The undulating long drive down to the majestic Wotton House Hotel (coincidentally the former home of John Evelyn, one of the founding Fellows of the Royal Society) , nestled in the Surrey hills, with a speed limit at a curiously precise 8.75 mph, allowed the last opportunity to take a breath. In a few moments and across a gravelly drive, I would crunch into the intense intellectual stimulation of the most recent British-German Frontiers of Science symposium, jointly organised by the Royal Society, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Die Junge Akademie
I have been so incredibly lucky to now be involved in three of these meetings, first as an attendee, then as a speaker, and more recently as a theme leader. I was mentally blown away during my first meeting, over a decade ago,. And can reveal that from a chance conversation over a coffee with an anthropologist about how we know the age of the origins of the brain, it actually seeded the idea that blossomed into my successful ERC Starting Grant proposal a year later.
The concept of these meetings has remained the same. Hole up about 60 vibrant and energetic scientists from two different countries, at the top of their game and from across the broadest range of science. Isolate them, but feed, water, and caffeinate them, and arrange sessions on some of the most topical and cutting edge issues in their field. Importantly only allow about half of each 2 hour session for dedicated talks, leaving the rest for chaired discussion from across the disciplines with no question being too stupid to ask. If only such a formula could apply more broadly at conferences where pounding 10 minute whistlestop tours leave you exhausted and not much wiser after just an hour.
Through these three Frontiers of Science meetings, I have been enraptured by sessions ranging from ‘invisibility cloaks” to “antimicrobial resistance”, from “the 6th mass extinction” to “natural products to smart medicines”. I have learned why we flip coins into wells, why frogs do keep milk fresh, and why we sleep. I can best liken the experience of attendance to my rarely admitted sixth form nerdiness, where I used to hide away weekly at lunchtime and immerse myself in the world of the magazine New Scientist. The Frontiers meetings are the 4D version. It is a real live interactive experience; the opportunity to meet and talk to those people who think in 10 dimensions on a daily basis for example, and ask all those questions that have been bothering you about dark matter either in open discussion, or if shier, quietly, after maybe a few glasses of wine. The engrossing interdisciplinarity continually sparks different parts of the brain and new thought and personal connections, a rarity in our overly siloed scientific landscape.
The meetings last for around 3 days, with a cultural excursion thrown in, this time to the splendid Polesden Lacey, to again pique relaxed discussion on buses or whilst strolling around beautifully manicured gardens. I challenge anyone attending not to come away with a new idea or possible collaboration. So if you get the chance to go, grab it, lobby to be invited, do anything it takes. Certainly my personal research pathway has been transformed as a result of the mind stretching meetings.
Ros Rickaby holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and is Professor in Biogeochemistry at Oxford University