Moving out of our building in Mill Hill means the end of some long standing traditions and an opportunity for a little bit of nostalgia. A few weeks ago we had our last ‘Friday Talk’. These have been a long running fixture for all the cell and developmental biologists at Mill Hill and I’m sure all those that took part will remember them with great fondness.
Friday Talks were started more than 25 years ago by Peter Rigby who was then one of a group of young developmental biologists at NIMR. The late 1980s and early 1990s were an exciting time in developmental biology. Molecular biology and developmental genetic techniques were converging and being applied to the big questions in embryology. Rapid progress was being made. Gene functions were being identified and molecular mechanisms unraveled. Peter wanted a forum to discuss the latest results and encourage the exchange of ideas. He initiated an internal seminar series in which two researchers gave 30-minute talks each week to discuss their most recent work. He decided that these should be at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon so that discussions could continue in the institute bar – handily located just outside the seminar room – after the seminar hour had passed. This arrangement ensured a lively and interactive atmosphere. And the Friday Talks were born.
The format, timing and culture of Friday Talks has continued uninterrupted since Peter’s time. It has been a great opportunity to hear about work in progress, often long before it’s published. Over the years, results and ideas that subsequently became key concepts had their first airing in a Friday Talk. Some of these are now chapters in developmental biology textbooks: work from Rosa Beddington on the organiser function of Anterior Visceral Endoderm; studies deciphering the molecular mechanism of sex determination by Robin Lovell-Badge and colleagues; and Robb Krumlauf’s labs work on the regulation of Hox genes, all got talked about in Friday talks before being published in journals. I can also think of more recent talks, some of them about work yet to be published, that I expect will also make its way into the textbooks and developmental biology courses of the future.
New ideas are questioned, discussed and refined in these seminars. The culture of discussion and openness that Peter and colleagues established is key to the success of these seminars. The audience is always eager to ask challenging questions. Presenters know sloppy thinking or half-baked ideas will be found out, but the atmosphere is supportive and encouraging. The breadth of knowledge in the audience allows connections between new results and existing or ongoing work to be made. This all makes for excellent training and many of the students and post-docs that have presented in the Friday Talks have gone on to establish their own successful labs. But it’s not only the presenters that benefit – it has also offered a great way to gain confidence in asking questions and discussing science. I always enjoy seeing a student ask their first question or raise a point that everyone else has missed.
Sharing results with colleagues, learning about the latest techniques and finding inspiration, directly or indirectly, from new results is at the heart of research. Having a critical mass of individuals with common interests, and an interactive environment, is the real strength of an institute. As we move into the Crick we are re-establishing but rejigging the seminar series. Just as the early 1990s saw major changes in developmental biology, I think the field is undergoing another revolution today that incorporates developments in stem cell biology, tissue engineering and systems biology. Reflecting this there will be new participants from the CRUK groups and there will of course be a new venue for the talks. But we’ve managed to keep the same time slot – last thing on a Friday afternoon. And the importance of the post-seminar discussion remains. So the discussions will continue, but now in the bars and pubs of Kings Cross.