our “founding fathers” as we never should have seen them. An unedited version of our director and PIs that sheds new light on the whole “when we were working hard in Houston” thing and provides us with interesting blackmailing weapon however, the show must go on and now it’s time to get to the heart of our retreat.

Stuck in the lab every day, the eyes on the bench and our thoughts on the experiments, we risk to lose the focus on equally important aspects of our jobs: some of them very practical, as the intellectual property, clearly explained to us by the Telethon’s head of technology transfer, Annamaria Merico;  some others almost philosophical, that converge to the leading question: “Why are we doing it?”. Rossella Passero answers that question when she tells us how it is to live everyday with Pompe disease, and her bravery make it sounds possible. We can’t hide our emotion and tears when she thanks us all for our work, and we feel we are doing well, that have to keep on going, for Rossella and all those special people who need our help.

The scientific part of the meeting licks off and it will be the main activity for the next two days: a tight schedule of 27 talks divided in six intense sessions, covering all the multiple topics of research at TIGEM. The easiest thing to notice is that retreat is a growth opportunity for everybody: not only for the selected speakers who have the chance to present their work to the whole institute, but also and above all for our senior postdocs, who can contend with new and challenging tasks such chairing their colleagues’ sessions. The hardest job is up to the three organizers Gennaro Gambardella, Leopoldo Staiano and Ivana Trapani, who had to deal with the organization of the whole meeting, from helping to choose location, to the abstract selection and the session division: an exciting and stimulating practice run for their nascent careers. Topics, technologies and research interests are varied and diverse, but one big take home message emerges from the scientific sessions: the quality of research at TIGEM is extremely high, and perfectly competitive with other leading institutes around the world. It’s what we’ve been told several times, but now we can feel it tangibly, thanks to all the speakers that produced high quality data, and presented them in an extremely professional and credible way. 

This full immersion in science has very few but interesting interruptions. One is the illuminating talk by Roberta Villa, MD and journalist, who opens our eyes to the power of scientific communication, that should be as important as producing results, and gives us the right instruments to fight the new wave of disillusion and distrust in science that we have to face in our everyday life. The other break is from Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the Director of Parco Archeologico di Paestum, who gives us a preview of what we are going to see the next day. Yes, because the last day of our journey is dedicated also to a comprehensive guided visit of the Parco. “In this great future, you can’t forget your past”, Bob Marley said, and after two days of full immersion in science, trying to project ourselves in the future, those giants built more than 2000 years ago are there to remind us our roots.

Our thirst of knowledge and culture doesn’t even stop at night. For the first evening attendants can chose between two parallel sessions: “Who will seat on the iron throne?”, a comprehensive reportage with audio and video content, followed by a round table for discussion;  and the workshop “how long can you dance with a glass of wine without spilling it on your colleague’s shirt?”, supported by practical demonstrations. This is just the warm up for the exclusive party of the next evening at Nettuno’s beach club. If this events are supposed to create team building, we proved once again that the TIGEM team is already built and it is stronger than ever. It might have been the relaxed atmosphere, the fantastic location, or the open bar, but we come back with the feeling that along this TIGEM journey, we are cultivating more than our careers.

All good things come to an end, for our livers’ luck, and we come to the closing remarks. The awards for best posters and talks are equally distributed to cover every age and career stage: from the super-young prodigies as Simona Ricciardi, Antonio Grimaldi and Gaetano Viscido, to the established TIGEM talents as Milli Massa, Valerio Benedetti and Leandro Soria. The best group-poster award goes to the Ballabio’s  lab, thanks to the beautiful drawings by Jlenia Monfregola, that we could also appreciate in the accompanying slides along the entire retreat duration. More than a best facility-poster award, the one given to Ciro and Sasà from the “Cucina”, sounds like a lifetime achievement award, as confirmed by the standing ovation from the audience. The organizers are keen to give a special thank to Marica Giovannini for the wonderful job she did with the logistic organization of the meeting.

 

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The closing speech from the Scientific Director Andrea Ballabio reflects TIGEM’s renewed spirit after this retreat: we are proud of what we’ve done so far and the way we are doing it, but we have to work harder and harder on our weaknesses to improve ourselves, and, more than anything else, we shouldn't lose the focus on making discoveries, the starting point and the main goal of our job.

The party is over and we come back to our benches, but the feedback we got, the discussion we had, and the opportunity to cross our colleague along the hall and give them the “I know what you did” look, will stay with us for much longer.