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An evolutionary study of attending the annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience 

"25 year membership pins", read the box behind the counter of the SfN booth where I was updating the information on the current president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (me!). I did some quick math: I should merit one of those pins next year, I believe. It's been interesting to observe how the experience of the very same meeting changes over the years.

1993: Newbie Year

I started attending the annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience in 1993, when I first joined a neuroscience lab: Story Landis's, at Case Western Reserve University. I had graduated in Biology with emphasis in Genetics, but knew essentially zero about brains. A new friend in graduate school convinced me to do my last mandatory rotation in a neuroscience lab - and I was hooked. Story encouraged me to attend the meeting, and off I went.

I had zero plans on how to do it. Everything looked new and interesting. So I roamed around, trying to take as much in as I could. Rookie mistake: of course I could not be in so many places at the same time, attending posters and symposia and oral presentations and special lectures scheduled at the same time in different parts of a gigantic convention center. So the following years, I learned to have a plan.

1995 to 1998: the PhD years

Lesson #1: SfN meetings run impeccably on time (it was only this year, 2017, that I first saw a Special Presidential Lecture run over time, but then it was the last event of the day). It couldn't be different or attendants wouldn´t be able to jump freely from one presentation to another in different rooms. So I learned that I could plan to attend talks in not-so-adjacent rooms and thus expose myself to different themes in the same afternoon. I would choose those that were related to my work topic - development of the nervous system at first, then visual system neurophysiology once I moved to Wolf Singer's lab at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany.

I still walked the pre-selected poster aisles screening the presentations, printed program booklet for the day in hands, a bunch of poster titles highlighted on my copy, trying to take it all in, speaking to the presenters, enjoying the nearly private scientific presentations in 2-minute bits. I sat at as many of the special lectures as possible, soaking in the presenters´ knowledge. Exhibitors´ booths? I ignored all of them, except for Publishers´ Row, home to academic publishers offering their books at a significant discount, something always important for a graduate student. I spotted PIs whose names I recognized from papers, but never dared approach them, for I had absolutely nothing to say to them. But I appreciated the newly acquired bit of information: those names had faces that belonged to real people - and they looked pretty normal.

1999 to 2004: science communicator years

I was officially a post-doctoral fellow in Singer's lab for a few months after finishing my PhD, then moved to Brazil to work in a science museum. I soon started writing on the neuroscience of everyday life for the general public in my own website, Our Daily Brain (in Portuguese) - and attending the SfN meeting turned into my annual opportunity to catch up with the latest discoveries that would also be fun to report on.

I had a blast: with a solid education in neuroscience under my belt, I could now pick and choose. I skipped the posters - I was not that concerned with talking to the researchers as much as gathering information - and focused on sitting in as many slide sessions as possible. Decision making, drug addiction, human vs. macaque comparisons, brain development, it didn't matter: if it sounded cool, and interesting (or unusual) enough to be worth writing about for my blog and then early books in Portuguese for the lay public in Brazil, I highlighted it on the program and put it on my schedule. Exhibitors? But for the cool sponge brains that served as pin cushions, I ignored them all.

2005 to 2015: PI years

...and then I became a PI. I wasn't expecting that, for I was happily living the life of a scientific communicator and author, but I realized that neuroscientists could do a bunch of really cool stuff yet still didn't know the first things about what brains are made of (how many neurons, how many glia, of what size), and I had an idea about how to obtain that information myself. So, with the help of a colleague who lent me lab space, I got to work and started a new line of investigation.

For the first five of those years I had a budget far too small to consider buying any type of equipment (surgical tools would have been nice, but even that was way above my budget), so the SfN meeting turned into my annual opportunity to acquaint myself with my new field of comparative neuroanatomy. This time, however, I not only went to posters but started talking to the PIs themselves. I later realized that was called "networking" and was really important; all that I knew then was that I was getting to know the players in the field and learn about their thoughts and opinions, including what they thought were still open questions. I met Jon Kaas, who introduced me to a whole new world of people interested in brain evolution who used to gather around beers at the end of each day at the meeting, so they were easy to find - and by association, I became easy to find, too. Wherever Jon was, hanging out with his buddies, I was probably not far away. That took the thing called "networking" to a whole new level, as I started recognizing some of the key players over the years and being recognized by them at the meetings.

