November 20, 2014

#SfN14 Day 5: Reflections on a Neuroscient-astic Week

This is the final post in my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. It's been fun! You can read other posts in this series here. I live-tweeted some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Re-live the experience by exploring the hashtag #SfN14.
Taking some time away from the hubbub (and
warmth, apparently) to sightsee.

What a week. Neuroscience 2014 was completely overwhelming, exhausting, inspiring, invigorating, and fruitful (I'm kind of sad that last one didn't end in "-ing"):

  • There were over 30,500 people in attendance on any given day, with over 15,000 abstracts presented as posters or oral presentations.
  • I don't think I attended a single talk that didn't have a line of latecomers waiting to get in.
  • ...and I saw Eric-freaking-Kandel strolling around casually in his signature bowtie while I sat on the steps waiting to meet some friends for dinner.

But I think my biggest "takeaways" from the meeting weren't necessarily from the scientific sessions. There is so, so much more that goes on behind the scenes at scientific conferences, and thanks to its titanic proportions, Neuroscience 2014 was certainly no exception.

Here are 3 things I learned from #SfN14:

A beautiful replica of the Capitol building at
the U.S. Botanic Garden.
1. SfN is weird. It's just so, so BIG. I calculated that 0.01% of the United States population was in attendance (of course, a significant percentage of attendees had traveled from abroad; the 0.01% figure simply reflects the numbers). When I was finished presenting my poster in the OO (yes, that means "double-O") section of the poster hall, I went to meet my friends in section A, and it took me a solid 15 minutes to walk to them.

And the titles of the poster sections were so strange and specific. As I scroll quickly through mobile app just now, topics include, for example, "Neural Oscillators and Activity-Dependent Plasticity of Intrinsic Membrane Properties" (17 posters fit this category) and "Brain-Machine Interface: Analytical Methods for Monitoring Tissue Responses" (this one has 10 posters).

It's mind-boggling to think that a single building (and surrounding hotels and shuttle services) could even accommodate this many people. (Heh, maybe D.C. could host the Summer Olympics in 2024). (Oh wait, that would be a terrible idea.)

2. It's incredible what can happen when you suck it up and put yourself out there. As I mentioned in my original #SfN14 post, I'm extremely introverted. This means, among other things, that I hate small talk, and the prospect of doing it with people I don't know is especially daunting.

I had the opportunity to attend a press social on Monday afternoon as one of the SfN Science Journalism Student Award winners. Not only did this mean I was faced with packed room full of people I'd never met, but half of them were my journalistic heroes. "Daunting" was an understatement. I picked out some cheese and crackers for my tiny plate, poured myself a soda, and took a deep breath as I scanned the room and pretended my limbic system wasn't firing in overdrive.

Moccasins at the National Museum of the American
Indian. The beadwork is extraordinary!
Without thinking, I walked up to a table with an empty spot and asked, "Mind if I join you?" I placed my things down, making my name badge visible.

"Oh my gosh. You're Gaines, on Brains!" one of them exclaimed. A few others smiled broadly in recognition. "I love your blog, and your Twitter's great," another added.

Guys, I could have cried right then. I did not expect something like that to happen. My head and heart were overwhelmed. I ended up sticking around and chatting for an hour.

That moment gave me confidence to head to #sfnbanter later that night, a decision I'd been toiling over all meeting given my personality (and dislike of being out late). My Twitter friends are going to find out that I'm actually super boring in person. But you know what? That was an incredibly fun experience, too. Of course.

The things I dread most usually turn out to be unexpectedly wonderful. (When am I going to learn that? I should have asked Eric Kandel.)

3. There's so much more to science than the science. The best part about the meeting being so huge was the opportunity to be exposed to many other types of talks and social events. I attended just as many scientific sessions as I did professional development workshops, advocacy events, science communication talks, and, of course, vendors. (*free stuff!*)

I got way too many business cards than I could carry. I spent this morning e-mailing folks I'd met and solidifying connections I'd made.

There was even NEUROSCIENCE ART to be seen/appreciated/purchased on the second floor! (Fellow bloggers Shelly and Katiesci have interviewed some of the artists.)

I think the best phrase to describe Neuroscience 2014 was "well-rounded."

Of course, I was happy to be home and reunited with my fluffy kitten, confident that the connections I'd made and lessons I'd learned would continue to surprise me with incredible opportunities in the coming weeks, months, years...perhaps always.

(After all, "Oh my gosh, you're Gaines, on Brains!" is not a moment I will soon forget.)

My kitten Yoshi knows that being a stylish gentleman means wearing Artologica scarves, not tacky, objectifying bowling shirts.
He's going to wear this #scishirt when he's interviewed on TV about discovering the gene that makes him so darn cute.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out! It was great meeting you at SfN Banter!

    1. You too! Sorry we couldn't spend more time together!


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