30 November 2011

Aerobics grows your brain, but does it make you smarter?

Here’s what looks to be a straightforward claim:

Increased hippocampal volume translates to improved memory function(.)

But a simple line in the Discussion section may not convey the trickiness of the analysis in the Results section.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgThis paper, by Erickson and company, is looking for ways to prevent or reverse cognitive decline as people age. The hippocampus is part of the brain critical to the formation of memory, something we’ve known from many unfortunate people like Henry Molaison (known in the scientific literature as HM) or Clive Wearing who have suffered damage to their hippocampi. There’s good evidence that the size of the hippocampus can be affected by experience in humans.

The experiment had two groups. One group did aerobic exercise, the other did stretching exercises. They tested people after six months of exercise, and again after a year.

People who did the aerobic exercise had an anterior hippocampus that was a couple of percentage points larger than when they started. This is pretty cool, because hippocampus size decreases with age. The authors estimate that this is the equivalent of “rolling back the clock” by one or two years. The pattern they saw with the people doing stretching exercises was more typical: their hippocampi, on average, shrank.

Hippocampus is involved in forming new memories. Aerobic exercise makes your hippocampus bigger, as shown in this paper. So the statement I quoted at the top seems to follow, not just logically, but inevitably.

But here’s my problem. In the Results, the authors write:

Both groups showed improvements in memory(.)

Wait. Both groups got better at the memory task? That’s not what I would predict if hippocampus volume relates to memory function. After all, the hippocampi of the stretching control group decreased in size. You might think, “Well, okay, maybe both groups improved, but the aerobic exercise group must have improved more than the stretching control group, right?” Wrong.

(T)he aerobic exercise group did not improve performance above that achieved by the stretching control group(.)

Wait. What? How can you claim that  bigger hippocampus volume translates into better memory, when people whose hippocampi are shrinking perform just as well at the memory task as those whose hippocampi are growing? Erickson and colleagues make this claim based on an analysis of the people in the aerobic control group only, and show that there’s a correlation between the amount of increase in the hippocampus and the improvement on the memory task.

Am I missing something blindingly obvious? I don't see how you can claim bigger hippocampus means better memory when you only analyze the test group and not the control.

This paper is very cool in what it shows about flexibility of brain size, but I am not sure what the take-home message is about whether aerobics can keep your memory sharp.

Reference

Erickson K, Voss M, Prakash R, Basak C, Szabo A, Chaddock L, Kim J, Heo S, Alves H, White S, Wojcicki T, Mailey E, Vieira V, Martin S, Pence B, Woods J, McAuley E, & Kramer A. 2011. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (7), 3017-3022 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015950108

Photo by rikomatic on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

29 November 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Lurking


Not sure of the species, but I think it’s in the genus Cherax, possibly even Cherax destructor. It was taken in southern Australia.

Photo by clinton1550 on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


28 November 2011

Research programs: Pies and cupcakes

During Neuroscience, I talked to several people about doing research, and how my strategy for working at an undergrad institution differed a lot from more traditional research institutions.

When people asked, “What does your lab work on?” After the first couple of times where I tried to rattle off, “Let's see, in the last two years I’ve published on parasites, nocicieption, animal care, brain scan ethics, fighting, the pet trade, ecological modeling, colour polymorphism,” I made a list on paper because it was too hard to remember them all.

By the end, on the last leg of the flight home, I came up with a metaphor.

In most research labs, the supervisor’s research agenda is like a pie, where everyone gets a slice. Grad students and postdocs get big slices; undergraduates might only get crumbs. But there's just one pie. Sure, every piece is a little different, but each has more or less the same flavour.

I give my students cupcakes.

Each is separate. Each is smaller, so nobody can have a great big piece. But you can have a lot of different flavours.*

Maybe one reason why so many labs are built on the pie model is that it’s less work thinking up what to do next. A lot of people think that science is about solving problems.** But a huge part of science is about identifying problems to be solved. If you content yourself with working on a single, massive problem that will take decades, you never have to worry about scrambling for a new idea again.