My budget was catapulted by two orders of magnitude when I received a large award from the McDonnell Foundation in 2010. All of a sudden, I was on the market for microscope systems that I never thought I would be able to consider purchasing. From then on, I started scouting the exhibitors' section of the poster floor. I started skipping the main lectures - more and more were from people whose work I was already familiar with, or were too distant from my new field to be worth the time that I would be taking away from the precious opportunity to meet my colleagues and growing number of collaborators from different countries, all gathered at the SfN meeting. Like myself, by the way, for at the time I still ran a lab at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. I could still visit some posters, but more and more that was in search of my fellow PIs who would most certainly be hanging around their posters. My students ask me why I insist on having them present posters rather than talks. "Because that gives you a known GPS location for a whole four hours, not just ten minutes, when people can find you and talk to you", I explain to them. "By the way, that is the main reason to attend SfN: go learn, but also go realize that the people whose papers you read and admire are real persons with a face and a favorite brand of beer", I tell my students.

2016 onwards: Vanderbilt years

This is fun. I realize that experiencing the SfN meeting is a whole other game now, far, far away from how I used to experience it. I'm at my known GPS location during the entire four hours of our poster presentations and don't even try moving away. At best, I will cross the aisle to check out a poster and talk to its presenter (usually asking questions about the fun details that are NOT on the poster) during a lull in our own visitation, and go right back. I am glad to pose for pictures with students who come to the poster to talk to me and ask for that.

Finished the poster session, I'm on to the meetings of the committees I now serve on, or sitting down with my collaborators to go over data analysis or the pending paper revisions for resubmission. Most of the time, however, I'm on the Exhibitor floor, taking the opportunity to talk to the representatives of different businesses about their hardware or software or instruments and how they may or may not suit our needs. It helps that I am sitting on a nice, comfortable pile of start-up money; I now have a good time finally shopping for things that I WILL be able to acquire for the lab. I attend socials no longer for the free food (I'm gluten-intolerant and can hardly ever eat any of the fingerfood anyway), but accompanying my colleagues or collaborators or friends from faraway places that I run into at the meeting. I take my lab out to dinner. I don't have a chance to attend one single talk (except for that presidential one that turned out to run very late). But it doesn't matter: there is no down time in my day at the SfN meeting (ok, except for that one time when I declared that I needed a nap after a very early-morning committee meeting or I would not be able to function the rest of the day).

Are all SfN meetings the same, year in, year out? Certainly not. Even though the program structure may be quite constant, attending the annual meeting is an evolving, ever-changing experience: not better (and also not worse) over the years, just different. 




I may have found Douglas Adams´ heir...

I had read, sorry, listened to, another one of his books during the two weeks of intensive sitting at the microscope during a visit to a colleague in Hong Kong, and much enjoyed it: Lock In, a very entertaining suspense set in a near future where a virus had left some people locked inside their brains, conscious but unable to move, so they hired the services of facilitators of sorts, people who would lend them their bodies. Criminal hijink ensues, of course, and somebody gets killed by a body that was inhabited by an unidentified user. The book was smart and quick-paced and entertaining to the point that I remembered the name of the author, which I usually don't: John Scalzi.

I ran into The Dispatcher, a novella by the same author, while browsing the kindle store for something light to read in bed - and quickly devoured it, a delicious mental exercise on the use of a device that, if applied before someone's imminent death, could instantly kill and roll them back to a previous state a few hours earlier, back home. On to the next title, then, one that came with plenty of good recommendations (although recommendations at amazon are less and less to be trusted, but that's a whole other story): The Android´s Dream.

(What is the android's dream, you ask? The title of Philip K. Dick's book of Blade Runner fame plays a key role in the plot. It involves aliens living on Earth. Yes, it doesn't seem to make sense. I'll say no more.)

