Lausanne, Switzerland

• Author: Christophe Dessimoz •

The new academic year brings a big change to our lab. I am moving to the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, on a professorship grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation. The generous funding will enable us to expand our activities on computational methods dealing with mixtures of phylogenetic histories. Lausanne is a hub for life sciences and bioinformatics so we will feel right at home there—indeed we have already been collaborating with several groups there. I join the Center for Integrative Genomics and the Department of Ecology and Evolution. I also look forward to reintegrating the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. At a personal level, this marks a return to a region in which I grew up, after 16 years in exile.

However, I keep a joint appointment at UCL, where part of the lab remains. I’ll be flying back regularly and keep some of my teaching activities. UCL is a very special place—one which would be too hard for me to leave entirely. For all the cynicism we hear about universities-as-businesses, the overriding priority at UCL clearly remains on outstanding scholarship. My departments (Genetics, Evolution, Environment and Computer Science) are both highly collegial and supportive. Compared to the previous institutions I have worked for, the organisational culture at UCL is very much bottom-up. The pervasive chaos is perceived as a shortcoming by some, but it’s actually a huge competitive advantage—one that leaves ample room for initiative and flexibility. One colleague once told me that I could build a nuclear reactor in my lab and no one would ask a question—provided I secure the funding for it of course…

So how are we going to manage working in two different sites? Well, the situation is not new. We have had a distributed lab for several years and have developed a system for remote collaboration. Currently, we have lab members primarily based in London, Zurich, Ghent, and Cambridge. Our weekly lab meeting and monthly journal club are done via videoconference (with GoToMeeting). I try to have at least fortnightly 1:1 meetings with all remote members. During the day, the lab stays in touch via instant messaging (using HipChat). We have shared code (git) and data (sshfs) repositories. We tend to write collaborative papers using Google Docs (with Paperpile as reference manager). Importantly, we have a lab retreat every four months where we meet in person, reflect on our work, and have fun. We supplement this with collaborative visits as needed. The system is not perfect—please share your experience if you’ve found other good ways of collaborating remotely—but overall it’s working quite well.

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Last modified on November 27th, 2016.