From Bench to Bonding at Graduate Retreat

A group photo is an annual ritual at the student-faculty retreat of the Graduate Programs in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine, headed by William Parks, PhD (far left), professor of Medicine, executive vice chair of research and scientific director of the Women's Guild Lung Institute.

When Cedars-Sinai graduate students and faculty put their heads together, it's not always to peer into microscopes or pipette a fluid. Sometimes they build toy cars, design satirical research posters and compete in scavenger hunts.

Those activities were part of the team-building agenda last month at the annual student-faculty retreat of the Graduate Programs in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine, which also featured plenty of serious science. The annual weekend get-together at a Lake Arrowhead conference center was attended by 31 students and 22 faculty members.

"We know each other's science pretty well, but this gives us the chance to better know each other personally," said Rebecca Paszkiewiez, a fifth-year student who helped coordinate this year's event, as well as the 2015 inaugural retreat. "I really like the bonding between students and principal investigators, and it's fun to compete against them."

A team trouble-shoots an entry in a contest to build toy cars from household items. From left: student Rebecca Paszkiewicz; David Underhill, PhD; Jonathan Kaye, PhD; and student Andrew Beppu.

Founded in 2007, the graduate programs train budding scientists to transform laboratory discoveries into therapies, treatments and cures that directly benefit patients. Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the programs award both doctorates and master's degrees.

The retreat highlighted the intimate nature of the programs, directed by William Parks, PhD, professor of Medicine, executive vice chair of research and scientific director of the Women's Guild Lung Institute.

"We can literally track the progress of every student and know what they're interested in and involved with," Parks said. "That's not possible at really large programs." He described the retreat as "an interactive event that takes place in a relaxed, social environment."

In one cooperative activity, student-faculty teams competed at transforming household items into self-propelled toy cars. The items included straws, rubber bands, compact discs and mousetraps. The winning team consisted of Lali Medina-Kauwe, PhD, professor of Biomedical Sciences; Celine Riera, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences; and graduate students Anja Brown, Mecca Madany and Seeun Oh.

Other light-hearted activities included a scavenger hunt, in which students tried to procure listed items from unwitting faculty, and the creation of scientific-looking posters to support unscientific-sounding statements such as "bathing in hot chocolate results in premature death" and "designer babies will make the world better."

While silliness was on the weekend schedule, serious subjects were a mainstay. With an eye toward sparking collaborations, speakers at an evening session described their skill sets, areas of interest and instrumentation that they're seeking to enhance their research projects. Another session was devoted to reading and summarizing research papers.

Fourth-year student Tom Thomas, who helped organize the first retreat, characterized the gathering as "a safe space to talk about ways to make the programs better and ways to grow the programs."

Kenneth Bernstein, MD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and director of the Experimental Pathology Division in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, gave the retreat a thumbs up.

"It really builds camaraderie and gives everyone a chance to better know and understand each other," Bernstein said. "The first year, people weren't sure what the retreat was all about. Now, everyone looks forward to it."