It took me a while to warm up to it. I typically read fiction in bed, as an invitation to slumber, and while the first two pages were preposterously hilarious ("Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out", is the opening line of the book), they were so dense with information that my eyes would quickly glaze from the effort to keep up, and off into sleep I went. But then I tried again during the day, with more gamma waves in my brain, and I realized that I had before me quite a pearl. Could this author finally be the long-sought heir of Douglas Adams, the king of fast-paced narratives, crazy all-over-the-place ideas and dense yet immensely witty prose?

I haven't finished the book yet, for I'm attending a five-day meeting and still fall asleep after the second page. But it's for the better: the writing is so delicious that I want to savor every bit of it, so the slow progress is welcome. 

 Douglas Adams´ fans, rejoice: there is intelligent life in the Universe again!


Dear Madam President

It's official: I'm the new president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience! If you're in the area and have thoughts or ideas, rants or complaints, dreams or wishes about neuroscience & society and what the Chapter could do for you or, even better, what you could do for the chapter, let me know!


My kitchen tends towards maximal entropy

My favorite definition of life is a system that, thanks to metabolism (energy transfer) and self-organization, is capable of keeping itself at a dynamic equilibrium away from the ultimate equilibrium: maximal entropy, or total disorder.

My kitchen, like everything else in life, also tends inexorably towards maximal entropy - and it takes a lot of work to constantly keep it from reaching it. It would be a living system, if it weren't for the lack of self-organization and metabolism. In their absence, I do the part of keeping my kitchen organized and functional.

The very workings of a kitchen generate disorder, heat and waste products that tend to accumulate if not actively removed. Producing a meal out of meats and vegetables, like assembling proteins from amino acids, requires mobilizing machinery and supporting actors that tend perniciously not to return to their places on their own. Dishes, glasses and cutlery barely make it back into their drawers and cupboards and they are dirty again. Tending to the kitchen is like being the ATPase on call, incessantly hustling sodium and potassium, dishes and glasses uphill against their natural gradient, against their tendency to stable equilibium, total disorder, maximal entropy. Remove the ATPase from the system and it inexorably converges towards the final, stable equilibrium: death.

Living - like keeping an organized kitchen - is the fine art of holding your balance away from the final balance.


I've seen my own brain!

...and it is gorgeous, with all the gyri and sulci it's supposed to have! It has a callosum, a caudate, ventricles (a bit on the biggish side, but I won't complain) and a lovely, text-book like brainstem. There's my hippocampus, next to the inferior horn of the lateral ventricules, right where I tell my students to look for it! There are my red nuclei, so conspicuous! And what a beautiful cerebellum!

As you can tell, I showed up last Wednesday to volunteer for Jorge Moll's fMRI research on attachment - that is, the emotional bonds we form with loved ones. After ten years of writing about neuroscience for the general public, I was finally about to take part in a research using functional brain imaging and to discover what it feels like to slide into the magnetic field of one of these big machines. I felt like a child going to Brain Disneyland.

There was an informed consent formulary to be filled out, in which I declared being aware that I was free to leave the study at any point; that I would be exposed to a strong magnetic field, and no, I didn't carry any non-removable metallic items in my body; that my data would be presented in scientific papers, albeit devoid of personal identification; and that I would receive, upon completion of all tasks, the images of my brain and a full radiologic evaluation (although the clinic was not obliged to provide any health care that might be necessary, in the unlikely but possible event of finding, say, a tumor or an aneurism about to explode in my brain - which, I was happy to find, does not seem to be my case).

"What is this deafening noise? Is that the machine?", I asked. Yup, that's it: that's the sound of the magnet being repositioned several times every second, during the exam, in the room nextdoor. Inconvenient, but necessary, since that is what allows the machine to image brain activity in every nook and crany of the brain during the exam and compare it over time and across conditions.

