What Happens When You Put 500 Fly Neuroscientists in the Same Place for 5 Days

This week is SFN, the crazy annual neuroscience extravaganza attended by over 30,000 people. Last year I wrote about what it’s like to attend SFN, in all its awkward and nerdy glory. Alas, this year I’m not going, unlike almost everyone I know (goodbye husband, friends, and labmates; hello Netflix!).

Instead of SFN, I just got back from the fruit fly neuroscience meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Yeah, our meeting had like 100 times fewer people than SFN, but what we lack in size we make up for in bad puns, racy titles, and disco parties. Since last year’s SFN post was so popular, this year I thought I’d write about what it’s like to attend the fly neuro meeting.

Don’t judge a poster by its title

The fun begins weeks before the meeting even starts: when the list of talk and poster titles comes out. First, you’ve got the people who try to make their work sound more interesting using the “Mildly Humorous or Rhyming Preamble—What I Really Study” tactic. For example:

“Love stinks—Pheromonal mate guarding in Drosophila melanogaster

“An itch to switch—Regulating splicing of alternate pore exons in the TRPN/NOMPC mechanosensory ion channel”

“Flygraine—Drosophila CaV2 calcium channels harboring familial hemiplegic migraine amino-acid substitutions cause synaptic hyperexcitability that is suppressed by inhibition of Ca2 release from intracellular stores”

Some folks manage to mix multiple puns and metaphors into the same title. For instance: “Flying through a molecular window into the neurobiology of language and cognition”. Yup, even fly scientists apparently don’t get tired of using the word “fly” as a pun.

Finally, you’ve got the racy puns. Like the title that was generally agreed to be the best one of the year: “The ‘ins and outs’ of copulation”. Touché.

Google stalk panic mode

Reading the list of talk and poster titles isn’t all fun and games though; it often leads to a frenzy of Google stalking. You’ll see a title that’s vaguely similar to what you work on, and immediately go into Google stalking panic mode. See, the titles are listed only with the first initial and last name of the person presenting, with no other identifying information, which is often some brand new grad student or postdoc that you’ve never heard of. But you want to know which lab it is that’s working on YOUR gene or neuron or whatever, and you want to know NOW!

cshl abstract book

cover of the abstract book

This is when you hope that your putative competitor has an uncommon last name, which makes Google stalking a lot easier. Like a few meetings ago I got paranoid over a poster title listed to someone named “A. Smith” or something like that. I probably spent more time unsuccessfully Google stalking him/her than I did making my poster. (“A. Smith neuroscience”? “A. Smith fruit fly”? “A. Smith graduate student”?) Of course, when I finally saw the poster at the meeting it ended up being completely irrelevant to my work.

After months of anticipating what’s going to be at the meeting, the organizers finally email you the abstract book a few days beforehand. This is a 466-page PDF document (which you’ll later get in hard copy) that contains the full schedule as well as a page-long description of every poster and talk at the conference. I’m sure some people find it overwhelming, but I got so excited reading it that I went skipping down the lab hallway telling everyone about how much good science there was going to be! Then my labmates got really excited too and thanked me for telling them about it. Just kidding, obviously they just made fun of me for being a huge dork.

Flies, flies everywhere

Ok, so finally you get to the actual meeting. The first dramatic reveal comes when you check in and find out whether you’re staying on or off campus. On campus means you can stay up partying all night and roll out of bed 10 minutes before the morning talks start. Off campus means you have to take the shuttle to your hotel around midnight (the party’s just getting started!) and be promptly ready in the morning to take the shuttle back. You have to take the 8:20am shuttle to get there in time, or there’s a 9:30am shuttle for the oversleepers. But if you miss the 9:30am shuttle the next one is at 12:30pm, and it is clearly the bus of shame.

The meeting itself is a whirlwind of talks and posters. Three hours of talks in the morning, then three hours of posters in the afternoon, then more talks in the evening, often going till 10pm or later. Attending the talks and posters at fly meeting is a similar experience as what I described for SFN. Except that most people at SFN don’t give a crap about fruit flies—it can be hard to find enough stuff that’s relevant to my research. The complete opposite is true at the fly neuro meeting. There’s way too much relevant stuff to see and not enough time.

