Friday, October 23, 2009

SfN 2009: Recap

As many neuro-bloggers have noted, it is very difficult to keep up a good blogging regime during SfN. With lectures, symposia, and poster sessions all day followed by social activities all night (we closed down a bar on more than one occasion), the conference is pretty relentless. I returned to Atlanta Wednesday night, and I've been trying to synthesize the rest of my conference experience. I also managed to keep up a running commentary about some SfN events on my Twitter account (when I could find wifi at the convention center), so check that out if you're interested in 140-character summaries.

Some highlights from the conference: The SfN tweet-up, where I met other dual science/internet nerds and dragged a bunch of my fellow Emory students along for the ride; a special lecture by Dr. Ben Barres during which he gave an extended sub-lecture about diversity in science (and referred to a previous talk, "Some Reflections on the Dearth of Women in Science," which I was lucky enough to attend last year); a special lecture by Dr. Eric Kandel, who literally wrote the book on neuroscience; several jam-packed symposia in Theme A; evening socials with free beer (I sort of crashed a party intended for University of Iowa students, who welcomed me with typical midwestern hospitality); discovering some extremely relevant posters in my field of research; networking with dozens of fellow scientists from around the world (we are totally Facebook/Twitter/etc. friends now!).

So what have I learned from my first major conference experience? The first major lesson came in conquering my tendency toward shyness. I found most of the people I met at the conference to be quite friendly, but it took me a while to get over my feelings of intimidation when approaching other scientists. This was especially true at the poster sessions, when I initially hesitated to ask questions or discuss someone else's work due to my lack of experience with the subject material. I got over this after a few days, and although a few people treated me in a dismissive manner, I had some really good conversations about other peoples' science. I also learned a lot by example, noticing which posters were easiest to understand and which speakers had the most professional attitudes when presenting.

The second lesson involved time management. With dozens of events happening each day, it's impossible to do everything. After a few days of struggling with the schedule, I decided that it was okay for me to hop from symposium to symposium, catching the short talks that were most interesting to me and then moving on to other things. I did always make a point to wait until each speaker finished his or her presentation before I left, though. I found it irritating when people would stand and walk out during the acknowledgments slide, before the speaker received their applause. I know we're all busy, but couldn't you wait another 30 seconds, in the name of politeness? I also tried to leave myself some flexible time for wandering around posters and vendors, taking a coffee break, or following a new acquaintance to a recommended event.

The third lesson: Pack a lunch. Convention center food is shamefully overpriced, unhealthy, and not particularly palatable.

It's good to be home. I'm giving lab meeting next week to share what I've learned from SfN (I was the only member of my lab to attend -- the rest of the students and postdocs are more geneticists and cell biologists than neuroscientists, and my PI was too busy with a study section to go to the conference). I found two really cool posters that dovetail nicely with our work, but I have a lot of background reading to do before I can put those results into the proper context.

Since returning to the lab, I've also noticed that SfN seems to have given my contact information to a bunch of vendors. Last month I didn't even have a department mailbox, and the first piece of mail I received at the lab contained my credentials for the meeting. This week I noticed a pile of catalogs, flyers, and other promotional materials. That was a little disheartening. I may keep some of the catalogs for my coffee table, though -- I'm sure non-scientist houseguests would be amused by the listings for various rodent mazes, which featured some very cute mice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

SfN 2009: Day 2

The second day of SfN left me in a great mood. I opted to take the Metra to and from the conference center instead of relying on the shuttle, as I was pretty traumatized by last night's never-ending return trip. The Metra station at Millennium Park is about a mile from my hotel, so I started my day by walking through downtown Chicago in the stillness of an early Sunday morning. It was cold and clear. I was amazed at how beautiful the city is; just walking and taking in the sights has been a great experience. Stopped at a Dunkin Donuts on my way to get some food and caffeine, then continued to the train station.

