Chapter 1: A Disappointing Lack of Baking Soda and Vinegar Volcanoes
Every profession or hobby has its ritual gathering: doctors have their conferences, Trekkies have their conventions, salespeople have their trade shows. Once a year, scientists are coaxed out of their lab holes for their own forced assembly, traveling with poster tube in tow to a (hopefully) warm location suitably outfitted with a large enough exhibition hall. Ask any random scientist, faculty member, or student whether they look forward to these events of concentrated data, and you’ll get a negative response or curse word 9 times out of 10, despite the fact that these meetings are, in theory, a chance to show off your work to a potential crowd of thousands, harvesting their criticism and advice by the bushel. The most obvious reason for this disconnect is that science, so often a solitary pursuit, is an awkward fit for the big-convention model of glad-handing, vendor-pimping, and nighttime debauchery.
This contradiction is magnified at the largest scientific conferences, foremost among them the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, which landed this year in the Olympic ruins of downtown Atlanta. Attracting over 30,000 attendees per year, and able to squeeze into only the most cavernous of convention centers, SfN sets a standard for girth and breadth among the scientific disciplines, swelling to a pretty much impossible-to-navigate size. This obesity results largely from the diverse territory that falls under the umbrella term “neuroscience,” a field which has come to encompass everything from clinical neurology to human psychology to behavioral research to molecular biology to genetics, along with every line of study that falls into their gaps. Throw all of this research into one (albeit very, very large) room and you get a confusing mix: something like a peanut butter, sausage, and blueberry casserole.
If the variety of science on display doesn’t faze you, the layout will: imagine the kind of gargantuan rooms used for car shows, let’s say 5 football fields lined up horizontally, filled with row after row of 3’ X 6’ posters. Now imagine those posters being changed twice daily, replaced a total of 9 times over the course of the conference. Imagine further a small city of vendor displays nestled between the rows of posters, plus constant, overlapping talks, symposiums, slide presentations, mini-symposiums, continuing education classes for physicians, press conferences, informational sessions, socials, and seminars all orbiting around the central mass of the poster sessions. Oh yeah, and all the pre-conference meetings that occupy the surrounding ring of hotels for days before the meeting even officially begins. That’s a fucking avalanche of science right there.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who a) knows someone on the organizing committee, b) discovered something really cool in the 1970s, or c) pestered someone into letting you chair a topical symposium, the typical pebble contributed to the mosaic of an SfN meeting is a poster. A glossy industrial-printed rectangle summarizing your past year of research, it’s the visual aid for your four hours of service at the conference, a vehicle for hollow praise, vicious criticism, and all the social courtesies in between. Yes, a large scientific conference is really not much different from a grade-school science fair, albeit with a disappointing lack of baking soda volcanoes and award ribbons.
This year’s setting, the triumphantly named World Congress Center, was no different than the other aircraft-hanger convention centers that have paid host to the SfN meeting, save for the unusual surroundings: the CNN headquarters building, the Atlanta Falcons-hosting Georgia Dome, the Olympics’ infamous Centennial Park. The interior was standard sky-high ceiling/industrial-carpet décor, with the one quirk being the remarkably subterranean location of the poster hall and largest lecture room, with four downward escalator rides required between front door and the epicenter of the meeting. This architectural decision ensured that no natural light would tempt us away from our business, while cattle-herd traffic jams filled the spaces between sessions as 30,000 people were gently shepherded through four tiers of single-file escalators by bored security guards. But hey, at least we weren’t running around the cruel 10-mile long corridor of the New Orleans convention center, where the meeting was originally scheduled before nature’s fury pre-empted science.
Chapter 2: Opening act: Am I boring you as much as you’re boring me?
