My first Society for Neuroscience meeting – sort of.
BY RANDY MCINTOSH
As we draw closer to the annual migration of neuroscientists to SFN, there are a lot of posts on ‘do and do not do’ for attending the meeting. It’s one of the largest neuroscience meetings, so it does help to set up a strategy to tackle it, otherwise you can end up sitting on the steps of the convention centre overlooking the harbour and enjoying the lovely sunshine. Uh, wait that came out wrong.
Anyway, to add to the chorus of SFN guides, I thought I would share my first experience at SFN as a senior grad student. This was a long time ago, so be warned that my memory for details may be a bit fuzzy
I received my notice by mail (!) that my abstract was accepted for a poster session at the annual SFN meeting, and included my name badge and hotel information. I showed my roommate, Martin, who was a plumber and never really got that I was a scientist-in-training. “Cool”, he said when he saw the card, “make sure you take kimchi and mittens.” I never really understood Martin.
I had no idea what to pack, but having gone on many local trips, I figured I would pack what a good old Alberta boy would take: a whistle, one flare, compass, first-aid kit, ten rolls of wine gums, pemmican, and bear spray. I did pack three changes of clothing too, just in case you are wondering.
Day 0 was frenetic. I was late getting out the door to the airport, so just threw my passport, poster, survival kit and business cards into my backpack and ran out the door into the awaiting taxi. In those days, crossing the border between Canada and US was a little more relaxed. When the customs agent saw that I was taking bear spray he said, “Ah, you’re with the rest of the group going to that brain meeting.”
I arrived just in time to go to the special evening lecture. Conference centres that house SFN are enormous. I realized when I arrived that there were five parallel conferences in the same venue. My compass was of no use here. I asked a kind old gentleman where the Society for Neuroscience meeting was and he said he would direct me if I gave him some pemmican. Anxious that I would miss the special lecture, I obliged.
I entered the massive lecture theatre, seeing six screens, with the stage and podium in the middle. The place was packed already, so I took a seat in the front row. The rumble of the crowd died down as the speaker approached the podium. The host proceeded to introduce them, reciting a long list of awards and academic accolades, which included “Best Halloween Costume” (who knew?).
It took about ten minutes before I realized that I was in the wrong conference. Rather than a lecture on ‘Brain Circuitry for Reward”, the lecture focused on “Beauty Products for Coalminers”. I did not want to be rude, so sat through to the end, noting that there was indeed some useful information that I could bring back to my cousins living in Blairmore.
Day1: I was warned by all of my lab mates that SFN is overwhelming, so I resolved to take it easy. But, they all agreed that the first thing to do at the meeting is to get the bling at the exhibits. So I ran through them on Day 1 collecting: 17 pens, 5 buttons, 100 gummy bears, a special issue of Nature on why you shouldn’t publish in Science, and a can of 5w30 motor oil.
Pausing to scan my itinerary for the day, I noted that I had selected 20 posters to see and 5 talks to attend. I examined the schedule more closely only to realize all of these were happening in the next 10 minutes. I managed to see half of a poster in that time, getting lost while sprinting between the talks, posters and bathrooms.
I was exhausted, and it was close to lunch so I made my way to the food court, only to see a traffic cop directing the endless flow of hungry neuroscientists intermingled with coal miner aestheticians. I stood back and searched through my backpack, finding some pemmican encrusted with gummy bears. A curious fellow student asked if I would swap it for their burrito that they had just purchased. I declined but they then asked about whether I would trade the 5w30 sample. I accepted. After tasting the burrito, I regretted that decision.
Day 2: I was getting into the flow, having marked 35 posters, 7 talks and one special lecture, but this time were equally spaced with the span of one hour. As an aside, I think the reason they schedule things so close is make you move really fast and keep your core temperature up, because it’s so damn cold in the conference centre! I was silently thankful that Martin suggested I bring mittens.
I also opted to bring lunch again, which consisted of apples, kimchi, and instant breakfast. I saw the same student, who offered to trade me for their hotdog. Thinking it safe, I did the trade only to learn that it is indeed possible to get a bad hotdog.
The evening I decided I would attend one of the social events, called ‘SFN-Barter’. I figured my trading skills could use some improvement and this sounded like a good opportunity. When I arrived at the event, I realized I left my SFN nametag back at my hotel, but did have my business cards, which I figured could work. I handed my card to the person at the door.
“Mr. Martin, glad you came so fast. Let me show you to the kitchen.”
I was puzzled that the person called me by my roommate’s last name until I checked and saw that I had mistakenly taken his business cards rather than my own.
“The sink has been plugged since this afternoon, and with all the neuroscience people here tonight, we are going to need it fixed pronto, so we can get dishes washed. I hope you can do it for us.”
