"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.