Departmental retreats: academia with a twist of karaoke

The Departmental Retreat is a well-known beast for many of us. Some dread the faculty talks, the forced mingling, or the tepid poster sessions. Others secretly look forward to the student-organized entertainment (usually consisting of games where professors are embarrassed) or the free (though not always tasty) food. Some retreats are sleepy affairs, others are downright vicious “best-in-show” contests. If you’re (un)lucky, faculty have a little too much to drink, and much debauchery ensues. The one I’m writing about is actually a mix of all of these: faculty research talks, interminable poster sessions, volleyball on the beach, mostly amusing student entertainment, and a much hyped up karaoke competition which requires that most people be at least slightly inebriated.

Two years ago, my lab put in a much-lauded effort, singing an epic “We Are The Nerds” (to “We Are The World”), complete with solos and Bruce Springsteen/Diana Ross impressions by my advisor. The song referenced the fact that we were the sole completely dry (read: bioinformatics-oriented) lab in the department. Of course we also had a very fancy PowerPoint presentation to go along with it. Here are the first few verses:

There comes a time… when we heed a certain call,
When the geeks must come together as one.
Model organisms are dying, so it’s time to write some code…
In Perl, the greatest language of all*.

We can’t go on… pipetting day by day,
’cause someone, somewhere, should automate.
We are all a part of the informatics community,
And the truth, you know data’s all we need!

We are the nerds! We don’t do lab work.
We are the ones who make a better BLAST, so let’s start scripting.
There’s a choice we’re making – we’re leaving truth behind,
It’s true we’ll cluster anything = BIOLOGY**.

….

(Full lyrics)

* Perl was mentioned mostly because we figured it would be the most recognizable to our audience. Our lab actually prefers Python.
** This is a tongue-in-cheek jab at our own profession, which at times can be over-run by [insert latest informatics fad here], seemingly at the expense of “real science”, at least to outsiders. Also, it’s not too hard to make data say what you want it to say, but I think we share this dubious talent with statisticians.

We had more good-natured jabs at experimentalists (who can’t wear sandals in lab) as well as data visualization (which can be used to pretty up mediocre data – [ahem, joke]), and even a line in Hebrew for the Israeli contingent of our lab, but we also had people who could actually sing, which I think impressed the judges. Competition was stiff, though, with labs going all the way with sparkly costumes (the male PI dressed as Tina Turner complete with miniskirt, stilettos, and wig!), props (a cardboard cutout of waves, beach gear, surf board, and water), and choreographed dances (my favorite – The Recombination Dance showing the process of meiosis, performed during the instrumental interlude in “Short Skirt Long Jacket” by Cake).

Despite all that, I think my lab was leading the pack – until the top prize was given to, of course, the incoming class of students. Everyone agrees we were robbed. Last year there was no karaoke contest for some reason, maybe because we’d raised the bar too high?

Well, that time of year came around again and I just got back from what was probably my last retreat with this department (knock on wood). The karaoke contest was back, and it’s quite possible the bar was raised even higher, though not just by my lab. The same lab that had done Tina Turner two years ago came this year with more sparkly costumes and with two of them dressed up as C.elegans. How do you dress up like C.elegans? – Good question. Believe me, they got creative. Imagine a hula hoop around your neck and a cup on your head and then drape yourself from head to toe with stretchy grey cloth. But I have to give them props for coming up with those costumes, complete with “eggs” (balloons with candy inside) that they would push out of openings in the front. Their song was also quite good, with a detailed slideshow and lyrics changed from “Sweet Caroline” to “Sweet Worm of Mine”.

Another notable group was a lab that did a great medley of songs, including “Satisfaction” (“Supervision”), “Somewhere out there”, and “The Brady Bunch” (“The ____ Lab”). And even the most hardened hearts in the room were misty-eyed after the romantic tale of “Aiptasia and the Yeast”.

We knew the stakes were high this year and mediocrity wasn’t going to cut it. But what could we do in 2 hours that would compete with what the other labs had spent weeks organizing? In the end, we chose one of the most ambitious songs possible: Bohemian Rhapsody. And even though there was no official judging this year and no prizes, we definitely impressed the crowd again. What can I say? Informaticians’ got talent!

Informatician Rhapsody

(me) Is this the real life? Is it just fantasy?
Stuck at the lab bench, no escape from reality…
Open my eyes, results are still far from me…
There must be more than this to graduate school
(all) because it’s easy come, hard to go, publishing is super slow.
(me) Any way the gel goes, doesn’t really matter for me…
for me…

(female labmate) [PI’s name], just killed a job,
Want results, got bugs instead, pulled the plug and now it’s dead!
(me) [PI’s name], school has just begun,
And I’m ready to throw my code away!
(male labmate) Grad school…. oooOOOooo…
I just want free food,
If I’m not here I’m just “working from home” -
Carry on, carry on.
(all) Bioinformatics…

(female labmate) Hooray! My jobs are done!
Sends shivers down my spine, since when does the code run fine?
(me) 9 to 5 ’til the weekend, then it’s time to go,
I can leave it all behind until Monday!
(male labmate) Informatics…. oooOOOooo…
I just want free food,
If I’m not here I’m just “working from home”…

[musical interlude – air guitar]

(female labmate) I see a little simulated RNA
(all) Optimize! Optimize! Til you get the best structure,
Clustering and tightening, very very frightening, ee!

(PI in high-pitched voice) Gregor Mendel!
(male labmate in deep voice) Gregor Mendel!
(PI) Gregor Mendel!
(male labmate) Gregor Mendel!
(both) Gregor Mendel Andy Fire! (me) Got the Nobel (all) -el -el el

(post-doc) I’m just a post-doc, nobody loves me
(all) He’s just a post-doc with a poor Ph.D.,
Save this poor man from his futility!

(male labmate) Easy come, hard to go, will you let me go?
(PI) Cheap labor, no! I will not let you go
(all) Let him go!
(PI) More papers, I will not let you go
(all) Let him go!
(PI) More papers, I will not let you go
(all) Let him go!
(PI) I will not let you go
(all) Let him go!
(PI) I will not let you go
(all) Let me go oh oh oh no no no no no no no

(me) My committee, my committee, my committee, let me go!
(all) The ___________ Lab really loves the Genetics retreat…. retreat…..
reTREAT!!!!

[musical interlude with headbanging and air guitar]

(all) Yes we’re hoping to win karaoke tonight!
We don’t plan ahead ’cause our algorithms are tight!
….right? …. maybe.
That depends on the experts,
that’s why we love, that’s why we love the retreat!

[musical interlude – headbanging fades into group swaying]

(me) Does it really matter? Sometimes it’s hard to see…
But informatics really matters…

(grad students) I can’t wait to get my Ph.D…..

[musical denouement]

(PI whispers) No more broken windows….*
(closing gong)

* apparently a window was broken in the dinner room one night but they don’t know who did it

I don’t deny that I have a soft spot for cheesy karaoke. It’s definitely going to be what I miss most about these retreats!

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