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.

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