This past week was the big conference in the field of neuroscience, creatively named “Neuroscience” but referred to as “SFN” by the rest of us because it’s organized the by Society for Neuroscience. Over 30,000 neuroscientists attended this year’s event in Washington D.C. I bet the rest of you didn’t think there were even that many of us in the whole world! (At least that’s what my parents said.)
Scientific conferences are a curious happening, especially SFN, so in the aftermath of the meeting I thought I’d reflect on what it’s like to attend this crazy event.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single awkward encounter (followed by many more)
The SFN experience begins as you’re hanging out in the waiting area of your hometown airport or train station, eager to embark on your journey to the meeting. You notice some nerdy-looking folks carrying poster tubes just like you. Eyeing them with suspicion, you try to discern whether they’re going to SFN as well. You eavesdrop on these putative nerds conversing, catching intermittent phrases like “cortical ensembles” or “AMPA receptor trafficking” which confirm your suspicions. Then you realize that they actually look familiar. Is that the PI (principal investigator, i.e. a professor or lab head) with the lab two floors above me? Isn’t that the guy that I had four beers with at postdoc happy hour that one time and never spoke to again? A normal socially adjusted human might just go up to these folks and say hi, but if you’re like me then you try to avoid eye contact and sit in a different aisle.
Boarding a plane full of SFNers is always an interesting process, since the flight attendants are bewildered by all the poster tubes and the lack of overhead space in which to put them. You can see fellow passengers wondering what the heck is in those long tubes. Rolled up paintings? Architects’ blueprints? A bazooka? The possibilities are endless.
During the flight, the girl analyzing data in the row ahead of you makes you feel guilty for spending the flight reading a trashy novel. That is, until you notice that her data have put her straight to sleep, dreaming sweet dreams of heatmaps and p values. You settle back into your novel guilt-free.
Talking it up
At the conference, you have a choice of spending your days going to talks or looking at posters. For me, it’s a tradeoff. Talks have a higher chance of putting me to sleep, whereas posters have a higher chance of awkward social encounters. I usually start at the talks, large coffee in hand. By the way, NEVER try to get coffee at the convention center—there are always like 50 people waiting in line. I honestly don’t understand why so many people are willing to wait in that line. Perhaps the Starbucks house blend tastes that much richer when it takes 35 minutes to acquire and costs twice as much as usual.
Even if you choose to attend only the talks that sound really interesting, scientific talks always span a wide range of quality:
I went to a talk this year where the speaker had one or two slides with data and about 20 slides with ONLY text, which she read aloud to us as if it were a kindergarten storytime. And I’m not talking about nicely organized bullet points, I mean multiple paragraphs of text filling the entire slide in a very small font. Guys, don’t do this!
You never know what to expect in talks, und unexpected is often a good thing. This year one speaker played that scene from “Total Recall” where Arnold Schwarzenegger has to stick that giant metal thing up his nose to painfully extract a tracking device. (While hilarious in its absurdity, this was a bit too much for me to take at 8:30am.)
In another talk, Roger Nicoll, a distinguished PI who was receiving a prestigious award, discussed his lifelong struggle with dyslexia, how he was labeled as mentally challenged when he was younger because of his poor performance on standardized tests, how he started out with zero confidence in himself. Nevertheless, his perseverance enabled him to graduate from college and medical school and go on to make groundbreaking discoveries in neuroscience. He told the audience that if he could make it, any of us can too. After choking up multiple times during his talk, he received a standing ovation for these very unexpected and emotional revelations.
Adventures in Posterland
Unlike the talks, where you’re an invisible entity sitting passively in a giant lecture hall, navigating the scientific posters requires a bit more energy. At SFN there are thousands of posters in each session, so you’d better plan your route through this neuro-labyrinth or you’ll end up lost in some weirdly specific section like “Alzheimer’s Disease: Proteinopathy, Non-Abeta, and Non-Tau” (that was on Saturday).
