The brain – isn’t it incredible? If there is one thing I wish I had studied more it would be this mesmerising organ and probably one of the reasons I follow so many neuroscientists across social media. But this also meant that last week my social media feeds were full of people at the biggest neuroscience conference in the world – the Society for Neuroscience conference or SfN18! Nearly 30,000 scientists gathered in San Diego, California just to talk about brains and all the latest research in neuroscience. It’s safe to say I was a little jealous and wish I could have been there to soak it all in. So, I just followed the conference on social media, but today I have a guest blogger who actually went along to SfN18 and who is going to tell us 4 amazing things that she learnt. So, I would like to introduce you to the lovely Sara O. Sara is a Research Associate at the University of Melbourne and the name behind one of my favourite blogs – neurotravels. She grew up in Italy, completed her BSc in Austria and her MSc in Switzerland, travelled New Zealand before heading to Australia – so it’s pretty obvious where her blog name comes from 😛 Her research looks at the reward system in animal models of dementia – specifically by giving her mice Nutella as a sweet treat to test their sweet tooth! Outside the lab, she wants to make science more accessible to the public and make ‘the science bubble burst’ – one of the reasons I asked Sara to write this piece for me – to give everyone a little insight into one of the world’s largest conferences. Over to you Sara!
More than 28,000 scientists under one roof? Sounds like nerd-paradise to me!
For the last five days, I was attending the Society for Neuroscience 2018 annual meeting, the biggest neuroscience conference in the world, in San Diego, California. Soph invited me to talk a little bit about my experience on her awesome blog. So here we go, thanks Soph for letting me share my highlights in: 4 amazing things I’ve learnt at SfN 2018!
This conference was the first I’ve ever attended and I also presented a poster for the first time – how exciting! This is one important way we scientists share our newest findings: next to official publications in very specific expert journals and next to classic presentations, we also go to these meetings and present our newest data on biiig posters – at SfN there are around 5,000 posters being presented every day! – full of HOT new findings, trends and directions, probably a bit like the New York fashion week for Heidi Klum.
For this reason, a lot of the unpublished data is confidential and I would risk my job if I was sharing those. I decided therefore to take you on a journey of what I’ve learned about the big picture of science, the special lectures, as well as personally.
1. Science’s progress is mind-blowing!
or: from a single little neuron to the connectome
Something that for me sometimes was a double-edged sword is the complexity of science. and especially neuroscience. The brain is such a complex organ, from the tiniest cell to all the networks and brain regions that work together to consistently influence and form our behaviour. Small changes between experiment designs can often lead to contradicting results that we first might not always know how to interpret. This complexity is exactly what is fascinating to us all, but sometimes this was also giving me an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty. How will we ever be able to understand such a complex structure? The public seems to partially have lost the trust in scientific progress and understanding, with a lot of promising headlines not making it into a real-life solution.
This conference has given me A LOT of confidence in science and at what speed it is evolving just now. We are on the rise of making sense of more and more components of complex diseases that we hopefully one day can ameliorate, or perhaps even cure. Especially the major lectures taking place in the huge ballroom, decorated by a dozen of screens and fitting in thousands of people. The lectures were given by big names in the field, pioneers, lab heads, professors who would always start their talk with a little introduction of the topic and how it evolved into the discoveries it is able to make today. Solely the development from the first pictures ever captured of a neuron, about 150 years ago by Golgi, to the first attempts to draw an anatomically correct brain with all its regions and lobes, to the incredible depth and resolution in which today we are imaging the whole brain, its networks and activity of the tiniest structural parts, is just mind blowing! I cannot even imagine how much information there still is for us to discover! Another example was the amazingly entertaining lecture of Dr. Roth, telling us about the first extractions of a hallucinogenic drug, Salvia Divinorum, and how understanding this substance increased our understanding of the brain. He opened the lecture with a hilarious YouTube video really clearly demonstrating the effect of smoking it. The understanding of how this drug works led to a steep increase in understanding the most essential tiny brain structures: receptors.
It led the Roth team to think about a new way of drug screening, and to the ability to crystallise the very important dopamine receptors just at the beginning of this year – this is so recent but has so much potential for better understanding receptors and their behaviors! The continuous development of methods and combinations of techniques that just recently were developed can revolutionise whole fields and teach us not only about the brain’s tiniest players, but also substances that could be beneficial for several brain disorders. So much hope just through these, but also many other, lectures!
