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October 21, 2012 / neurograce

Society for Neuroscience Conference: A Paradox

A small sampling of posters

S-F-N. Those three letters are instantly recognizable to any card-carrying neuroscientist. While they technically stand for “Society for Neuroscience”, what they usually refer to is the giant conference held by that society each year. This behemoth event brings on average over 30,000 researchers, presenters, exhibitors, and vendors together. Every hotel in town is jam-packed with neuroscientists and, after 5pm, so is every bar. You’d be hard-pressed to find a flight that doesn’t have an attendant struggling with poster tubes, or a restaurant whose diners aren’t donning SfN lanyards. It is a scientific spectacle beyond compare.

And it is that grandness, that sheer size, that makes SfN the conference that it is. But it is also what makes SfN so hard to love. It is absolutely overwhelming. Between the lectures, mini-symposiums, and nano-symposiums at any given moment there are roughly 20 talks you could be listening to. Feel like going to a poster? Each of the twice-daily poster sessions offers about 1775 options at a time. It’s unwieldy. However, the variety of topics ensures that you will find at least a quarter of what is being presented completely unappealing. So what you have, in essence, is a handful of smaller conferences going on in parallel: with the neuro-pathologists hanging out at symposiums about Parkinson’s mouse models, the bioengineers sticking to the BCI poster row, and psychologists seeking out anything fMRI. It may seem contradictory, but at the conference with the widest range of neuroscience research available, it is incredibly easy to stay wrapped in the cocoon of your sub-domain. Your best bet for getting a glimpse into another field is to catch some of the poster titles you sprint past on your journey from poster A47 to FFF64.

But maybe you’ll be going too fast, because SfN isn’t just intellectually big. 30,000 people necessitates a big space as well. The New Orleans Morial Convention Center where the conference was just held is three floors and over a kilometer long, and we took up all of it. And like with any conference center, the space is not physically appealing. There are drab colors, bad lighting, and a temperature consistently three degrees below the level of human comfort. With this many people you probably also find yourself zig-zagging through slow-moving crowds and waiting in a 20-minute line to buy a $10 sandwich.

So why do we do it? Why do so many (hopefully) logical people drag themselves to this monster each year? It can’t simply be for the science. There are countless other, smaller conferences that focus on the more narrow fields of research that people end up sticking to at SfN anyways. No, I would argue that it is in fact the hugeness of it that makes people come. Yes, walking through the sea of projects and presenters can make you feel very small, and like your work is insignificant or irrelevant. But when you consider yourself as part of this whole, there is a sense of solidarity and the notion that this field is progressing. We’re having a conversation. And while we may have different dialects, we’re all speaking the same language. So for all the headaches that come from a gathering this size, there is also great power in it, and promise.

And, of course, we mustn’t forget the second great driver of SfN attendance: socializing. SfN is attended by scientists from all different countries, from all different labs, and in all different stages of their careers. It can be a great opportunity to network, and to catch up with old colleagues and meet potential new ones. Also, a talk over dinner can end up accomplishing a lot more than lengthy emails and Skype calls can when collaborating long-distance. And nothing helps new co-workers bond like working towards the mutual goal of getting back to the hotel in an unknown town at 3am. The socializing may seem like a by-product of the conference, but (as many SfN attendees are surprisingly willing to admit) it can be the most crucial and productive aspect.

So despite all the negatives of SfN: the exhausting size, the sensory and intellectual overload, the awkwardness that comes from when my attempt to get a free Zeiss tote bag devolves into an elaborate lie about how my lab is in the market for a new multi-photon microscope…. I digress. But even with all that, I wouldn’t want to dissolve SfN. It is a unique (and for first-timers, potentially emotional) experience. Being confronted annually with the vast knowledge being produced, as well as the far vaster amount still missing, can be a helpful exercise to neuroscientists of all levels. The size and disjointed-ness of the conference exactly reflects the field itself, and that is something we shouldn’t ignore. In some ways SfN is like the internet: it has the depth to ensure that a user can spend all their time completely enveloped in the narrow topic they set out to find, but it also contains the breath to allow exploration for those who seek it. It is not the most efficient way to disseminate our knowledge, but it is perhaps the most unifying. There may be a lot of divisions within our field, but when we invade and overtake a city each fall, we don’t do it as electrophysiologists or molecular biologists or mathematicians; we do it as one giant horde of SfNers.

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