“It’s been going on so long that it predates everybody,” said Steve Rossi.
Rossi, the now-deputy for business operations joined the ALS in 1999, when the User Forum was already a well-established ritual. Some of the logistics changed along the way—for a time, the Berkeley Lab directorate even provided funding for catering—but attendees have come to expect two constants. They will find friendly colleagues and refreshments, leading to a moniker that has stuck: Cookie Time.
As the event name suggests, users are a welcome part of the crowd every Thursday at 3 p.m. Cookie Time offers a chance for users to meet people beyond the beamline, and for many years, the User Office organized the cookie and coffee setup to facilitate those interactions.
In fall 2019, Cookie Time combined with the ALS Colloquium so that staff and users alike could socialize with guest speakers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic shunted gatherings online in March 2020, with interactions between colleagues becoming scheduled and requiring logins or complicated badging procedures. While social distancing helped prevent the spread of disease, it also posed an obstacle to hallway conversations around the ALS with staff and users alike. People started looking for ways to combat isolation.
“I’m on the Social Activities Task Force,” said Photon Science Operations Deputy Dula Parkinson, “and we were talking about ways to start building community again.” He fondly remembered Cookie Times before the pandemic, saying, “It felt like pretty much like everybody in the whole ALS would come together for that.” The task force’s initial proposal to bring back Cookie Time was rebuffed because COVID levels were still high in Alameda County, but once restrictions eased in April 2022, Parkinson sprang into action.
“We filled out a form to get special approval for a gathering,” he explained, and the pandemic restrictions meant that the newest incarnation of Cookie Time took place outdoors. “The very first time, we didn’t have coffee or soda or anything else. Mike Martin and I just bought cookies, and I think 20 people came.” As more people returned to in-person work, Cookie Time grew in popularity and necessitated more preparation.
“I got involved because Dula needed some help with the logistics,” said Beamline Scientist Sirine Fakra. Soon, hot coffee accompanied the cookies, and the refreshments were no longer for 20 people, but for upwards of 50. “My favorite part of Cookie Time is seeing all of our colleagues and users coming over, taking a break from their experiments,” she said.
Beamline Scientist Alpha N’Diaye echoed her sentiment, saying, “Cookie time is a forum to set business aside for a minute and reconnect to our colleagues on a human level—and that connection is foundational to any good workplace!”
Computer Systems Engineer Dylan McReynolds agreed that it’s been fun to talk to people from around the community, though he has not completely set work aside. “Several weeks ago, I met an affiliate for the first time. While eating cookies, we found out that there was a potential computing collaboration.”
The cookies that McReynolds mentioned are no longer the basic selection of April 2022. “The biggest surprise has been people stepping up to bring homemade things,” marveled Parkinson.
“To the point that sometimes, even though they’re not scheduled to bring anything, people just voluntarily bring cookies or other dishes!” added Fakra.
Commenting on the enthusiasm from the community, Rossi said, “It’s a grassroots thing. Donations are keeping Cookie Time going.” Different individuals and groups around the ALS have signed up to take responsibility for each week’s Cookie Time. Whether homemade or store bought, the treats are always devoured by an appreciative crowd.
One week after the ALS administrative team laid out a particularly scrumptious display of chocolate chip cookies and brownies, Beamline Scientists Moni Blum and Slavo Nemsak tried to outdo them with an entire sheet cake and vegan pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.
“I don’t know if I’d say it’s a competition,” cautioned Parkinson, “but people are taking pride in what they’re doing.”
“It’s a friendly competition!” Blum exclaimed.
It is, of course, all in good fun, and Parkinson and Fakra both value all the contributions the ALS community has made. “Everybody’s coming with what they’re good at cooking, and every dish is different,” said Fakra.
The combination of the all-to-all (the weekly ALS all-hands meeting) and Cookie Time has made Thursday afternoons a time for community. “With the pandemic, and with the cafeteria under construction, it’s been a big loss,” said Parkinson. He expressed his hope that people would find opportunities to mingle at Cookie Time.
Rossi went a step further, encouraging the user and staff community to interact with ALS management. “I try to make myself available to those that I don’t normally have conversations with,” he said. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been stovepiped into our current working model, only talking to people when you have a business reason. Cookie Time gives all the groups and users the opportunity to cross-pollinate.”
Whether taking a break from work, lured by the prospect of a snack, or simply stumbling upon Cookie Time while walking past, many people have found their way to the ALS patio on Thursdays at 3:00 p.m. We welcome everyone in the ALS community to stop by and form or strengthen these connections that feel increasingly precious.