This also becomes apparent when you’re presenting a poster, like I did. For the whole three hour session there were streams of people who wanted to talk to me—who’d have thought that so many people cared about how flies taste acetic acid? Of course it’s a good thing to have lots of people interested in my work, but there was a stretch when I was awkwardly bouncing around because I couldn’t even get a break to go to the bathroom. And people kept coming even after the session was supposed to be over. Normally that’s fine, but this time the next event on the schedule was the wine and cheese reception and ain’t no one gonna keep me from free wine and cheese.

Wining, dining, and sciencing

Speaking of wine, fly neuroscientists really like their booze. There was one event where the bartenders had been told not to serve anyone until 7pm. So from about 6:40 to 7:00 there were people hanging out next to the bar, trying every trick in the book to get a drink early—from telling the bartender (incorrectly) that the other bar had started serving, to bonding with him about his personal life. Similar tricks also apply for trying to get drinks after the bar has closed (“You don’t really want to take back a half-full bottle of wine, do you?”). FYI, I will neither confirm nor deny my involvement in these activities.

cshl meetings

Photo of a meeting reception from the CSHL website, which looks nothing like our meeting– it rained the entire freaking time!

These free wine receptions hosted by the conference are great events, not only for indulging the booze-lovers among us, but also for meeting and networking with other scientists. As you’ll know if you read my SFN post, I generally find every encounter with a stranger to be a super awkward experience—but not when there’s wine! When there’s wine, we’re all buddies, and I can talk to you about your poster or your latest paper or the fact that the bar looks like it’s running out of wine.

As great these free wine-drinking opportunities are, they come with a couple slight problems:

1) You may spill red wine on an important scientist you’re trying to talk to. In my case, the probability of this event occurring ranges from ~30-90% and increases with each drink, making it almost inevitable after a certain point.

2) The wine receptions are usually followed by more talks. Often very important talks that you need to pay attention to. It is not ideal to be drunk during these talks. Also, when you’re drunk you may find things funny during the talks that are really not supposed to be funny; in this situation at least try to suppress outward laughter so people don’t stare at you.

Speaking of not laughing during talks, I was very impressed with our collective maturity when the Q&A period of one talk led to a discussion of penis rigidity, and everyone managed to keep a straight face. (Yes, flies have penises and apparently they can become rigid. I hope no one finds this offensive to mention, though I give you permission to giggle if you like.)

Lobsters and disco

The last night of the conference culminates in a lobster banquet. Yup, everyone gets a lobster! It’s not uncommon to find fly neuroscientists dissecting their lobster’s brain looking for the mushroom body or some such thing. I know, fly people are a hoot.

Following the banquet, there’s a dance party. With its disco ball and colored laser lights, it’ll remind you of your disco-themed senior prom. Like your prom, which was probably held in the school gymnasium or something, the dance party is held in one of the rooms where the poster session took place mere hours earlier. Some posters are even still up, in case you get bored dancing and want to read about more science.

Also like prom, the partygoers split up into various groups. There’s the popular group that’s too cool to even get on the dance floor; they’re outside doing their own thing. There are the people standing around awkwardly and bobbing their heads to the music, but not really dancing. (This obviously represents the majority of scientists.) Then there are the drunk people going crazy, and the group surrounding a couple of famous professors who are dancing in the middle of the circle. Everyone wants to get a glimpse of that.

By the last day of the conference, you’re tired, hoarse, and hungover. Unfortunately the organizers usually schedule the best talks for the last morning, a cruel trick to make sure we all get up bright and early and don’t try to leave before the end of the meeting. Indeed, this year there was excellent work presented all the way up to the very end.

Overall, it was a great time and I returned home full of new ideas and connections. Thanks to the organizers of the meeting, everyone who presented their work, and old and new friends I met!


Footnote: Aside from all the meeting stories I’ve described, I would love to also write about some of the really cool science I heard about. However, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to publicize people’s unpublished work that was presented in a private forum, so for now you’re gonna have to wait till the papers come out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.