Annually, around 20,000 scientists in neuroscience, both basic researchers and clinicians, come together at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It's big. Actually gigantic. It's from Nov. 12-16, 2022 in San Diego. Maybe you are on the way there at the moment.
Or maybe you just cannot go? Just so you know, it's a hybrid meeting and you can register even after the meeting has started. Find out more here.
We recently got the chance to get a sneak-peek of the meeting with the Society for Neuroscience's current leadership: Dr. Gina Turrigiano, Brandeis University researcher and current President of the Society for Neuroscience, Robby Greene, of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center current chair of SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee and Dr. Damien Fair from the University of Minnesota, incoming chair of SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee.
And we played a nerdy game with them. It's 'we' because this podcast is co-hosted by Dr. Jean Zarate, senior editor at Nature Neuroscience, who is also a musician and an actor.
Conversations with scientists is my podcast series that expands on the things I hear and read and and offers conversations with people I meet in the course of my science journalism adventures.
Note: These podcasts are produced to be heard. If you can, please tune in. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and there’s a human editor. But a transcript may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Transcript of the podcast
What I've seen at conferences is unbelievable enthusiasm to be meeting in person. What I've been hearing from the trainees is that it's kind of revelatory, like they they didn't understand, I think a lot of them have different science is when you're doing it in person. And when you're having conversations face-to-face with people the sort of creativity that it sparks.
That’s Dr Gina Turrigiano neuroscientist at Brandeis University and current president of the Society for Neuroscience. Hi and Welcome to Conversations with scientists, I’m Vivien Marx. Today’s episode is about neuroscience. It’s with Dr. Turrigiano who you just heard, with Dr. Damian Fair from the University of Minnesota and Dr. Robby Greene from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Today’s episode is co-hosted by Dr. Jean Zarate, senior editor at Nature Neuroscience who is also a musician and actor.
So good morning. I think I've met everybody except Gina. So just It's nice to meet you. I'm one of the senior editors over at Nature Neuroscience. So nice to meet you, too. I think you've dealt with my colleagues more than me.
In this episode, we want to give you a little sneak-peek of the upcoming annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and share with you what our guests said more generally about neuroscience. Just a note about SfN, which is the nickname for the meeting.
You might have your suitcase all packed and you might already be in San Diego for the meeting. But perhaps you just can’t manage a trip at the moment for various reasons. So let me just say you can still register to participate virtually even when the meeting is underway. And you can watch recorded sessions after the meeting. A link to register is in the show notes. https://www.sfn.org/meetings/neuroscience-2022/registration
At this meeting, you will experience and perhaps also meet with Dr. Turrigiano, Dr. Fair and Dr. Greene. It’s a meeting nicknamed SfN, where around 20,000 researchers who study the brain—clinicians and basic researchers from many sub-disciplines--come together. Beyond those around 20,000 attendees, others will log on virtually.
Before we get to the meeting itself, here is a part of the conversation I want to share with you. In the first round, you will hear Gina Turrigiano respond first, then Damien Fair and then Robby Greene.
Okay, so it's time for this, I guess, it's a game but it's also more I think like a time to reflect, too even though it's fast for the rapid-fire. Robby has done this before, so he's a veteran at this, you've probably done this elsewhere. We're going to mention two terms, and you pick one that you like better, and then we'll move on. And in order to be fair, it’ll start with different people, we can start with Gina and then go around and then start with a different person next time so you have time to think
No explanation, you just want us to pick.
Unfortunately yes. And if you hate it then don't pick skip it say so it's not a problem at all you can say I don't like this one. All fine. Jean do you want to start?
MRI or microscopy?
MRI can I say that? Can I just jump in?
Yeah, I expected that from you, Damien.
yeah, I'm more analytical in bias so I'll go for the microscopy as well.
Poster or talk
No brainer: poster
PhD program, four years or as long as it takes?
Probably not long enough, actually. I think yeah. Anyway, no explanation: neither.
It's fine. You can explain you can blow up the game that's totally okay.
