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Focus on interdisciplinary skills at EMBL

A conversation with Dr Jürgen Deka, Head of External Scientific Training at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)

The EMBL Course and Conference Programme is the product of more than 40 years of excellence in scientific research and training at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Every year, as many as 8,000 researchers attend courses and conferences at EMBL’s six sites across Europe, to develop their skills in the life sciences. Topics range from developmental and cell biology, to structural biology and bioinformatics. Jürgen Deka is the Head of External Scientific Training at EMBL and his team is responsible for delivering the Course and Conference Programme.

What are the main goals of the EMBL Course and Conference Programme?

We offer an exciting and diverse range of courses and conferences covering pioneering research and the development of valuable skills for the life sciences. Our courses and conferences are open to all researchers, particularly those at an early career stage. We aim to share the very best of EMBL with the research community, and to stimulate new science by bringing researchers together from a broad range of disciplines.

What is special about your programme?

Our programme is largely based on the research of EMBL scientists, making it unique. We offer training on topics like neuroepigenetics, the epitranscriptome or non-neuronal optogenetics. On the organisational level we emphasize 1:1 discussions and close interactions between participants and speakers or instructors. We use an array of networking tools like meet-the-speaker sessions, speed networking, or pre-conference meetings for PhD students and postdocs. We highly value face-to-face training. Our courses and conferences are led by the best scientists and technology specialists working in each subject, including several Nobel laureates. We run events seamlessly, with every detail arranged, so that our participants can focus on their learning and engage with subject experts. In addition, we meet practical needs via offerings such as on-site childcare, a meditation room, and delicious locally sourced food.

How accessible is your programme?

Our training is open to all. We have a wide range of funding options for our participants and work closely with external funding bodies to facilitate this. We offer subsidised childcare at most of our conferences, and we cover travel costs and waive registration fees for approximately 450 attendees every year. This opens up our programme to researchers from across the globe. In tandem with our on-site programme, we offer webinars and online training modules, allowing scientists to learn from wherever they are in the world. In 2018 we introduced remote access to some courses using avatar robots, which allows home-based researchers to interact with everyone on the course.

Which key scientific skills will your 2020 courses focus on?

Many recent breakthroughs have resulted from interdisciplinary projects, so we try to support our participants in building collaboration skills. Some of our 2020 courses will bring together diverse groups of researchers — an illustrative example is our new workshop ‘Design thinking: approaches for chronic disease management’, where molecular biologists will work with graduates in business and law to develop interdisciplinary solutions for long-term healthcare. We help participants formulate and address tangible research questions and extract as much detail as possible from their data. Almost all of our courses focus on state-of-the-art technologies, and include training on dealing efficiently with the data generated, as well as on recognizing the limitations of these technologies. There is also an increasing need to promote science communication, and we need scientists who can also explain their research to their peers, the media and the public. We provide speaking opportunities for young researchers through flash talk sessions, poster sessions, and our many networking events.

How can attending an EMBL event help with career development?

Networking is the pivot around which our programme revolves. We provide our participants with a forum to interact with other researchers, speakers and journal editors during our events. We also use collaboration tools that allow delegates to communicate with each other even after they return home. Over 65% of our delegates have said they acquired useful career contacts or formed new collaborations, 40% state they have gone on to achieve success in grant applications thanks to knowledge and skills developed on our courses, and 25% of our participants say that the skills they learnt on an EMBL course helped them get a promotion.

What does the future hold for EMBL training?

We’re expanding our programme to focus on the impacts of climate change, including topics such as population dynamics and species diversity, and biological approaches towards ecosystem preservation and restoration. Other pertinent issues include personalized medicine and the uses of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the life sciences. EMBL is building a new imaging centre at its main laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. Therefore, we will be developing new training courses on high-level image analysis and expanding our offering of cryo-EM training, too.