2. Science is getting towards more inclusiveness and equality, but there is some long way still to go!
Or: about Margaritas and Iranian passports
These five days made it possible to connect with so many other scientists. I was catching up with old and new collaborators and supervisors, connecting with researchers from all over the world over a casual chat at lunch in the Californian sun and meeting amazing science communicators in real live over some delicious Margaritas. A lot of my friends had interviews for postdocs. We all could discuss science, life, history and the world.
We had exhibitions of sciart – science communicated by art – in and outside of the convention center – a lovely way of expressing the beauty of science. These days it seemed to not matter where we are from or what we look like. Just a lot of interested people exchanging knowledge. Prices were getting distributed for strong women in science advocating for equality and #MeToo found room for growth at the conference. It feels like we are heading into the right direction. But, we still do have poster presenters that are not being able to attend and present their findings because of their origin, which left me very sad. Why should a talented young scientist who was accepted to present at the conference, not be allowed to attend and add their results to our pool of knowledge, just because of a rejected visa application – but I can? My research is not worth a single bit more than others, just because I was lucky to be born behind a different border. This is one good example of many, where politics has a lot of – negative – influence in the fields of STEM.
Which leads me to my third point…..
3. Science does have a direct impact and interdisciplinary work is more important than ever before!
Or: about the flexibility of the male and female sex
As scientists, we sometimes feel like we wouldn’t have a direct, visible impact on the world or not directly helping people in need. What SfN18 taught me, as well, is that all the tiny little puzzle pieces might seem confusing and overwhelming at first, but they do all contribute to the bigger picture and they do matter so much! Scientific progress is slow, because it is complex and we are cautious about our results. As we saw in my first point – Science’s progress is mind-blowing! – it takes a lifetime of many talented scientists for a senior professor to being able to stand in front of thousands of people and give a lecture about big discoveries. With increasing knowledge about the brain, its development, its disorders, cognition and social behavior and the rise of artificial intelligence, the collaboration with policy makers, philosophers, ethics experts and lawyers is more important than ever before. Science does have and must have a direct impact on society, as much as policies and regulations need to allow it to grow. Examples are the emotional lecture of Dr. Casey talking about the brain reaching social maturity around the age of 21, which needs to have huge impacts in the court and help to not wrongfully convict teenagers by treating them as adults. Another extremely interesting talk was given around the topic of parenting and the fluctuality of male and female- like behaviour. Prof. Dulac explained how sex in animals develops, what different strategies animals use for parenting and which genes are involved in parenting behaviour. In her work, she could demonstrate male-like and female-like parenting behaviour in mice being interchangeable by genetic modifications. These findings should again be considered by policy makers in the field of gender equality, to name one example.
4. Speaking to strangers as an introvert!
Or: stepping out of your comfort zone
A few years ago, I was much more of an introvert than I am now. I am a living example that if you step out of your comfort zone several times, keep pushing your limit a little bit further and travel and move a lot, it is possible to get out of your shell a lot more. I hadn’t presented a poster before. When the first two young ladies stopped at my board my first reaction was to say next to my supervisor “sh**”. Thankfully, she has great sense of humour and reacted by amusedly saying “no Sara, that is not how you open a poster presentation”. I was a bit nervous at first, but everything went super smooth. I got heaps of feedback and some advice and great discussions and I stayed there for all the four hours and not just the mandatory one hour. A few years ago, it would have seemed impossible for me to even step up to someone else’s poster and ask them questions. And now I am the one initiating conversations. Science again does connect! And so does travel! My two favorite things 😀
Some concluding fun add on points:
* neuroscientists are extremely social
* know surprisingly well how to throw a party 🙂
* have a good sense of humour, with presenting data on “Burritos in San Diego: a 10-dimensional study” – one of my favorite posters so far 😉
Much love from Melbourne,
Sara aka neurotravels
Huge thanks to Sara for writing this for Soph talks science. I hope it kept you entertained on your flight home 😛 Thank you for giving us a teeny insight into what a big science conference can teach you and also for bringing up some incredibly important and inspiring points.
Did you go to SfN18? What did you learn there about yourself or the brain? Or maybe you are not a neuroscientist – what have you learnt at the conferences you have been to? Any conference networking tips and advice to share?
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