Not forever though.
We are mortals, unfortunately.
Psychedelics or psychoactive drugs: interesting or fringe.
Oh interesting, for sure
Who can argue with that?
More techniques or more theories?
More good theories.
Better techniques. Focused techniques, I should say, yeah. Gap-filling techniques. Can I say that? Yeah. Anyway. Yeah.
Yeah, two sides of the same coin.
Big labs or small labs?
Medium labs. Actually, I’m really serious.
Can’t answer the question.
I've got a waffle for you. So small labs as long as they're collaborating.
Depends on the PI and the personality, either, you know, either.
It's good to have a critical mass that where there's lateral transmission and people are really mentoring each other in the lab. I think that that's really helpful. But then too big and it's just not fun anymore.
This really depends on the culture of the area where you are. There are other aspects where you can have many people, many different people working on a single subject coming at it from many different angles. And that can be really facilitated by a big lab.
It just depends. What are the questions being asked? I mean, you know, today's world, there's almost doesn't exist, a lab, small lab. but you know, you can't do everything by yourself anymore, it just doesn't really exist. And it's moving further and further away from that. So it all depends on how everything is set up, and how you can maximize the broad expertise that's required to do really good science.
And sometimes it's just collaborating amongst small labs, and sometimes it would be putting it under a big umbrella. It just depends, you know, on the questions and the personalities, who are running the running the show.
I'm gonna just make an editorial comment about sort of all of these questions, and that is that, in my view, the best way to get sort of a robust field that's really moving forward and pushing back the frontiers is to allow a diversity of approaches, a diversity of styles, a diversity of people and ideas coming into it.
There isn't like one formula that's the right one for doing, you know, really breakthrough neuroscience, I think. So you know, that's something I think, maybe the field is struggling with a little bit, making sure that resources get distributed broadly enough, that that actually happens.
As an electrician, really, I mean, that's how I got my start. Typically, back in the bad old days, the good old days, we would work in these with these rigs. And we'd be by ourselves. I mean, it was very much a, you know, I liked to have my rig like a submarine sort of, you know, I can reach everything and work together on it.
Then once I had my data, once I had, and maybe also on at the beginning and designing some of the subjects. That would involve other people in collaborating with other people. But initially, at the beginning of this, it was just, you know, I was an electrophysiologist. And that's so that's how I worked. That's really changed now. The idea of doing electrophysiology distinct from genomics, for example, or even for applying it to behavior in things like imaging and you know, other technologies like this, you just wouldn't do it by itself anymore.
Name one emerging hot topic in neuroscience.
I'll go back to the genomics and now it's an application or using that kind of understanding environmental genomics, let's call it that. The interaction of the environment in all in all it senses with the with the genome.
I think machine learning and other new approaches to studying complex free behavior and relating that to brain activity that's, you know, something I'm, in particular really excited about.
Non-invasive, precision brain-targeting.
Next up, our guests talk about the SfN meeting itself. Conferences these days, are overshadowed by COVID, visa challenges, thoughts about carbon footprint, equity and resource constraints. We asked the guests about the upcoming meeting and asked about conferences in general. Here's Jean Zarate from Nature Neuroscience.
Jean Zarate [9:45]
So I don't know about the three of you, but in this year in 2022, I've started to go back to conferences in person. And some of the things that I've noticed is, there's a massive awareness of COVID, do you have a mask mandate, do you even want to go? Some people are still opting to stay in and do a virtual attendance instead of an in-person attendance. That's one massive theme. I've also seen an increased focus on accessibility and equity for everybody around the world.
And I've also seen PIs show up with brand new labs, because their lab personnel has turned over over the last few years during the pandemic. So they all come with this renewed sense of enthusiasm, to network and to learn from each other. So what have you seen as you've gone to conferences? And what are you looking forward to for SfN?
Gina Turrigiano [10:40]
Right, I guess I'll start. What I've seen at conferences is unbelievable enthusiasm to be meeting in person. What I've been hearing from the trainees is that it's kind of revelatory, like they didn't understand, I think, a lot of them have different science is when you're doing it in person.
And when you're having conversations face-to-face with people the sort of creativity that it sparks.
So they've been coming back from meetings, just with this incredible sense of just excitement and possibility. I think they didn't understand how fun science could be. And the sort of in- person aspects of it is part of what makes it so you know, incredibly rewarding for a social creature like a human being. So that's one thing I would say.
The other is, you're absolutely right, that, you know, these issues of equity, and also climate change, and all of these things, people being worried about COVID, but also just people in, you know, in a lab with not enough money, maybe to send all their trainees or in a country where they can't get a visa, all of these things are really issues that we've been thinking a lot about in terms of, you know, we are an international organization, and we want to make sure that everybody has access.
So that's why we are doing a hybrid meeting this year. We don't know how it's gonna go, we don't know how many people are going to take us up on the hybrid aspect, but it's there precisely to make sure that as many people as possible have access to, you know, the cutting edge of neuroscience.
We’re guessing there should be on order 20,000 people in person, but that's, there's a big, you know, margin of error there. So I don't know, I think it's gonna feel really big, and really exciting. And like there's, you know, really a critical mass, I think. And then the big question mark is, how many people will take us up on the virtual piece, because I think a lot of them will be registering at the last minute. And so we're just not going to know until, till we till we find out.
Damien Fair [12:45]
I think we're in a place in a world right now, where we, we don't really know what the right balance is. It's so new to us about how to do these types of conferences. I think, meetings I guess like SfN, which are usually kind of cutting edge about how to handle these changing environments is a good testing spot. So we'll learn a lot from SfN this year.
Certainly, the students are, I think there's a new, probably, a new realization of the value of making relationships and doing things in person as you come out of the pandemic. I have students who are now in their third year, right, and they were really nervous with the Flux Society this year about giving their poster. I didn't even recognize because they'd never done one, a real one yet, you know.
And it's fascinating, you know, that, how different things are. But I think that the value of the of doing things in person is now kind of being realized. We kind of took it for granted, I think of those types of relationships, but then it also puts a lot of pressure and recognition about how do you make those kind of experiences available to everybody, right? And that's part of the challenge. Even we move to this hybrid scheme, you know, in the future, I still think there's going to be a lot of growth that's going to be required to truly make the experiences equitable.
We are allowing question and answer, you know, some people can ask questions, people attending virtually can ask questions of the speakers. So this is also a kind of a big experiment we're doing to see how that works, to sort of integrate questions from the people who are there and people who are attending virtually which we haven't really had questions at the big lectures for a while. So I think that will actually improve the overall you know, sense of give and take, and maybe let the virtual people feel like they're participating more.
Now we get to this actually event that's going to happen. Obviously, it's a gigantic event. And I know that you all have spent a lot of time on it. And we don't have enough time to talk about everything. But what are you most excited about, about the upcoming annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, what kind of speaks to you in the schedule that you've compiled?
Robby Greene [15:30]
I am really looking forward to the energy that comes out of these meetings. And I'm really hoping that this comes across also on the virtual aspect of it. I think there's a good chance that it may, especially with this added interaction, I didn't know about this, but this is, I think it's a terrific addition to this.
But one of the most amazing things I think, not only for, you know, faculty and so forth, that are there at the meeting, but and the networking, but also for the for the trainees that come: they've never seen anything like this. And I mean, to see the reaction.
And again, this energy that comes out of this and the excitement of it is. You can't tell them about it. I mean, other than to say this happens, but boy, to experience it is something that they won't soon forget. I know, I've never forgotten it, and I really miss it.
So this is one of the reasons that I'm really looking forward to this meeting. The top one is is looking at the development of the these new genomic atlases, genomics-based atlases, which are just remarkable achievements, I think.
They're, they really are just the beginning there is like laying a foundation. We don't know exactly where they're going, but we're going to start seeing even at this meeting some of the applications of these atlases and where they're worth may actually come out.
So now we're understanding that we know there are many, for example, many different types of neurons in the brain, these cell types are now starting to be categorized, they're also starting to be localized in whole brain atlases, which is something that we've never been able to do before. We're also starting to understand some of the, so these are all catalogued or looked at on the basis of their gene expression.
We're starting to see the elements or understand the elements and starting to categorize them as well, that are actually controlling this expression, which in turn is controlling the way in which these cells are behaving, and knowing how they're all behaving in this comprehensive fashion, will allow us to begin to get a much different perspective on behavior, and how it's being generated, that we've just never had available before. So this is really nice.
And then I’ll just mention, one other bonus that I think is coming out of this is understanding these controlling elements, is allowing us to start to make sense of things like GWAS, and weight in ways that we've never been able to do. So we find a gene location out of the GWAS that's associated with a particular phenotype, usually some kind of pathology.
And now we're starting to be able to, to understand, even if this location is not actually a gene coding area, it's very likely that it's a gene-controlling area, a gene controlling element. So for example, an enhancer controlling whole sets of genes. It's a DNA-binding site, or a promoter, another DNA binding site that binds to a specific protein promoter, I'm sorry, a transcription factor. And this controls whether a gene gets expressed or not. This is why cells act even with the same exact genes, why they act differently.
So now we're starting to be able to put that together, and we'll see if it how sensitive these comprehensive gene assessments are, whether they're going to be sensitive enough, or how we have to change our assessment of them, to be able to understand how this gene expression changes with a changing environment, how it changes across conditions, how it changes with, say, pharmacology, a therapy, or something like this. These things, we're now realizing they're incredibly dynamic, and we've got to now be able to make that kind of assessment. This is all starting to emerge the meaning so that's what's got me going.
Damien Fair [20:00]
I kind of think of SfN, it's like my new year, you know, we, I like going into the meeting, because it's, it really breaks me out of my, you know, cognitive box, as Steve Hyman used to say, right, where I begin to branch out into these different spaces and see how these other levels and different layers of neuroscience kind of map onto my own work. That's not easy to do, right, just in general, but at SfN it's essentially set up for of those kinds of interactions.
And so after the meeting, I'm really energized. Like, you know, and I, and I'm thinking about new ways about how, what I'm seeing in my own work, and new experiments and things like that, and it slowly wanes over time until the new year, the next new year, when I, you know, when I do it all over again. I mean, I generally, I go to a lot of talks, but I really love the poster sessions. I hunker down a lot and just see people, talk to them. What you know, what are you working on? How does it work, or tell me more, you know.
That really, really kind of gets me really gets my, you know, my juices flowing in my brain about, you know, in relation to kind of my own work. So I'm really excited for that. Like I said, I go every year, and I'm very excited to kind of see all the new stuff that's out there. And you know, how to map that onto my own my own work in brain imaging and brain development.
Gina Turrigiano [21:40]
Picking up on that, you know, I think one of the things about SfN that is just unique is the simultaneous incredible depth and incredible breadth. And so you can learn something completely new, get an end to a new field that you really want to understand from the bigger lectures or the symposia.
And then you can go to the poster session, just dive into the nitty gritty of the stuff that you know is directly relevant to the experiments your graduate students are doing. And like having those two things together. And then the other thing I would sort of expand and sort of said already. The energy in the poster sessions is kind of like nothing else. I think when the students haven't, you know, the first time they kind of walk into that football field size of the absolute cutting edge of neuroscience, it's kind of amazing. I mean, it's always like a little bit 'Oh, my God, how do I fit into this like enormous thing' but it's also kind of revelatory. I think. That's, that's all there.
And you know, watching the students make connections, and meet other people. I mean, one of the great things about SfN is you're seeing friends you've made through science from all over the world, and they're all there together. And it really feels like this sort of global community. Being part of that is, that's one of the things that makes science really exciting.
I'm also really excited about a lot of the specific science, I would just, you know, I'll say something about the presidential special lectures, because of course, I got to pick those. And I really tried to pick amazing scientists who would give us insight into really, again, this sort of breadth of the field using different organisms, different levels of analysis. So we're going to be hearing all the way going up from piezo channels and sense of touch from Ardem Patapudian.
We're going to be hearing about sleep and learning in Drosophila from Amita Sehgal. We'll be hearing from Tiago Branco, who's using some of these, you know, wonderful new neurobiological behavioral paradigms in rodents to really get insight into you know, how brain circuits, modulate and control behavior. So he'll be talking about escape behavior, very universal behavior. And then we'll be hearing from Doris Tsao, who's going to talk about her really kind of amazing work, understanding the coding principles behind complex perceptions. So it's gonna be an amazing breath. They're all amazing scientists and incredible communicators. So I think those are going to be certainly a highlight for me. So much other great science, right?
Just listening to everybody talking about their highlights, more personal and scientific, there's a thought that's kind of percolating in my brain. And it's something that Damien had said, it's the networking, the social networking, the inspiration to get more creative. How is it then with the outline of the presidential lectures that Gina mentioned, how do you think we can bridge across all of these different scales? We're talking about the genetics from Robby's highlights. And all the way up to Damian's neuro-imaging is, is it just the conversations that we have at the at the conference? How can we make that more concrete? Is it finding a better terminology? Is it just applying machine learning skills? What do you think we need to do to now bridge across all of these scales of neuroscience?
Gina Turrigiano [25:25]
Right, well, as someone who certainly does that, in my own research, I would say collaboration is critical. And that's another reason why these in-person meetings, I think, are so important. Because, I mean, you can find collaborators, you know, through Zoom meetings, or whatever, it's not impossible, but again, sort of the sense of kind of chemistry, I guess, you know, synergy, intellectual synergy that you get, when you're talking to someone in person, it's just much easier to assess, like, can I collaborate with this person? Is this something: Do we have mutual interests that, that maybe we hadn't even thought of until we saw each other's work in this. So collaborations are really key?
Obviously, there's techniques that help you span. You know, one of those would be computational approaches. You know, I think machine learning approaches are phenomenal for giving us new tools for studying complex behaviors, for instance, for really, you know, for following freely behaving animals, and trying to analyze what's happening in a way that's freer from our preconceptions about what the behaviors should be measuring or what the behaviors should be.
And so I think that sort of in a neuro-ethological context is one of the things, putting behavior into a neuro-ethological context, something I'm really excited about. Some of these new approaches make that much easier to do. But again, like, you know, collaborators are kind of key for pulling this off.
Damien Fair [27:00]
Yeah, that's absolutely right. And I and I, and to reiterate that point is, oftentimes you just need a little time to think through, like, how it's gonna work, you know. And these kinds of meetings they really help with, they've really helped with it. I mean, everybody's, I mean, there's no question ever had the experience where you, you have a great idea, you talk with somebody on a meeting on Zoom, and then you turn it off, and then poof, it just goes away. Like, that never happened, right?
That's pretty much, that's everybody's knows what I'm talking about, that happens every day. But if you can sit down with somebody, and really, really start thinking through all the logistics about how to make a collaboration, go like resources, hands, you know, you know, personnel, students, you know, oftentimes across labs, I mean, it just takes time. And so when you're at SfN you can go get lunch, you can hang out for a little bit, and you have a little more opportunity to do something like that.
Of course, the tools are very important too. Of course, I'm, you know, I'm a brain imager. So I think one of the great tools to do that is is the measurement that you can get across all the different model systems, right? So what you know, you know, for example, you know, Kaf Dzirasa, who's one of the one of the special doctors done this really awesome work, you know, leveraging Gap junctions from the heart and use them as tool to understand neurophysiology and changes in mood and behavior in animal models in the brain. It's like, it's just an awesome story.