Before the convention proper could begin, it was my duty to attend the official pre-meeting of the shady government operatives who write my paltry paycheck, the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This event was held not in the convention center, but in the stalk of Atlanta’s shiny, cylindrical Westin, ritzy digs to be sure, but the schedule was tauntingly devoid of any events in the revolving restaurant on the top floor. The meeting was focused on drug addiction, Frontiers in Addiction Research, to be exact, and was notable for its inclusion of the precious resources of coffee, snacks, and lunch in its $50 registration fee. With about 500 people in attendance, it was relatively intimate by the standards of SfN, yet the subject matter still reflected the difficulties in navigating such a conference, with four sessions (of four speakers each) all ostensibly about the same topic but utilizing far-flung methodology: satisfying everyone, pleasing nobody.
If anything, the over-stretched diversity of fields was a fascinating sociological demonstration of the different languages that scientists speak, far from the homogeneity assumed by people outside the field. Perhaps it’s my bias, but the electrophysiologists seemed the most balanced, presenting the interesting fact that narcoleptics are less likely to be addicted to drugs, and then detailing what the protein messenger implicated in narcolepsy (orexin) does to areas of the brain associated with reward. On the other hand, the social neuroscientists were by far the most entertaining group, because they rarely had anything resembling hard data to present, leaving them free to wildly speculate about abstract concepts like impulse control and stimuli reappraisal with Shakespeare quotes and Venn diagrams. Most fascinating was a talk on dominance hierarchies and addiction potential in monkeys, from which I learned that monkeys at the bottom of the social ladder exhibited changes in receptor function that are associated with increased drug reward in humans; a fairly political and socially relevant finding for a field (addiction research) that tends to shy away from such (gasp!) potentially useful applications.
However, the afternoon sessions killed the momentum of the morning, leading off with a quartet of genetics researchers that were all build up and no pay off. The quest for polymorphisms (genetic markers) that may predispose people to addiction or make them more responsive to the effects of abused drugs is a fascinating endeavor, which makes it even more astonishing that these people could give such dry talks, 29 minutes of buildup and methods with no payoff. The ultimate frustration was the explanation that the most highly significant correlations between polymorphisms and drug use are actually thrown out for being too significant, and they choose to focus on some arbitrary group of less significant correlations. WTF. I would maybe slightly understand the reasoning for this choice, but by the time they got to the talk that was pure statistical methods I had fled to the lobby Starbucks.
The only surprising tidbit from the genetics session was that these correlation studies are pointing to a lot of cell adhesion molecules (sort of the Lego prongs that enable specific cells to stick together) as being important for sensitivity to drugs. This confusing finding wasn’t made any more lucid by the scientists in the last session, who were all giving their standard talks about cell adhesion molecules without mentioning drug addiction once, despite supposedly being on the Frontiers of the field. Two talks into the final session, it was time to cut and run, to prepare for a night of studying drugs of abuse firsthand.
Chapter 3: Stadium Science
At a scientific meeting of this impressive size, the headliners make their appearances in the main auditorium hall, a cavernous room filled with enough chairs and high-tech audio/visual equipment to house a Pink Floyd reunion tour. It was in this room, tastefully down-lit to a light intensity that heightened Powerpoint clarity and facilitated hangover-naps, that the convention began in earnest. Yet strangely, the opening event of the Society for Neuroscience meeting had very, very little to do with neuroscience at all. Last year’s conference inaugurated the Science and Society Lecture, a construct apparently invented so that we could host a rare US speaking appearance by the Dalai Lama, who gave an endearingly awkward and unscripted chat about meditation and why neuroscientists and Buddhists should pay more attention to each other. Not the most scientific of talks, but a welcome recess from the claustrophobic flood of hard data and incremental findings, not to mention a good story to tell all the non-scientists back home when they hesitantly asked what we do at these things anyway.