The Metra ride went smoothly and I made it to McCormick Place in time for my first event, the Time Management Workshop on combining family and science. This was of interest to me because of my work with Graduate Advocates for Work-Life Balance. The panelists were all faculty at different stages of their careers, with different family configurations. I enjoyed hearing about how they achieved their own balance, and was pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of focus on the pros of being a working scientist and a parent -- their kids get to travel the world, and labs can become a kind of extended family, if you surround yourself with supportive colleagues. Brief talks by the panelists were followed by a Q&A during which the workshop organizer solicited suggestions for how the Society for Neuroscience can help its members achieve the balance they need. The suggestions echoed my own opinions -- that SfN should help trainees lobby for better family-friendly policies at their home institutions (maybe they can get Emory to comply with the NIH's policy on paid parental leave for training grant recipients...), and that similar panels with speakers at the graduate student and postdoc level would be helpful for the junior members of the society who are considering their choices for the immediate future. I also learned that other neuroscientists are lobbying for the creation of new family fellowships, to support individuals with family obligations that might make their scientific careers especially challenging. Email addresses were exchanged. It was overall quite a positive event, although I got the sense that some members of the audience were really struggling. Workshops are good, but we also need to be proactive about policy reform. We have to help people like the woman who stood up and said she was considering leaving science over her institution's failure to accommodate her family needs, or the woman who is afraid of losing job offers due to pregnancy.

With these thoughts running through my head, I had time for a quick lunch (I think the food court salad bar is one of the better options -- the $12 price tag is kind of ridiculous, but you can really load up your plate and share with a friend. Plus, it comes with soup!) before Dr. Thomas Sudhof's special lecture, "From Synapses to Autism -- Neurexins, Neuroligins, and More." I'd heard about the genetic studies implicating these key players in autism spectrum disorders, but I hadn't heard all of the details. Dr. Sudhof's lab has created mice with a mutant form of neuroligin 3 that recapitulates the version of the gene seen in some autistic children. The mice have social interaction deficits, but they are superior to wild-type mice in certain learning and memory tests. Further study shows that mutations in neuroligin 3 seem to shift the balance between excitation and inhibition in the mouse brain -- inhibition is heightened in the cortex, whereas excitation is heightened in the hippocampus. Dr. Sudhof proposes that the proteins that maintain the structure of the synapse (proteins in the presynaptic cell involved in neurotransmitter release, as well as postsynaptic factors that are important for receptor scaffolding) form a biochemical family that is a major player in the etiology of autism.

After Dr. Sudhof's talk, I hung around to watch the Peter and Patricia Gruber Lecture. Each year, the Gruber Foundation presents a neuroscience award to a distinguished researcher (or team of researchers) to commend their contributions to the field. This year's award went to Dr. Jeff Hall, Dr. Michael Rosbash, and Dr. Michael Young for their groundbreaking work on the molecular underpinnings of circadian rhythms. Dr. Hall and Dr. Rosbash were both faculty at Brandeis while I was there earning my BS/MS (Dr. Hall has since moved on to the University of Maine), and it was a treat to see people that I used to pass in the dim-lit hallways of the old Brandeis science building up on that stage. The three honorees presented a series of short lectures describing the history of their work on Drosophila neurogenetics and the winding path that led to the characterization of per, tim, and other genes that contribute to the daily cycle shared by all of your cells.

By then I decided to hop on the 4:15 Metra back downtown. I grabbed a sandwich and a cup of soup at a cozy little cafe, read the New Yorker, and enjoyed some quiet time away from the 30,000 neuroscientists at the convention. Strolling around Chicago by myself reminded me of living in Boston, when I would often go for long walks in the city to explore, window-shop, and people-watch. Atlanta doesn't lend itself quite as well to those little adventures, and I miss them. I'm glad I had this opportunity to visit a new city and get a little vacation with my science.

Tonight I'm headed to the SfN social media tweetup at LaSalle Power Company. It's at 7:00 PM. I'm looking forward to meeting some other internet nerds among the thousands of science nerds. A few of us have been busily tweeting away throughout the conference (albeit hampered by a Twitter outage this morning!). In the meantime, I'll be reviewing the conference itinerary for tomorrow. Feel free to suggest any talks or posters that you think I ought to visit.

