Why is it so hard to come up with a big idea and a way to test it? What if you could choose any idea in any system, then plan an experiment unlimited by funds or manpower? What is your best idea? What are the most important questions in evolutionary biology? What new tools or approaches might help you solve one of them? How important it is to learn to think carefully before picking up a pipette or a butterfly net, or buying a plane ticket? Could you work with an international team to get to a brilliant project?
What questions to ask is so neglected in our teaching and learning. We learn concepts and tools, facts and history. But how do we learn to cut the newest edge? Obviously you need to know the field, its history, and the promise of new techniques, but you also need to learn to be creative. This perhaps more than anything is learned by doing. Perhaps no one does it better than the brilliant course offered to early graduate students from around the world in Guarda Switzerland by Sebastian Bonhoeffer and Dieter Ebert, along with a changing cast of visiting professors.
Imagine brainstorming with a group of four or five other students high in a high Alpine village. The other students come from universities in nine countries with even more nationalities among them. English is the language they use. How will group dynamics work? Can you come up with a better project in a group than you could alone? I hope so, but at the very least, science is all about convincing others of the adequacy of your approach and the importance of your methods.
This course has some unique elements. Teams of four or five work all week on their project. They turn in written versions three times, Tuesday at 11, Thursday at 4, and at the end, Friday at 2. At the last time they also give a talk on their project. They get written and oral comments from the 4 faculty members on the first two written drafts. We expect their responses to these to impact and improve the final approach.
But more than these written stages are daily personal visits by the faculty where they can ask any questions, or we can interject as they discuss on their own. Imagine brainstorming with your own group of young grad students interspersed with these expert visits, resources for any question, though of course there is nothing to say the experts will agree with each other.
Oh, did I mention this is literature free work, with the internet not allowed. What can you do just thinking hard and talking, not getting canalized into other people’s ideas, as Dieter would say.
Interactions are not only formal. The students live and cook in four different houses in groups separate from their project groups. We mixed them in all possible ways, gender, nationality, background, university. The groups also invited a faculty member for dinner each night.
Besides interacting with the students, the faculty gave armchair talks, beginning with their academic history, then moving to describing some of their research without any visual aids.
Though the faculty talks were at 9pm, we somehow found the energy to go to the private bar a hotelier opened just for us on an honor system, Parsepan.
I hope the students have learned to love science, to have an appreciation for the intricacies of designing experiments that answer interesting questions. I hope they didn’t get too frustrated with their most recalcitrant team members, and that overall they have a whole international community for their next decades of research, and feel it all began in Guarda, thanks to Sebastian Bonhoeffer and Dieter Ebert, and to the visionary Steve Stearns who started the course decades ago. With this course I hope this group can convince Sebastian that their proposals are both interesting and feasible.