River Retreat 2016: Structure and Function

To some, January is the first month of the Gregorian calendar, the beginning of a new semester, or just damn cold; but for the River Center, January is also associated with River Retreat. What is the River Retreat? It is not the gradual retreat of rivers back to their montane source (because water flows downhill), but rather, a weekend retreat for students, post-docs, and professors for the purpose of expanding our minds, creativity, family-feud skills, and camaraderie.

River Retreat is an annual tradition (now in its 12th year), founded by Nic School professor Martin Doyle, and is organized around a specific theme that is explored across disciplines (physical science, ecology, economics, governance). This year we examined “Structure and Function” both across spatial scales (macro, meso, and micro) and the aforementioned disciplines with the help of special guest Dr. John Bruno, a coral reef ecologist from University of North Carolina.

Much of the weekend is organized around five discussion sessions framed by relevant journal and newspaper articles. Hot topics from the discussion included feedbacks between structure and function in natural systems, ecosystem services, equifinality, creativity, and paradigm shifts. One example of a conclusion that materialized from this exercise was that across disciplines a common framework emerged for classifying functions and how they relate to structure. This generalized framework included an input into a system (e.g. energy, water, power, welfare), functions can be divided into ones that partition, release, or store a given input, and the structure of the system controls the magnitude, frequency, and distribution of these functions.

As the evening progresses, the structured discussion slips into research-based social FUNctions. Hours of mind-bending discussion prepares competitors for the most highly anticipated sporting event (of the weekend)…The Annual Fluvial Feud. The Fluvial Feud is a combination of family feud style trivia and competitions that push athletes to the edge of their physical and team building capabilities with games such as… “The Marshmallow Gun-Cheetos Throw Biathlon” and “The Spaghetti Tower Race”. We wrap up the evening with Pop-Ups where individuals explain their research in a non-traditional format (dance, song, jokes, dramatic readings, etc.) which inspires us to think outside the box and provides ample entertainment.

After 2.5 days, 5 group discussions, 18 Pop-Ups, 15 pots of coffee, and 3 jumbo bags of chips, we return home mentally and physically exhausted. Each year we gain specific knowledge about a new topic, but also a refreshed perspective on the importance of creativity in research, connecting the dots across or within a discipline, and of course cherished time spent arguing, eating, and laughing with our academic family.