4 things I missed during the Society for Neuroscience virtual conference…or did I?

The Society for Neuroscience, SfN, holds an annual meeting that is attended by scientists and physicians from all around the world. This year, because of the ongoing pandemic, the meeting was run virtually. Did I enjoy it?

Like thousands of other neuroscientists, every year I look forward to joining the biggest neuroscience conference: the Society for Neuroscience or SfN, as we friendlily call it.

SfN meetings gather thousands of neuroscientists, both young and senior, from all around the world to a major US city to discuss not only cutting-edge research on the brain and nervous system but also to explore school fairs, be amazed by neuro-related art exhibitions, listen to music concerts and look into hundreds of job opportunities.

Each year for the last 15 years, I booked my tickets, printed my visa, and traveled as a student, postdoc, and more recently as a scientific writer, to Washington DC, New Orleans LA, Chicago IL, San Diego CA, Atlanta GA, multiple times.

This year everything was different

2020 marked the start of our virtual lives. During the height of the pandemic, many companies and organizations had to transform their already planned international conferences and meetings into digital events.

Digital events amplify the scientific exchange across the globe. They provide scientists at all career stages and of all disciplines with the opportunity to showcase their studies and to connect with top scientists without the fear of approaching them in person and present their results in a stage-fright-free mode. 

The first virtual event

Here are some numbers:

  • 5,293 digital attendees
    (a small fraction of the 30,000 who would ordinarily attend!)
  • 2,405 digital poster presentations
  • 130 exhibitors
  • 128 graduate school and career fair exhibitors
  • 91 speakers
  • 67 attendee-organized socials
  • 50 countries represented
  • 27 sessions

Did I enjoy it?

Staring at a screen all day while sitting in the same place for hours is definitely exhausting. Not counting any sort of distractions: emails, notifications, chores, kids, and pets screaming for attention.

However, in some ways, I almost (almost!) preferred the virtual experience to the in-person experience.

No jet lag. No extra travel costs. I have dressed in a more than informal way bordering on embarrassment. I could look at the park outside my window still listening to a plenary lecture. I snacked and drunk coffee for free whenever I wanted (and let me tell you that my coffee tastes much better than any coffee I have ever sipped at any conference lounge).

I could listen to all the (parallel) sessions, workshops, and plenary lectures. I could stop, re-play, and re-listen certain parts I might have missed, read questions and answers in real-time and calmly write readable notes down.

In the end, I felt I got more value because I could access all the conference recordings.

Was that enough or was something missing..?

SfN Virtual Connectome created a great event and after attending multiple virtual events this year I discovered that yes, they can be pretty amazing. Still, there is something from the on-site events I really miss.

4 things I missed:

#1: The travel zing

Getting away for a few days from my everyday life to discover a new city is something I have always enjoyed. I love to explore new places, taking advantage of any free hour in between the busy schedule to run to a museum, a monument, or for a lovely bus sightseeing city tour.

The Lincoln Memorial and the White House in Washington DC. The walk on the South Mission Beach in San Diego. The Cable News Network CNN tour and the world of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Though sometimes incidents happen like when, in San Diego, I left my camera on the taxi seat (no worries, I got it back).

New tastes and smells. Strange foods are also part of the authentic travel experience, right?

Whether this is good or not, I still remember the biggest slices of cake in Atlanta. How could I forget about my time in New Orleans, on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, eating oysters and alligator soup while listening to improvised street Jazz...?

What’s your favorite city for a scientific conference?

Image: Atlas Antibodies' team at the SfN conference, Chicago IL, October 2019. Left: Dr. Eugenia Kuteeva, Principal Scientist. Middle: Maria Hjortsmark, Marketing Manager. Right (myself): Dr. Laura Pozzi, Scientific Writer.

#2: The odd encounters

Sitting on my couch I have missed the casual opportunities to meet friends at the conference and the random bumping into a neuro-celebrity.

While wearily strolling along the exhibitor’s aisles, sitting at buffet tables, standing in coffee lines, and fake sleeping on the shuttle bus, it is quite common to meet an old friend from university or a recent lab-mate.

How to forget last year’s superstar encounter? Walking around the booths I noticed the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Eric Kandel. I stood beside him (it sounds like stalking) and kindly asked him to sign a book for me. Kindly and happily he agreed, and I got his book “Reductionism in art and brain science” signed.

The next day I caught a glimpse of another superstar walking along the aisles, the anatomist Prof. George Paxinos (yes, the guy behind “The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Coordinates” the most internationally cited publication).

I followed him (oh wait…I am a real stalker!) and introduced myself. He kindly signed the book I bought: a classic by Santiago Ramon y Cajal ”Advice for a young investigator”.

What unforgettable encounter have you had?

Image: Prof. Eric Kandel, signing his book for me at the SfN conference, Chicago IL, October 2019. Prof. Eric Kandel, the world-famous neurobiologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for discovering the central role synapses play in memory and learning. Laura's personal photo.

#3: The poster hunt

Poster sessions are a trademark of any scientific conference. They are highly interactive with people moving from poster to poster, chatting with the presenters, exchanging ideas and suggestions. Usually, other people join as well and long discussions can happen.

With the move to virtual platforms, what happens to the poster hall excitement? The SfN had a virtual poster session of over 2400 posters, many of which included pre-recorded presentations.

I heard someone saying: “A poster speaks for itself; the presence of its author is unnecessary.” Well, I definitely do not agree.

Posters usually contain a lot of scientific information. It is true that you can read and digest the contents of a virtual poster at your own pace, zoom in and zoom out, google the extra info you need, and even come back to it at a later time. But what about the enthusiasm and the surrounding passion?

The atmosphere in the poster hall is loud and chaotic, opposite to a university library. Navigating the infinite hallways is tiring and exciting at the same time. If you are the poster presenter, it can also be a frightening experience!

What’s your experience with virtual posters?

Image: Dr. Evelina Sjöstedt and Dr. Nicholas Mitsios from the Human Protein Atlas, presenting their posters at the SfN conference, Chicago IL, October 2019. Laura's personal photo.

#4: The weird neuro-collection giveaways

Giveaways create brand awareness and drive engagement. Maybe this sounds obvious and not like a big deal, but if you have ever been on the conference floor, you know that brand competition on the exhibitor aisles is fierce and fearless. 

One way to stand out and emerge above the crowd is to attract students and professionals with the weirdest giveaway.

I am not talking about a cute teddy bear, a cheap branded plastic water bottle, coffee mugs, gift cards, power bank, stickers, and the always too big or too small printed T-shirts.

I am talking about squeezable brains, cloth mice, silicon rats, electroencephalogram infinity scarf, the anatomically accurate brain necklaces, the neuron bracelets, the glial printed tie, and the legendary collectible (that never gets old) pipette-pen...although who use a pen anymore?

What are the weirdest conference giveaways you got?

Image: Atlas Antibodies' giveaway T-Shirt (left), and a "brain pin" from the neuro-artist Laura Bundesen (right).

So, did I really miss the real event?

Yes! With no doubt.

The Society for Neuroscience plans to reconvene in person for its 50th annual meeting, in November 2021 in the windy Chicago IL. 

Will I go? What’s your guess? I’m packing already! See you there!

Image: The Bean, or Cloud Gate, in Chicago IL. Laura's personal photo.