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Retreating to Ocean Isle

Joe Maciag

Joe Maciag
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When you think of Italy you may conjure up images of fine wines, food hearty enough to suppress the most insatiable appetite or natural beauty only a poet could describe, but I think of a birthplace. The birthplace of an annual learning and bonding experience dubbed the Clark Lab Retreat. I know the name lacks the flavor of Italy, but we are scientists after all. It all started on what I can assume was a warm night on a Tuscan hillside. Drs. Clay Clark and Sarah MacKenzie were attending the Gordon Conference on Cell Death in Barga, Italy. (You can read the blog here.) During a conversation between the two, the Clark Lab Retreat was born.

Ocean Isle, North Carolina isn’t the first place you would think of as a conventional location for a lab meeting but it was quite the contrary.

Before we arrived….. there were a few hitches. It all started when we arrived at Dr. Mackenzie’s house around noon to find a 15 passenger van with no trunk space. Nothing. So how do we travel with three days worth of food for eleven people? Brawn. Brawn mixed with years of Tetris experience is how one solves this problem. It took three of the Clark lab men to detach one of the three passenger back seats and then kick it as hard as possible out of the back door. Ok, maybe more brawn than Tetris, but you get the point. So we are all loaded up and about two and a half hours down the road when we hit traffic. I could almost smell the ocean air. “Traffic will not be so bad,” I tell myself, but it starts to feel like an eternity when you have the three biggest members of the lab sharing a back seat. Luckily, those were really the only dilemmas we faced the whole trip.

Upon arriving at our two-story beach house we claimed rooms, had a delicious dinner, and prepared for the first night of meetings. Friday was my day to present, and I started a little after seven and fielded questions until I could not remember what my project was even about. Dr. Clark then led a discussion on how one goes about choosing research topcis for preliminary exams as well as how to develop projects once they are chosen (1). My presentation and Dr. Clark’s prelim topic discussion helped put into perspective what is expected of us as scientists and progressed my way of thinking about scientific problems. Afterwards, we found out our most recent addition to the lab, Melvin, can throw a football a country mile, but that is neither here nor there.

Saturday was an early call, but with the smell of coffee in the air it was easy to rise. Our morning consisted of approaches to writing prelim topics, thesis preparation, which career paths are available to PhDs (2), an introduction to caspase-6 and a presentation on phage display in cancer drug design. These topics were more than informative; I learned things I will use for the rest of my life as well as new experimental procedures and career options I never knew were available, and that’s all before 3:00 p.m. Next was a short break in which we threw the football, walked the beach and napped. Later that evening, we spoke for hours about a book we were asked to read: Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson. It was not a book you read once and are a master. This book teaches a method of approaching conversations that many would shy away from, or become angry during. It shows you that there are ways for both mutual respect and for both parties to be satisfied. I will not go into further detail as I cannot do it justice but you may want to pick up a copy or borrow one of the Clark Lab’s numerous copies. It is especially helpful for relationships………

Our last day was a presentation by Christie Cade in which she discussed certain aspects of helix three in caspase-3 and described plans for following up on a recent paper published by the lab (3). It is always helpful to hear what your lab members are doing, and I think this is one of the most important aspects to lab meetings and now retreats. It offers you a time to put the whole spectrum of projects together into a clear overall goal. This retreat was now over, and we had finished cleaning up and hit the road after one last glance at the beach. No traffic on the way back; just a van full of sleepy scientists and empty coolers.

Overall, this was a very rewarding trip. We were able to learn about new techniques, current research, how to develop ideas and ways of dealing with problems arising in the workplace and at home. I look forward to the next retreat. Oh yeah, the backseat……….

We’ve put together a slideshow of the trip, and we hope you enjoy it. We’d also like to hear about your lab retreats, so leave us a comment or two.

Music credit: “Carolina” by Jason Harrod


1. Alon U. (2009). How To Choose a Good Scientific Problem, Molecular Cell, 35 (6) 726-728. DOI:

2. Bourne P.E. & Friedberg I. (2006). Ten Simple Rules for Selecting a Postdoctoral Position, PLoS Computational Biology, 2 (11) e121. DOI:

3. Walters J., Schipper J., Swartz P., Mattos C. & Clark A. . (2012). Allosteric modulation of caspase 3 through mutagenesis, Bioscience Reports, 32 (4) 401-411. DOI: