Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Society for Neuroscience 2014 in Washington D.C.

Society for Neuroscience 2014 & Washington D.C.
November 15-19, 2014

SfN - Walter E. Washington Convention Center
The annual Society for Neuroscience meeting hosts about 35,000 neuroscientists for five days.  During the conference, people present their recent research as talks and poster presentations.  The conference covers nearly all neuroscience topics, including developmental disorders, physiology, plasticity, ion channels, neurodegenerative disorders, cognitive stuff, and more.  Beyond research, there is also an opportunity to attend seminars in career development that cover topics such as industry, education, outreach, writing, etc.  Anything that has anything to do with neuroscience can expect to find a place at SfN.  Usually, the people who attend SfN are professors, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, lab volunteers, and people who work with anything related to neuro-research.

The conference rotates between Chicago, D.C., and San Diego.  This year, SfN was held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C.  It takes a serious amount of space to comfortably host 35,000 people and their posters.  For obvious reasons (the beach), the San Diego conference is traditionally the best attended of the three.

This was my first time attending SfN.  Walking into the convention center, I was surprised and delighted to find enormous pictures of Purkinje cells gracing the SfN posters.  They're some of the nervous system's most photogenic cells, so it makes sense to display them front and center.  Looking around, I couldn't believe how many people were there.  I have literally never seen so many people casually chatting about neurons in one place before.  When you sign in, you are given one large book for each day of the conference.  Each book has all the events that will happen that day, including posters, socials, presidential lectures, symposia, minisymposia, and nanosymposia.  FYI, a "nanosymposium" means that it will be held in a small room with limited seating, not that it is about nanotechnology.  After attending a few nanosymposia, I decided I was a big fan of the format - each speaker talks for ten minutes and then answers questions for five minutes.  This quick, snappy format forces speakers to get to the point and tell you what's important about their work.  A nanosymposium always has a theme, and all the fifteen-minute talks in the session relate to that theme.  In this way, you can collect bits of information and ideas about a central topic.  Personally, I was fascinated to find so many people studying similar topics who had completely different ideas about those topics.

This is the large hall for the presidential lectures.
In addition to research talks, I really appreciated the career development seminars.  As a third-year grad student, I'm starting to figure out what career paths interest me for after graduation.  These seminars provide an idea of what a typical day looks like in various careers, and what advantages and disadvantages of particular jobs are.

The poster sessions at SfN are massive.  Posters were organized in rows from row A to row YY.  This enormous room organizes posters by theme, and it takes a long time to walk from one end of the room to the other.  When you visit a poster, you can either ask the presenter to walk you through their work, or you can just read it and then ask questions.  I mostly study to the poster sessions that were related to the cerebellum, synaptic plasticity, and autism, but I also stopped by a poster session that studied muscle synergies during learned, skilled movements in dancers vs. normal people.  Speaking of dancers, I was thrilled to meet up at SfN with Paola, a ballet/neuro friend from BU!

Poster Sessions & Exhibits
Next to the posters is the exhibit hall where you can learn about all the companies selling scientific equipment.  These companies advertise their new or updated technology, and often bring examples for you to see, and they give away free things like bags that say "I <3 Brains!"  Though many of their new techniques are expensive, they largely expedite the experimental techniques.  As always, you pay for convenience.  Other exhibitors look for science bloggers, students who want to do some of their research in other countries, and people who are looking for jobs.  Most of the major publishers are there too, and they give out printed copies of their journals and sell their books at a discounted price.  It's a really great venue to hold informational interviews with people from all walks of neuroscience.

Each day is both exciting and exhausting.  Exciting, because it's super cool to see so many people who are so enthusiastic about neurons, and exhausting because there's a lot of complex information to cram into your brain.  (Yes, I know that synaptic learning is not exactly "cramming" information into your brain.)  In a typical day, I attended both some type of symposium and several poster sessions.  In between, I often wandered through the exhibits collecting pens and pins that read, "Trust me, I'm a scientist!"

The University of Chicago Reception with Sol and Heather
The University of Chicago Reception.
UChicago is always good at catering events and feeding us.  
Each evening, you have your choice of socials to attend.  The socials, like everything else at SfN, are themed so you can meet people in your field.  For example, you can attend the autism social, the VOR social, the song bird social, the cell death social, the schizophrenia social, the spinal cord injury social, etc.  (Who names these socials??)  I attended the SFARI (Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative) Social and The University of Chicago's reception (photo above).  On the first night, we had a lab dinner at Quarterdeck, which is known for serving buckets of crabs without dishes.  You have to break open the crab, on the table, with a little hammer, and then eat it with your hands.  Honestly, it was a little messy for my taste, but it's always nice to try new things.  Eating crabs has always been uncomfortable for me though because I had six pet hermit crabs when I was in first grade.  Mixing dissecting with eating also seems problematic in my mind.

In my little bit of free time between conference events, I visited the International Spy Museum and the National Gallery of Art.  The International Spy Museum has two halves: an exhibit about former spies and secret agents, and exhibit with James Bond memorabilia.  At the beginning of the visit, we learned that a spy must be okay with living a completely secret life that is full of lies and deceit, and can never "crack".  The mantra in the exhibit, "nothing is as it seems," proved true when a video demonstrated how well makeup could turn one face into another.  Additionally, everyday gadgets often have secret capabilities, which are similar to what you see in spy movies.

After checking out all the tiny, secret places you can embed a camera, I wandered over to the exhibit about the historical nature of spying.  According to the information there, people actually used carrier pigeons to send secret messages in tiny scrolls because they came back so reliably - about 95% of the time.  People have been spying on each other in order to collect intelligence and gain the upper hand for just about as long as people have existed.

The James Bond portion of the museum showed his cars, excerpts from the movies, and some of the costumes from the movies.  Additionally, there were some interactive portions where guests could try and crack codes or try to decide if a particular quotation came from a Bond movie or real life.

You can never have too much fun trying on disguises!
The National Gallery of Art is part of the Smithsonian, and offers free admission to all guests.  At this fabulous museum, I was extremely excited to see Degas' (The Little Dancer" sculpture, as well as work by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and my other favorites.  Years ago, I saw this famous sculpture at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it again.  My favorite part of the sculpture is that the dancer's skirt and hair bow are made from a flowy material that contrasts with the rest of the sculpture.

Degas' other dancer sculptures are some of my favorites because they portray such a clear, and technically correct, sense of real movements in ballet.  Looking at his work, you can nearly always tell what movement the dancer is doing or what movement they'll do next (photo below, left).  It really shows in Degas' work that he spent so much time observing dancers both in classes and in rehearsals.  Additionally, I appreciate that Renoir painted people with frizzy hair (photo below, right).

When we came to the room with one of Monet's paintings of the Japanese bridge in Giverny, France (photo below), I remembered that I was considering planning a trip to Giverny.  To this day, I am amazed by how blurry Monet's work seems up close, and how equally crisp it seems when viewed from a distance.

Another of my favorite artists has always been Picasso, and I was excited to see a painting from his rose period (photo below, right).  Typically, most museums have a large collection of his cubist work, and some of his blue paintings.  The rose paintings, which often feature circus entertainers, are more rare.

As we wandered through the museum, we came upon several talented artists who were painting impressive copies of the masterpieces (photo below, left).  One artist told us she usually hung her work for a while in her house, and then gave the paintings to family as gifts.  She explained that you have to go through a lot of security clearances before they let you bring wet paint anywhere near these famous paintings.  After that, the only restriction is that when you paint a copy of a piece, it must be a different size, in order to prevent any mix-ups.

The museum is so large and offers such a fantastic sampling of art through the ages, that I never made it to the modern section.  The National Gallery is divided into two buildings, and paintings are organized chronologically.  I started at the really old, Jesus-themed paintings, and made it up to impressionism.  I'm not really a fan of religious art, but I can understand that churches were what commissioned most of the art back then.  From the artist's point of view, a paycheck is a paycheck.  My preference in art leans more toward impressionism, surrealism, cubism, and lots of the current, modern, abstract work.  As far as I can tell, one of the things that has remained consistent through all these years of art is that artists and subjects frequently include their pets in paintings.  I smile every time I see a dog in a portrait with its human.  Additionally, young children used to be painted with incredibly serious and wise facial expressions, and many people had halos (photos below).

Sometimes I wish people still dressed like this.  Well...minus the collar.  Look how detailed the painting is on that collar though!  Truly amazing.
Lincoln's Penny Floor
During this visit to D.C., I discovered a new restaurant that I fully plan to re-visit next time I'm in town.  This restaurant, Lincoln, is Abe Lincoln-themed, and the floor is made of pennies (photo left), which of course, bear his portrait.  The restaurant has artsy portraits of the former president decorating the walls.  On the menu, you'll find themed food and drinks, like "emancipation punch".  They serve small plates of very tasty food, so you can try more than one thing.  For an appetizer, I ordered house rolls that were seasoned lightly and served with gingerbread butter.  Yum.  For my little entree, I enjoyed the salmon, which was served over a cauliflower puree with some sprouts.  I definitely plan to eat here again next time I'm in D.C.  The place has personality and the floor is made of pennies.  How much more can you ask for?

At the end of the trip, I picked up my suitcase from the hotel, met up with my lab members, took a cab to DCA, and flew back to ORD.  Looking forward to SfN 2015!!

Everybody say, "1, 2, 3, Purkinje!!!

P.S. Last but not least, here is one of Van Gogh's amazing self-portraits from the National Gallery:

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