By Benjamin Jones

If you are an academic researcher, chances are your department is fairly large. And unless you work in a fairly small research institute, the work conducted at your department is very broad. It is no secret that we can't read everything, we simply do not have enough time. And as we scientists become ever-more specialised, so too does the focus of what we read and - or even have time to read. While allowing us to become familiar with the knowns and delve deeper into unknowns of our own subject, the risk of becoming overly narrow in one’s knowledge base is all too real.

With the wealth of research being published these days, we miss useful work that does not fall directly into our field of expertise, and as such almost always fail to read work produced in our own department that is not directly related to our own research. I’m not ashamed to admit this.

But how can departments overcome this and help foster new knowledge? At the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences, we produce a broad range of research and keeping up with the work produced by fellow members of staff is hard. Yes, we have frequent seminars associated to our sub-groups; a Marine Lunch Seminar and the Frontiers in Plant Sciences Seminar series for example. Is this enough? Probably not.

Enter our very own Spinach Soup. The Spinach Soup is a yearly tradition; the annual meeting of the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences. Over the course of two days, PhD students, postdoc’s and professors will share their research. The meeting aims to present our research in a digestible manner, easy enough for members of the public to understand, as well as our daily work; the nitty gritty stuff that might not get published, the novel techniques and methods we use, how we used statistics to show this and that, and generally give each other an insight to what we’re up to in a relaxed and friendly environment.

The DEEP Spinach Soup 2017. Photo: Amanda Gonzalez-Bengtsson.

This idea has a huge number of benefits. I know when I attend seminars, I am always intrigued by how my colleagues have analysed elements of their data, or the way data has been presented – it ignites that spark that makes me think… “oh hey, my data looks like that, maybe I could present this or that in a similar way”.

I work with seagrass meadows. Yes, they are fundamentally a marine ecosystem, but they are also plants - plants that throw up similar challenges to terrestrial plants every now and then. We rarely share our monumental research disasters in academic papers, or in large conferences, but within our own department it’s fine. It fills us with that relief that “phew, I’m not the only one”, but also gives us a chance to share solutions and thoughts on how to succeed using said approach or technique.

The Tovetorp surroundings where the DEEP Spinach Soup takes place. Photo: Amanda Gonzalez-Bengtsson.

Our Spinach Soup brings the department together, facilitates openness and inspires collaboration. Just like a well-balanced soup, our department is full of multiple ingredients, and when mixed together the results are positive.

Our next Spinach Soup is on the 27th-28th March, and if you’d like to follow this recipe for success online, check out #DEEPsoup19 on Twitter.