Tuesday, 12 October 2010

"Roche Continents: Arts and Science" - a PhD student's experience

I am very lucky in that I landed in a lab that already has a lot of interest in arts+science, primarily through pHd student Becky Jones, who organises the annual Art of Science contest in the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Science. The competition calls for researchers to submit images from their work that they think have artistic merit, and this year it has widened applications to include postgraduates and staff as well as PhDs.

Becky recently flew to Salzburg to take part in the "Roche Continents: Arts and Science" program which, says Roche, "has been created for students and post-docs aged 20 to 29 from across Europe. Through “Roche Continents” you can experience performances of contemporary music and try to uncover the common ground of creativity in the arts and science." I asked Becky to tell me a bit about the week:

Tania. What made you apply for this workshop? What did you think you might get out of it?

Becky: I wanted to experience a) the working of a pharmaceutical company b) the world of opera c) the fusion of fantastic arts brains with science ones, all things I had no real knowledge of, but a great intrigue and even a slight fear of. I also liked the mystery that there was so little said about what the week would entail and what to expect, so it was blind, exciting. Jetting off to Austria, all expenses paid, to shmooze with artists, it seemed very mysterious and glamorous and a fantastic contrast to the life I was leading as a PhD student

T. What was your first impression when you arrived?

B: There was a kind of dead awkward opulence when I first arrived at the Tourism school in Salzburg for Roche Continents. The first thing I noticed was a small man with a video camera on a tripod filming our arrival, I felt slightly like royalty but also slightly uneasy as to what to expect from this week and the level of intrusion and voyeurism. I quickly got the impression we were there to be worked into a mold for a good Roche employee, whilst also being lured to possible job opportunity by the lavish reception, food, wine, compliments to a credentials etc. But then they were also incredibly generous and thoughtful - the lady organising saw I had a sore throat and gave me a set of throat sweets (Roche brand of course) and told me to look after myself. She had learned all our names and faces by heart (also slightly odd and big brother), but seemed to really care how we were are would do anything for you. I think the awkwardness in hindsight of the proceedings is possibly an Austrian/Swiss thing, the manner is stand-offish but polite and efficient, and as I eased into their way of doing things I felt a lot more comfortable.

T. What was the thing that most surprised you about the whole week?

B: The speed at which everyone relaxed around each other and worked together. After the first day I already felt like I had a group of close friends. There was also a lot of freedom to create whatever you liked during the final project we were set, this made me feel like being back in school which a set of felt pens and paper in hand. Was very open to debate and criticism of Roche and the pharma industry in general. That's something I expected to be shot down, but they were very open and honest about their role in the world for good and bad.

T: What kinds of people were doing the course and what did they seem to
enjoy about it?

B: There were composers, musicologists, fine/interactive arts students, a women who sang opera in The Hague, but the majority were organic chemists, useful for synthesising drugs, of course. There were a few like me who were from a more biological background but we were in the minority among scientists. Everyone who came saw it as an amazing opportunity, many of the artists not quite knowing why Roche wanted to pay for them to come (although it became clear that although there were no jobs on the horizon for them - they could mingle with possible future investors in their concert/exhibits/galleries). The chemists were also there to scout for future jobs and be scouted. I was just there to take it all in.

T. What is the first thing you wanted to tell someone about it when you
got back?

B: "Wow what an amazing time", amazing people, amazing place, amazing hospitality, so many operas, but really great to see them and learn about the process behind the composition. The cost was the main thing I talked about, the investment they had made in us (200 euro opera tickets etc). I also felt very relaxed and confident and had a new lease of life to attack my PhD work.

T. Do you think it has affected the way you do science or the way you see
your scientific future?

B: Yes I am a lot more proud of what I do, but also more certain that the motives that drive brilliant scientists are not what drive me. Those drivers are not learned but innate and so I realise as much a I understand and love my science, it isn't my way of thinking and isn't my passion in the same way that I observed in others on the workshop. It also made me realize you don't have to dedicate yourself to one thing, as I met a girl who did a joint undergraduate course in chemistry whilst studying concert level flute and becoming a professional musician. It has inspired me to go live a life that suits me, that may not be corporate but that will allow me to be passionate about all the things I used to be when I was a child. I saw people there who just wanted a great job with great pay, I saw people who would never jeopardize their integrity or do something they didn't want to be doing. It made me realise, probably against their objectives, that I am probably not cut out to be a research scientist in a pharma company but was very inspired to think about different ways to be creative and inspired by my work.

Thank you, Becky, I have no doubt that you will be!

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