Vol 3. Issue 33 / November 1, 2004
Reflections on a Scholarly Meeting
By Jason Socrates Bardi
Years ago, a biology professor told me that there are two types of scientific meetings—those where everyone knows each other, and those where faces often get lost in the crowd.
The recent 2004 Society for Neurosciences meeting, which was held in San Diego last week, is a classic example of the latter type. With more than 31,000 attendees, including some 25,782 scientists, the annual event is more like a small city buzzing with activity than a single event. In less than a week, some 17,000 scientific presentations were made.
More than 100 of these presentations were by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute, where numerous researchers in departments such as Neurobiology, Neuropharmacology, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology work on brain-related science. In fact a quick search for "Scripps" in the institution field of the database of abstracts turned up 113 hits. (If only finding the right rooms were that easy!)
Generally, when a writer or reporter goes to a scientific meeting, the stories that he/she files will focus on one or more of these presentations. The meetings are usually incidental, and the data reported on may just as well have been presented in a scholarly journal.
But scientific meetings are more than just the totality of the data presented. They are cultural and social phenomena, and there is an untold story about scholarly meetings—the meetings themselves.
Scientific meetings are about the teenage kid who sells the pretzel you eat in lieu of lunch. They are about seeing familiar faces. They are about the Scripps Research professor I stood next to for 15 minutes after we recognized each other in the crowd, but who I never got a chance to talk to because he was on a cell phone and I was involved in a conversation about nanospheres. They are about the kindly, rotund, white-haired gentleman greeting conference attendees at the front door, and they are about the exhibit hall and that company selling what looked like 800 different kinds of tweezers. They are about feeling like you are back in school because you are following complicated itineraries to classroom-like settings.
Massive scientific meetings like the 34th annual Society for Neuroscience meeting are about the fashions and temperaments of tens of thousands of guests from hundreds of institutions from as nearby as the Scripps Research campus to as far away as Europe or Asia—all gathered to discuss a host of related topics in every imaginable accent.
The problem with large meetings, though, is that all of these activities for participants—talks, posters, social hours, dinners—are crammed into a few days time. There are usually a half-dozen potentially interesting lectures you might attend at any given time, and there are even satellite events, such as one titled Stem Cell Update: Can Evolving Developmental Insights Inform Intelligent Therapeutic Translation and Its Limitations?, which I attended on Monday night.
Dedicated to honoring the life and work of Christopher Reeve, the symposium featured the research of more than a dozen groups, including several from Scripps Research’s neighbor institutes. While posters scattered around the reception area and adorned with a photo of the familiar, smiling Christopher Reeve were stark reminders of Reeve’s recent passing, the mood inside was anything but somber. There were positive reports on progress in methods of proliferation of stem cells and their uses. The reports were hopeful—at times, even jovial. One example of this was when a speaker with an outback accent was introducing Fred Gage of the nearby Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
"I’m told he just came back from India," the speaker said of Gage. "But I don’t see what the relevance is."
Laughter filled at least part of the hall. A 40ish man in a tweed jacket standing next to me laughed riotously and then turned, explaining in a Texas twang, "It’s Australian humor."
Thousands of Posters
It is impossible to describe the flood of data—and the diversity of that data—that one finds on a single day at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. It took me 10 minutes of brisk, non-stop walking to cover the distance from one side of the exhibit hall to the other.
However, it did not take me long to find a poster that was being presented by Scripps Research scientists. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members from the Institute presented dozens of posters at the meeting, with topics ranging from sleep/wake patterns in mice to synaptic plasticity to stroke and its effect on the nervous system.
The range of poster topics for the meeting as a whole was even greater. I saw posters on everything from the results of a high school neuroscience art contest in Nova Scotia to a study where researchers mapped which parts of the brain are active when a person finds out he/she has been given a raise at work. I ran into a friend, a neuroscientist, while wandering through the convention center. He told me that there were more than 500 abstracts on the action of brain peptides on neurons, his own area of interest.
Later on, my neuroscientist friend and I went to a press conference on spinal cord repair. Afterwards, my friend confided that he admired the simplified tone of the press conference. (If you have never been to one, a press conference at a scientific meeting is very much like any other talk at a meeting except perhaps with fewer slides and many more questions).
The only other difference between a scientific talk and a press conference, I told my friend, is that nobody claps at the end of a press conference.
There was a lot of clapping at some of the other, more social events at this meeting. Not all social events are merely social. They are terrific professional opportunities to meet old friends and new colleagues, exchange wisdom, network, and perhaps make a meal of free finger food.
One such event that I had planned to attend was Monday afternoon’s Pavlovian Society Social. The social was announced in the meeting’s program and billed as a lively discussion of Pavlovian conditioning—which, the society asserts, is fundamental to all aspects of our life. "A splendid time is guaranteed for all," their announcement read.
Unfortunately I didn’t make the social because I was caught in a conversation on the other side of the convention center. That’s the one problem with scientific meetings—unlike school, there is no alarm to tell you where you should be at a certain time (cacophony of cell phones aside).
If only there had been a bell!
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