And really, you know, really cool example of where for us as we start talking, it's like, hey, well, that kind of neurophysiology, well, I can because I can put that in a scanner, you know.Then it provides says, hey, well, if I can put if I can take your model, and you have these very specific signatures that are related to mood, and I can, I can identify what that signature looks like with non-invasive imaging like functional MRI.
Well, then I can see if that actually relates to that same signature that we're, we think it looks it should look like get a human because it's the identical measurement, right? And, and so, but those conversations like how you put that all together, like even coming up with the ideas, you just got to be able to sit down and just be able to talk with somebody in meetings like SfN are in that type of environment allow those kinds of, you know, bridges to occur.
The breadth of this meeting is kind of a starting point in a way and for for being able to bridge these kinds of things. We can go and say, for example, go to one of these imaging talks. And, and see maybe a leader in the field discussing certain imaging aspects, perhaps related to a particular pathology that's related to a specific gene, then you can go back in and find the people that are working on that gene, working on what's controlling that gene, working on what happens when you knock that gene out, or when you get a gain of function of that gene, things like this. And, and you can actually start to put these things together, that's the bridging, I think that you were talking about, Jean, is exactly that sort of thing. This opportunity exists all in one place, all at one time, at the meeting, in a way that it just doesn't happen otherwise.
Jean Zarate [30:30]
I wonder whether or not terminology is a thing is a crucial factor here, the culture might have changed. But at some point, there's a lot of jargon that happens at each of the scales. And sometimes one label is the same across two different scales, but mean completely different things. So maybe it's just a thought that I wanted to leave is, while we go into this conference looking for these collaborations, maybe we need to be more mindful of how get ready to explain it to someone who does not know what each of these terms mean.
Damien Fair [31:05]
Absolutely, we that's it's, there's no question about that. That's a barrier. And that's another reason why, you know, the value of doing things in person is so helpful, because you can start working through some of those, you know, some of the some of those issues. But I think, you know, it's a very salient point, because I talk about this a lot, because we do a lot of public outreach and working with the community and I'm realizing how bad of communicators we are, as scientists often, you know. It's not our fault.
Of course, not no one teaches us you know, anything about it, it's not part of our training or anything. And potentially, you know, my guess is that, you know, it's part of the acceleration process of doing exactly what you're describing, will require the field to kind of shift, you know, their value systems a little bit to understand those types of barriers and actually put some energy into doing better, creating common standards and language across the different layers of neuroscience.
Gina Turrigiano [32:05]
That is one of the real values of the big lectures, the special lectures, the presidential lectures. Those lectures really, are always trying to present their work in a big context. So, they usually start with some history of the field. These are the questions these are why the questions are there and then here's what we've done to try to address it.
So that gives people I think, who aren't experts a window into a field and have a way to absorb some of the language some of the paradigms some of the thinking that they could then take, you know, as they start to drill down in that field. But Damien's absolutely right. Like everybody should be doing that really. Certainly, we make an effort to train our graduate students to be able to talk in a general way to other scientists. And that's something I think that yeah, science needs much more of.
That was Conversations with scientists. Today co-hosted with Dr. Jean Zarate, senior editor at Nature Neuroscience.
The guests were Dr. Gina Turrigiano from Brandeis University who current president of the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Robby Greene from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, current chair of SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee and Dr. Damien Fair from the University of Minnesota, incoming chair of SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee.
And here's a shout-out and thank you to Matt Windsor and his team. He is media and communications manager of the Society for Neuroscience and he helped in a big way for this podcast to come together.
And I just wanted to say because there’s confusion about these things sometimes. The Society for Neuroscience didn’t pay for this podcast. Nobody paid to be in this podcast. This is independent journalism that I produce in my living-room. I’m Vivien Marx, thanks for listening. And the music is Legend of One by Kevin MacLeod, licensed by filmmusic.io.
(Getty Images; Y. Chino)
(Podcast art: J. Jackson, Music: Funky energetic Intro by WinnieTheMoog. Another piece used in this media project: Legend of One by Kevin MacLeod: Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/3973-legend-of-one License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license Artist website: https://incompetech.com)