And these were the conditions: 200 different phrases describing situations in which I was supposed to imagine myself and press a button for "pleasant" or "unpleasant". That alone would last about one hour, after which they would acquire purely anatomical images of my brain for another half hour or so (and, in the meantime, show a movie to distract me while I kept my head immobile for a while more: would I rather watch E.T. or Finding Nemo?). They would then give me dinner, and hand me a bunch of personality inventories to fill in before letting me go. Ok, then - ready for the pajamas?

Oh, yes, I had thought about that part on the drive down to the clinic: No buttons, zippers or other metallic attachments allowed in the machine, much less earrings or other pieces of jewelry. I could already picture myself in a very unflattering, green hospital gown - the kind that shows one's tushy in the back. But none of that: the clinic provides comfortable, warm and very decent grey flannel, long-sleeved pajamas, and even flannel "shoes". Much better. I could fall asleep in those clothes.

Instants later, I was being invited to lie down in the gurney that slides into the machine. Three or four pairs of expert hands placed a pillow beneath my knees (I'd like want one of those in my own bed, please), a panic button in my left hand ("press three times to call us"), the response buttons taped to my right leg and hand (don't want that falling down in the middle of the experiment), and little cushions around my head, to hold it in place. And down came the harness around my head, with the rear-view mirror that would allow me to watch the screen behind the tube... and into the tube I went.

That's the bizarre part: the feeling of having one's brain's electrical activity being momentarily screwed up by a strong magnetic field, which by definition generates its own electric field. It felt like my body was sinking, my brain going numb. Maybe this is what a panic attack feels like, I thought - so I swept through my mental records about MRI machines: their magnetic field remains on all the time, and one must slide slowly into it, lest stars appear in the examination room's sky. So I comforted myself thinking that what I felt was probably real (I once read that some researchers at CERN, in Switzerland, were amusing themselves bobbing their heads into the magnetic field of the synchrotron to "get high"). I breathed slowly and deeply for a while to help my brain calm down, just in case.

And then... I gave my very own and intimate contribution to neuroscience: I let them examine how my brain reacts to phrases like "you read a story to your one and he falls asleep in your arms", "you get distracted and lose your child in the park", and control phrases like "you arrive at work and turn on the computer". Two hundred of them. Reading in the mirror was fine; it even helps one forget one's current, improbable location inside a tube (which is actually quite short and not that scary). Even the noise was bearable, especially since it is rhythmic (and my toes danced to it throughout the exam - one side effect of over a decade of musical training).

What I had not expected was that a side effect of immobility, rather than immobility itself, would be almost unbearable: the urge to scratch my nose, my head, my legs. As the machine vibrates, it feels like some kind of mechanical energy builds up under the skin... and it took great self-control to think of something else other than the itch (I bet my anterior cingulate was really active during those phrases!). The breaks in the sequence were a relief: "Are you ok in there, Suzana?" Yes, but may I pleeeease scratch my nose now?

And then, when all forms had been filled, clothes had been changed and good-byes already said... "Hey, would you like to see your brain now?"

Of COURSE I'd like to see my brain! I'm a neuroscientist, for heaven's sake, how could I ever turn down an offer to confirm that I, indeed, do carry a thinking brain inside my head? Somebody else was already in the tube, but the kind and understanding technician pulled my image files and started to slide the mouse over my virtual head. "Look at that, this is you without any hairs!" (thanks, but no, thanks; I much prefer the hairy version of me). And there they came, all sagital, coronal and horizontal sections of me, one ear to the other, top to chin, front to back. There they were: my grey matter, my white matter, my striatum - I actually have all that in my own brain! And look at the ventral striatum, so clearly discernible, I was teaching about it this very morning! Look, my insula, my hippocampus - Hey, that's my claustrum! And the red nuclei, wow! (It seems that this particular commentary was a first: they had never heard anybody compliment their own red nuclei. That's what they get for showing a neuroscientist her own brain!).

Of course I instantly asked Jorge, and he kindly agreed, also instantly: he'll grant me access to all files for me to use them in my neuroanatomy classes and upcoming textbook. How great is that gonna be: I can soon point to the screen and use my very own brain to teach!