Poster sessions are cool because you often run into your friends. You also frequently run into people you think are your friends, because with 30,000+ people around there are a lot of people who look like other people. I find this problem to be most severe for recognizing PIs, since (let’s face it) most PIs are old balding white guys with glasses. This is when our dorky name tag badges get their moment to shine; they’ve undoubtedly thwarted hundreds of cases of mistaken identity.
Posters are supposed to be low-key because you can casually chat with the poster presenter about their data. Again, normal humans are probably capable of accomplishing this task, but I find posters to be the most socially awkward part of the conference. Here’s my recommended strategy for the posters if you’re someone as awkward as me:
1) Casually stroll through the aisle of the poster you’re interested in, trying to quickly assess whether it’s worth checking out. This usually means reading the title and the bullet points listed under “Conclusions”. If it doesn’t have a Conclusions section, includes B.S. words like “innovation” or “paradigm shift”, or otherwise looks lame, continue along your way. But if you’re still interested, proceed cautiously to Step 2.
2) Stand some distance away from the poster and check it out in more detail. Avoid eye contact with the presenter since you haven’t yet decided if you really want to talk to him/her. I recommend standing at the edge of the poster so that if he/she tries to make eye contact, you can quickly avert your gaze to the adjacent poster and pretend like that’s the one you’re interested in. (This strategy is a bit awkward when both adjacent presenters are looking at you, but I’m a pro at rapidly alternating which poster I’m pretending to read.) After checking out some of the poster, proceed to Step 3 if you’re interested in actually talking to the presenter.
3) This is the tricky step. Ideally all you have to do is make eye contact with the presenter and he/she will offer to explain the poster, but this doesn’t always work. There was one poster this week where the presenter and I just stared awkwardly at each other for like 10 seconds. He didn’t offer to talk to me and I hesitated to make the first introduction (mainly because it seemed like he really just wanted to chat with his friends nearby), so I ran away once when the awkwardness threshold had clearly been exceeded. I do not recommend this strategy. Instead, try to at least muster up a “hello” and ask if the presenter can run through his/her poster. This is a risky maneuver since you may end up quickly realizing that it isn’t very good but unable to extract yourself until the end. That’s why it can be better to go to posters when the presenter is already talking to a couple other people and you can find out if it’s cool without committing to the whole thing.
Once you get bored of playing the poster game, you can always browse the biotech vendor exhibits which are set up next to the posters. It’s like trick-or-treating for adults with PhDs. Want free candy? There’s plenty. Need a stress ball shaped like a brain? No problem. Care to bring home samples of mouse food pellets, which you will later be tempted to eat yourself during the long afternoon lecture? Grab a few (at your own risk).
Outside the conference
At many smaller conferences, like at Cold Spring Harbor or Janelia, there’s no such thing as “outside the conference”. You sleep, eat, drink, and attend posters and talks all in basically the same building. But SFN is huge and always takes place in a big city, so when the morning and afternoon sessions end there’s a mad rush of 30,000 people out of the convention center into nearby unsuspecting restaurants and bars. The poor guy behind the counter at Panera the other day looked utterly bewildered and overwhelmed, kind of like that squirrel at the beginning of “Ice Age” when he realizes he’s caught in an avalanche.
Most people at the meeting don’t take off their SFN badges when they leave the conference center, making not only themselves but also the rest of us also look like huge dorks when we’re out in the real world. Guys, can we all agree to stop doing this? It’s not like normal people need any additional clues to know that we’re socially awkward nerds.
By the 5th and final day of SFN, everyone is completely exhausted and sick of hearing about science. You wander around the poster hall in a daze, distractedly reading poster titles and hoping that you don’t see anything relevant that you need to check out. Even the vendors are sick of giving out free candy. It doesn’t help that you’re also hauling around your luggage because you’re heading to the airport or train station soon. You again see a bunch of people you know on the plane or train, but you pretend to sleep instead of having to talk to more scientists.
Another SFN is over. A bit of knowledge gained, ideas exchanged, gossip disseminated, friendships renewed. See all you neuro-nerds next year!