This year’s Science and Society speaker couldn’t help but be a step down from one of the three most important religious figures alive, but architect du jour Frank Gehry wasn’t too shabby a follow-up stunt booking, and I held out hope that he’d give a more directly scientific lecture, perhaps on why his unusual shape and material choices are related to facets of human perception, or at least speculate on the neuroscience of creativity. Alas, that was not to be, as Gehry gave an off-the-cuff presentation that wasn’t quite as lovable as the Dalai Lama’s; it just looked like he hadn’t bothered to prepare anything. Most of the hour was taken up by a slide presentation where Gehry showed pictures of his buildings and used shockingly non-specific lingo, i.e. “See that silver thing by the blue thing? I designed that when…” Even the question and answer period, conducted by a neuroscientist/architect (such a thing exists? Why wasn’t he giving this talk?) yielded no scientific insights, other than hinting at the tortured psychology of Gehry’s assistants who have to translate his spontaneous scribbles into actual buildings.
(Aside: Gehry’s one attempt to confront issues of brain function was actually somewhat interesting, as he described his creative process as taking in a project’s specifications and then letting his hand automatically start to draw without over-thinking the details. This description of creating without “thinking” turns up again and again in artist’s discussions of how they work, from musicians to painters to writers. Because the neurobiology of creativity is such a loaded and abstract topic, I haven’t seen a lot of controlled lab work investigating these commonalities, though I suspect there are a lot of ambitious fMRI-wielders with thoughts on the topic. Frank Gehry either didn’t care about the details or didn’t want to know.)
However, other Presidential Lectures (i.e. the ones in the big room) that week made Gehry’s spontaneous ramble look better in retrospect. One particular all-star series of talks was focused upon long-term potentiation (LTP), the theory of neural memory storage that is always fashionable at SfN meetings, and was even more ubiquitous than usual at this year’s incarnation. After sitting through the opening act of Robert Malenka, an occasional rival of our lab, with white knuckles for fear of project overlap, we got to the main event(s): Roger Nicoll and Masao Ito, the discoverers of LTP and long-term depression (LTD), respectively. Receiving an award, impressive medals and all, from some rich benefactor or another, Nicoll and Ito proceeded to completely ignore the stories behind the findings that made them famous during their acceptance talks, choosing to focus on either more recent, more boring findings (Nicoll) or tedious circuit anatomy lessons (Ito).
Nevertheless, the fault may have been due to the medium more so than the message. Even though these massive lectures are intended to shine a spotlight on the most exciting avenues of current neuroscience research, the format couldn’t help but serve up dud performances. Scientists used to presenting their research in classrooms of maybe 100 people suddenly found themselves in front of thousands, with their non-photogenic visages projected on enormous screens and their Powerpoint slides awkwardly distant and difficult to laser-point. Faced with likely the largest crowd they’ll ever see, some speakers tried to cram every single research finding they’d ever accumulated into their hour, leading them to speak at the pace of the Micro Machine Man. Others focused only on research published years ago, afraid to present fresher material to a crowd full of unfamiliar and potentially unethical faces. The few talks that allowed time for questions produced no compelling dialogue, as audience members lobbed softball or comically irrelevant (“what do you think about the reported benefits of THC to prevention of Alzheimer ’s disease?”) from microphones positioned meters away from the podium. All these effects conspired to make what should be the most exciting opportunity of such a conference appear roughly as shallow as award-ceremony thank-you speeches.
Chapter 4: …and on the smaller stages…
Having not been particularly fired up, then, by these large-scale presentations, I attempted to find excitement and motivation in more intimate settings…relatively speaking. Mini-symposiums are similar in format to the pre-meeting I had attended, though more focused on one particular narrow topic; four to six speakers give 20-30 minute mini-talks all based around a single concept, held in gigantic, bisected ballrooms. These sessions are notable for depersonalizing the speakers themselves, as movie-size screens project their Powerpointed data while the speaker his or herself is shrouded in darkness and surrounded by electronic equipment, anonymous like a rave DJ overshadowed by the light show.
Speaking of which, other ways how a scientific conference is like a large music festival:
- Schedule & Map Required: with about 20 different things going on at any one time, much of the time is spent running from place to place in the spacious conference center, missing the ends and beginnings of talks due to the sprawling layout.