SfN 2009: Day 1

Up too late hanging out in the hotel restaurant with new friends made on tonight's hellish shuttle ride (the bus driver got lost... it took me about an hour to cover the three miles between the convention center and my hotel). But, I had to blog about this:

A fellow Emory Neuroscience graduate student, Kim Maguschak, was recognized this year with SfN's Next Generation Award for her outreach work. Kim helps to organize the Atlanta chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, including most of the work for our large Brain Awareness Week campaign. Her efforts have helped send practicing scientists (including me!) into hundreds of Atlanta-area public school classrooms to teach kids about neuroscience. Congratulations, Kim!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

SfN 2009!

I'm headed to Chicago tomorrow morning to attend the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. This will be my first time attending, and I hope to blog and tweet about the experience throughout. That may be dependent on the quality of available wifi, though. If you're reading this, going to the meeting, and want to meet up for a talk or a beer, let me know! I don't have a poster this year, so I'll be free to just take it all in.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Our research shows that women who had children during graduate school or within five years afterward and continued in their careers had as high a success rate as women without children. Not taking a break proved to be a successful strategy. And, as we shall see, the increasing number of family accommodations at universities, corporations, and other institutions allow more mothers to continue their careers without a lengthy interruption or detour into a second tier." -- Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman, Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers

It's nice to have your mission validated, isn't it, my GAWB friends? (Thanks to Teresa for loaning me this book. Full review to come when I finish!)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

'Tis the Season for Supporting Public Schools

Those of you who get around the blogosphere may already be aware of the DonorsChoose Social Media Challenge. For those who haven't heard of it, I felt the need to write a post, because this fundraising effort is so awesome.

DonorsChoose is a charitable organization that works with public school teachers to fund educational projects. Teachers essentially write little grants, and DonorsChoose provides a platform through which those grants can be funded through individual donations from many different people. Projects raise money for field trips, microscopes, books, art supplies, games, and -- in some heartbreaking cases -- even paper, pencils, and food, for needy kids who can't get these things any other way. The folks at DonorsChoose also connect donors with the teachers they support, so that the teachers and students can provide thank-you notes. I have received these notes in the past. They are usually filled with adorable crayon drawings. Aww!

To drum up support for their estimable cause, DonorsChoose created the Social Media Challenge. During the month of October, bloggers and tweeters recruit their readers to donate through Giving Pages. When donations are made through these pages, they are tallied up for the blogger running the Giving Page, allowing social media users to compete in a "philanthropic throwdown."

Many science bloggers are participating in the challenge through the Seed Media ScienceBlogs Giving Page. Their combined efforts have raised over $9000 in the first week of October. You can check out the list of bloggers and see if there are any scientists who deserve your support in the challenge. Some are even offering offering tangible (e.g., t-shirts) and intangible (e.g., suggest a topic for a blog post) rewards to donors who support them.

And then there's Sarah Bunting. Through her blog, Tomato Nation, Sarah is attempting to raise $210,000 for DonorsChoose... this month. She and her readers have raised over $37,000, as of this post. In one week! To motivate donors, Sarah gathers fabulous prizes donated by fans of her work and gives them away to DonorsChoose supporters at the end of October. She also offers "mini-prizes" each day for funding a particular project. And if readers meet her fundraising goals, she does something silly to reward them (this year she promises to wear a tomato costume to Atlantic City casinos and videotape the ensuing hijinks).

But it isn't about the prizes. It's about coming together to do something great for kids. I've donated in support of several bloggers this month, but I'm really trying to support the school children who need our help. With that in mind, I donated a $50 gift certificate (thanks, credit card points!) to the Tomato Nation challenge as a prize for supporting this project. The teacher who submitted the project needs to raise a couple hundred dollars today (all projects on DonorsChoose have a deadline for funding; this one's is tomorrow) in order to purchase games for his high school dropout prevention program in Alabama. If you'd like to help, you can make a donation of any size through the link above. For a shot at the Amazon gift certificate, you must then forward your email receipt to Sarah (sars at tomatonation dot com), who will do a prize drawing later.

It's inspiring to see the donations piling up as October goes on. I know many readers of this blog are fellow poor graduate students, but if you can go without coffee and a bagel today and donate even $5 to one of these projects, you can make a difference. I hope you will.