On why Meta PHoDcast is a universal lunchroom

On where I’ve been and what I saw while there, on finding new conversation partners and overlooked topics and on why Meta PHoDcast is a universal lunchroom. You are welcome to join us for lunch with an interesting new topic every week.

For the last ten years, I spent my lunch breaks in the Department of Biology cafeteria at the Biotechnical Faculty in Ljubljana. The reasons for this were pragmatic ones: the faculty, located next to the city zoo, is perfectly isolated and we could not be bothered to drive to other eateries every day. And although I look back with pride on the discussions involving various biology topics as diverse as life itself, I no longer fool myself: out there, there are other lunchrooms where people discuss subatomic particles rather than dolphins, tackle Latin grammar rather than genes, create actual cities rather than abstract morphogenetic fields and ponder the aesthetics of art pieces exhibited at the repositories of human heritage. And so I came up with a vision of a campus with a universal lunchroom where you could take your tray and sit down to discuss a different subject every day.

That is why I now have lunch at a different place each week. My meal consists entirely of food for the soul since I can barely squeeze in a glass of water between the cords of my failing laptop and the microphone; the discussion topics, however, are always fresh. Both my conversation partners, ranging from geniuses riddled with anxiety to confident know-it-alls, and the spaces we meet in are fascinating. The Geographical Institute had me marvelling at the 19th century maps on its walls (and its doubtlessly even older parquet flooring), the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts lobby allowed me to witness social sciences in action (featuring a packed seemingly asleep hall and a lecturer with a hypnotic voice), the Faculty of Arts basement was where a camera captured my pupil in a claustrophobic experiment room, and the backroom of some café smelled of tea and bread rolls as I chatted away about urban legends. And last but not least – I got to see the new buildings housing the Faculty of Chemistry and the Faculty of Computer Science in Rožna Dolina, Ljubljana, whose bright minds now also liven up the Department of Biology lunchroom nearby.

I keep getting asked how our conversation partners are selected. The process is rather complicated, involving both their official research ratings, their bibliography and the principle of equal representation of subjects and genders as well rather uncontrollable intuition and personal interest.

In the future, we would like to see PhD students approach us on their own every now and then, but the general feeling of inferiority expressed by past guests makes the prospect seem unlikely. Naturally, colleagues and academic supervisors may also alert us to great students – we regularly check our inbox at znanost@metinalista.si. Our search is made even more difficult by the fact that there is no handy list of PhD candidates and their research interests. This often makes scouting a time-consuming exercise in combing through the SICRIS database and websites of research institutions. Sometimes I come across an excellent online profile, only to find out after many days or weeks of research that the person has completely dropped off the radar. On one such occasion, I received this e-mail by the student’s supervisor: “Please find enclosed [the student’s] e-mail address. Good luck finding him.”

Anyone interested in participating in a future podcast episode should note that the session (including a chat beforehand) takes all of two hours of your time and leaves you feeling warm inside knowing that you have helped spread the word about your and our scientific endeavours.

As a rule, we also discuss the same topics that never make the cut for the 20-minute podcast. One of them involves lamenting our fates – every student feels incredibly lonely walking the trail of tears towards their PhD, believes that their supervisor doesn’t understand them or their thesis topic, and that the depression kicking in about five months before graduation will never pass. This is usually followed by a cautious warning about the actual situation at the faculty/institute/academy – relationships are said to be informed by rows dating back (half) a century, supervisors squabble to undeservedly build up their reputation, making cooperation between PhD students impossible, and rumours spread that we will split off/be shut down/take over the others. At first, I was surprised to hear I wasn’t the only one having these thoughts, but now, after ten interviews, it just makes me smile.

I am starting the discussion on these topics and invite you to write more about the subject. To everyone else, the podcast wishes to communicate the other, happier, more creative and interesting side of the work performed by our junior researchers. #MetaPHoDcast will continue to deliver great stories and inspiring topics taken from Slovene science. Be sure to tune in!


Author: LUKA AUSEC, holds a doctorate in biosciences and can fluently read DNA – and sometimes literature. Enthusiastic about bending the body and the mind in all directions – and sometimes inwards. Enjoys spreading inspiring ideas – sometimes as tweets.


Translated by: Urša Klinc.

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