- Celebrity Sightings: a crucial conference talent is to be able to surreptitiously read a person’s nametag, occasionally discovering that the guy subtly picking his nose down the row from you is actually a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
- The Press Gets Treated Like Shit: seriously, I peeked into one of their “hospitality areas,” it made the Lollapalooza press tent look like the Hilton.
- Huge Video Screens: with less attractive people on them, however.
- After the Party is the After-Party: more to come on this point.
- Long Lines for Overpriced & Disgusting Concessions: never have you seen a more overcrowded Starbucks, and the finest cuisine on-site was probably the lady selling cinnamon-roasted peanuts that made the entire building smell like a Cinnabon. Frustrating, since there was no Cinnabon.
Chapter 5: This is what I came for? The odyssey of the Poster Session
Presenting a poster is the research scientist’s marathon, a lengthy test of physical, psychological, and social resolve while surrounded by a sea of peers. It even takes about the same amount of time (four hours) and requires a similar amount of hydration and preparation; the only major difference is that poster presenters don’t have problems with nipple bleeding…at least in my experience. Should your poster have survived the travel to the conference location, avoided being left in the overhead compartment or in a bathroom stall, escaped the smears and rips of inappropriate handling, and managed to be relatively free of humiliating typos, it reaches its final destination, hung by pushpins amongst a few thousand counterparts. By this time, most people have taken advantage of departmental funds and equipment to print out their posters (in vivid color!) on one large sheet of glossy paper, but occasionally you still see adherents to more classical forms of poster-making: the 8×11 sheets mounted on colored cardboard backing, the taped-together dot-matrix matrix, and, very rarely, the guy who scrawled his text and figures on yellow notebook paper.
My own poster experience followed a pretty traditional arc:
1:00 – 2:00: no visitors aside from a handful of friends and co-workers you or your boss has begged/guilted into stopping by. Awkwardly start to pace around the poster, half-heartedly making small chat (“quiet so far, eh?”) with neighbors before eyeing them with envy once people start to accumulate at their posters. Any unknown person that happens to even so much as glance at the poster gets pounced upon with an overbearing greeting, i.e. “LET ME KNOW IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS?” before they awkwardly back away to the poster they were actually walking over to see.
2:00 – 4:00: miraculously, people who actually are interested in your work that you don’t know personally begin to appear, asking constructive questions (albeit the same three over and over again) and telling you “nice job, very interesting” in an almost believable manner. The “five-minute summary” talks begins to blur together, until you’re basically starting the next round over again as soon as the previous take is finished. Start to feel a bit like an audio-animatronic character on a Disney ride.
4:00 – 5:00: voice fading, your explanations start to get increasingly far-fetched and/or confessional. As visitors become more and more intermittent, time is free for cold coffee sips, stretching exercises, and awkward “glad we’re almost done, eh?” small talk with neighbors. At 4:55, three of the most important researchers in your field show up and start giving you actual interesting feedback just as the conference center, at the very stroke of 5:00, begins acting like a bar at last call: flicking the lights, making annoying loud announcements, launching the custodial fleet.
The post-poster feeling is one of the finest in science: rolling up the poster for the last time (resisting the urge to drop a match in the tube after it), feeling like people actually care about your project, pocket full of business cards from faculty that were maybe trolling for post-docs, your week’s major responsibility checked off and filed away.
Chapter 6: Hands-On Research
The occasion of a successful poster session calls for excessive imbibing of alcohol, some of which was courtesy of the boss himself at the usual ritzy lab dinner, the one night where us lowly students don’t have to be mindful of the $25 per diem. After that, such a luxurious night called for something special, something above the routine pleasures of going out in a strange city, surrounded by people from home. Something crazy, something outlandish, something like…the Mother. Fucking. MIT. Party.
Yes, that’s MIT as in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the school whose primary social purpose is to make Harvard students look like raging frat boys by comparison. For this very good reason, we were understandably skeptical at the idea of traveling out to a social thrown by the MIT neuroscience department, as an alternative to drinking ourselves silly at yet another dark, random Atlanta bar. Add to the arguments-against list that this shindig was reportedly being held at a venue called The Compound; it sounded better than yet another hotel ballroom, but also sounded vaguely like some sort of convict bar.