The person looked at me with pleading eyes, so the only response I could give was, “I will do my best.”
The person smiled and quickly left the kitchen. I glanced around, looking for any tools that could help. I spied a felt pen and some cardboard and did the only thing working for the city parks department during the summers taught me to do. I wrote: “OUT OF ORDER” on the cardboard and put it in front of the sink. As I was leaving, I saw a rack of small pizzas topped with pineapple and bacon and decided to take a few in case I met my lunchtime trading partner tomorrow.
Day 3: This was the big day for my poster. I got dressed in my Sunday best and arrived at the conference centre when the doors opened. I wore gloves on this day to stave off the cold as I knew mittens would make it difficult to pin the poster up.
Once the poster was up, I looked around and saw that the floor was almost deserted. I rehearsed the script a few times and then saw one of the cleaning staff coming down the isle. They smiled so I asked if they would be interested in a tour of my poster. “Sure”, they said.
I came to the crux of my poster, where I showed the formula that made the new analytic approach for brain networks possible.
“There’s an error in your formula,” they said
I squinted at my poster and then looked back at them, “What?”
“There, you can’t invert that matrix before you multiply through, you’ll get a divide by zero error,” they tapped the equation with the broom handle.
“Uh, thanks,” I said frantically checking to see if I had the felt pen from the other night.
“Kids,” they muttered as they slowly walked away.
An announcement came over indicating the morning lectures had completed, which meant I could expect some traffic at my poster. I still had not found the felt pen to fix the error in my poster, so opted for the next best thing. I tacked two of my roommate’s business cards over the offending lines, hoping that the attendees would skim over it, since no one reads the methods anyway.
The first few attendees came by and glanced at my poster but elected not to stay. The next person came by and asked to hear my pitch. I gave them a handout and proceeded with my presentation. Half way through that, another person came up asking if they could hear my pitch too. I had practiced a response to this, having been told that it would happen at my poster presentation.
I was about to say that I would do so once I finished, when a third person asked for a handout. As I turned to grab then, another asked if I was willing to trade the pizza I had in the backpack for some beef stew.
The flow of people was intense but manageable. My handouts rapidly disappearing, and then to my horror I noticed that someone had mistaken the business cards for handouts and taken them too.
Just then the person I was most anxious about came down the aisle with their entourage, Professor Puddleface. The science from this group was cutting edge, involving an throng of student and postdocs who all seemed to dress alike. Their reputation for scientific excellence was matched only by their reputation for scathing academic battles at conferences. I was nervous, but having eaten 9 of the 10 packs of wine gums this morning, I was ready.
The first wave of Puddleface-ettes was the students, who were complimentary on my poster content and bowtie. The next wave involved what I think were postdocs, or maybe Australian Rules Rugby players, who didn’t ask many questions but stood blocking my poster from everyone else’s view. I offered them pizza, which they accepted and went on their way.
Then the Professor stepped in with an entourage in tow. The first few questions were polite. Then they became more interrogative: “How can you be certain the calculations converged?”, “Why did you round the standard errors to the tenth decimal point?”, “Why does your poster smell like bacon and pineapple?”
The questions started coming more in the form of answers, and then came the moment I feared. “That equation,” Puddleface leaked, “you realize there is an error?”
I wasn’t sure what to say, “Yeah, it’s a typo.”
Puddleface started to boil, sensing blood “A typo! Then how are we to trust that the rest of your work is not a typo.”
With that the rest of the entourage laid in, firing off one question after the other. As fast as I could respond, the next person rambled off another question.
I then did the only thing I could do. I reached for my flare and held it high, hoping that my signal for help would bring my lab mates. Depending on your perspective, I was fortunate that when I fired the flare, the projectile hit the fire-sprinkler system, flooding the poster hall. I watched in horror and delight, then saw the water flowing down my poster, washing off a piece of pemmican that was obscuring the equation on my poster. I was about the say something to the Puddleface-ettes when security grabbed me and took me to their office.
I sat down in the office, realizing my first SFN meeting was over. I felt okay with it. I was looking forward to relaxing and maybe binge watch a NetFlix series, but then I realized that wouldn’t be possible for another decade or so.
A little later, my advisor entered the security office.
“I understand you met Puddleface,” he said handing me a towel, “I want to introduce you to someone.”
He introduced me to my future postdoctoral advisor who said, “I like your style kid. The flare gun comeback was brilliant. You’ll do well in the NIH Intramural program.”
So that was my first SFN meeting. Okay, I may have embellished a little to get across a few key points that I have forgotten by now, but if I was to offer one piece of advice for attending SFN it would be to leave the bear spray at home, you won’t need it.