The SFI postdoctoral fellows in front of their "Pandemic Pod" (Photo: Andrea Frahn)

For much of the past decade, the SFI postdoc "retreat" has been more of an offensive: a madcap race to speed-write a paper on a brand-new scientific question in 72 adrenaline-soaked hours. But this year, the postdocs’ gathering is a retreat not from SFI’s day-to-day calm, but to a recreation of it.

And — sheltered by strict safety protocols — it is taking place in person.

From Sept. 27 to Oct. 2, the “Postdoc Pandemic Pod” convenes at a spacious but secluded Airbnb near Taos, NM. With high-ceilinged workspaces and nearby trails, the location bears a striking resemblance to SFI’s Cowan Campus — which is exactly the idea, says ASU–SFI Center Postdoctoral Fellow Anjali Bhatt, one of the retreat’s main organizers. The schedule, too, approximates "a day in the life" on campus, with presentations balanced by unstructured time to bond and bounce ideas around.

“We tend to assume that in the world of scientific research that we develop these collaborations around research topics first and then we get to know each other,” says Bhatt, who is one of the six postdocs whose fellowships have started since January.

Despite the plethora of virtual offerings, Bhatt recognized her community’s hunger for more of what sociologists term "collective effervescence": the energy generated when a group of people reaches a state of flow together.

“That’s a lot harder remotely,” says Bhatt.

Bhatt worked with Hilary Skolnik, Program Manager for the Postdoctoral Fellows, to tailor the safety protocol so that as many postdocs as possible could participate and feel safe. The system that was developed — a combination of quarantine prior to the retreat and, when necessary, a negative COVID-19 test — is flexible enough to fit various travel and caring needs while also assuring everyone involved that the retreat would be COVID-safe.

Ultimately, SFI understands that “time to sit together in a beautiful place is an exceptionally valuable thing as a scientist,” says Tyler Marghetis, an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor at UC Merced, who attended the retreat. “You spend a lot of that time in silence, but every once in a while someone will say, ‘I’ve been thinking about this’ – and there you go. That sparks years of research.”