Yet the fear of missing out on what could have been the party of the week compelled us to give it a shot, and soon enough we were packed into a cab that was taking us somewhere $25 away from downtown, into a labyrinth of warehouses and parking lots. Nestled within this industrial district was a true-to-life velvet-rope-sporting club, looking like the kind of place where Outkast might throw a record release party, or where the Hawks go to celebrate a 10-win season. But not tonight, for inside, beneath an MIT banner and spread out over a pretty ridiculous assemblage of enclosed gardens, modernist couch rooms, and club dance floors lurked nearly 1000 neuroscience graduate students.
Despite the fact that the free bar tab had already been depleted for the night, what ensued was a conference occurrence probably universal to all disciplines, that uneasy delirium of professional relationships dissolving into real social interaction, uninhibited and primal. Other than a few exceptions (I fuzzily remember discussing staining protocols with another student around 1am), the protective layer of scientific conversation was stripped away by alcohol, smoke inhalation, and the beat-heavy colored light trappings of the dance floor. However, the night never quite reached complete escapism, what with the venue’s usual flat-screen visuals replaced by 3D blueprints of MIT buildings and institute logos, but unless you were really paying attention between repeated playings of “SexyBack” and Fergie, you wouldn’t have noticed.
Spit back out into the eerie quiet of the post-party night, the cab ride was marked by the strangely giddy out-of-town camaraderie born of getting sloshed and candid in the company of co-workers in a strange place. But beneath all this fresh companionship was a haze of guilt at letting one’s guard down in front of people normally considered in professional, formal tones as “colleagues” back home in the real world. It’s a curious, transient thing: grad students, usually sequestered in their individual labs, too tired for post-work social interaction or consciously seeking separation between their school life and their free time, colliding for a brief period around a scientific meeting.
The MIT Party completely shattered the delicate balance of alcohol and caffeine that was fueling the week’s activities, and the rest of the meeting became little more than a blur, as I found myself sleepwalking through posters and talks and vendor freebies and whatever came afterwards. Fortunately, there were only two days left. One of the days was a total wash, as I expended all my energy just getting out of bed and to the conference center and had nothing less to take notes or admire posters. A night that started out as “let’s take it easy,” quickly descended from hotel room relaxation to yuppie-bar baseball-watching before ending up in a dive bar/strip club where more people watched the surprisingly competent karaoke than leered at the three world-weary strippers that took turns on the bar’s tiny platform.
The final day meant recovering our mental faculties just enough to put in a respectable appearance at the boss’ symposium, which occupied the no man’s land of the conference’s final session. Cruelly, the schedulers had placed the event in the largest of the symposium ballrooms, a room filled with probably 2500 seats that was, at the peak, maybe 10% full, and by the last of the four talks flirted with the 1% barrier. However, it wasn’t so bad from the front row, where anxieties over whether the boss’ jokes would flop and the queer sensation of seeing one’s data projected on a gigantic screen (alongside, you know, actual real data from other labs) were diminished by the intimate audience.
Then there was nothing left but the mad dash to the airport, living it up on one last department-subsidized cab ride, navigating through the cattle run of the Atlanta airport, finding out the flight was delayed for several hours, desperately trying to sneak peeks at Game 6 in the airport bar amongst the legitimate traveling businessmen, then trying to sleep through the flight back home.
And as the weather cooled in the harsh transition between muggy Atlanta and frigid Chicago, so too did the brief fire of scientific excitement lit by the meeting. The self-esteem boost provided by the poster session – the pleasant feeling that people really do care about your project – was soon to be engulfed by the day-to-day drudgery and technical headaches of laboratory life, and any nuggets of useful or stirring new research that had been accumulated quickly became little more than notebook scribbles and half-remembered details. Even so, we’ll all return next year, as we will every fall, to get our annual fix of fleeting self-esteem and free drinks.