But as Jose Bravo said:

People with answers always work for people with questions.

Generating a lot of questions is challenging, but it has a different set of rewards.




* To use another metaphor, from Archilochus:
The fox knows many things. But the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Most research labs are run by hedgehogs: they put everything into trying to know one big thing, so big that it can sustain decades worth of research work. I suppose it’s appropriate that my lab is more fox-like, considering the number of people who mispronounce my name that way.


** For instance, see Marie-Claire Shanahan’s wonderful post about what students identify as being a “science person” is someone for whom the problems are solved:
Many students extended definition to say that because science students are so smart they shouldn’t ever have to ask for help or further explanations. One student said in her interview that real science students “understand all concepts and go above and beyond knowledge expectations. They do not require explanation.” Another student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

24 November 2011

The #SciFund super team-up!

One of the things I love about being in the #SciFund challenge?

Teamwork.

The advantage of #SciFund is that nobody is going it alone. We have been able to share ideas and bounce ideas around between each other, and have stronger projects and more visibility than if any one of us was trying this on our own.

In that spirit, let me introduce fellow #SciFund challenger, Marisa Tellez!



P.S.—I’m stupidly happy with how this came out.

23 November 2011

#SciFund challenge: the half-way point

Three weeks down; three weeks to go.

We’re at the halfway point in the #SciFund challenge, and my project is 51% funded. I’m on target to meet my funding goal, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

What has it all been like so far?

I’m a raging inferno of emotions here!

The moments when you see the Rockethub email coming in announcing, “Your project has been fueled!” are great big highs – the amount does not matter. It’s just knowing that someone cared enough to help, and that you’re moving towards the goal, that make each one of those emails sweet.

But when the days go by with no emails... it’s pretty damn depressing.

Even when I know that most of the action is going to happen in the first and last weeks, and I know that it’s going to be hard to maintain momentum in the middle of the campaign (that is to say, right now), that intellectual knowledge doesn’t stop me from moping a bit when a day goes without the needle on the gauge budging.

But then, I read the media coverage, and I feel like I’m back hitting the high notes. The media coverage has been supportive, and there’s been so much that I just haven’t been able to keep track of it all (but fortunately, there’s a compilation here). But it’s almost as encouraging to read something like this in Forbes as it is to see a donation:

My son and I watched the Indiana Jones-like video from scientist, Zen Faulkes, and thought, “we should ‘fuel’ this project.”

Why, yes. Yes, you should. ;)

I was also interviewed by Jennifer Welsh for her LiveScience article, which has been reprinted and reproduced on several other sites.

My project also gets an mention in the Daily Mail article on SciFund. I’m a bit... miffed, I suppose, that they are characterising all the #SciFund projects as “wacky,” when we are all bona fide scientists with serious projects.

Also, I wanted to point out a discussion that happened on Google Plus about trusting the #SciFund participants with your donations, and how you know those dollars make a difference.

The highs are higher, and the lows are lower, than I ever expected. I just cannot maintain the same detached, “We’ll see how it goes” attitude that I take with normal grant submissions. There, I submit the manuscript, but have more more contact with the thing for months. Here, there’s almost daily contact, even when it’s not necessarily donations.

P.S.—You should fuel my #SciFund project at Rockethub.com!

P.P.S.—I’m working on a few new things related to my project that I hope you will see before the end of the week!


Photo by ♥KatB Photography♥ on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.



22 November 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Scene stealers


I’m featuring krill (Meganyctiphanes norvegica) today on the Tuesday Crustie for no other reason than Will the Krill and Bill the Krill (voices of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, respectively) were two of the best things about Happy Feet Two:



Picture by The Sun and Doves on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

18 November 2011

Non-nuclear nano neurons

ResearchBlogging.orgLiving things are made out of cells. Most people with even a passing familiarity with cells knows some of the parts that they have. A membrane to keep the outside out and the inside in. Some mitochondria for energy. Some endoplasmic reticulum to make your proteins. But the part of the cell that is the most familiar, the most famous, the big mac daddy of organelles, is the home of DNA, the center, the nucleus.

But now, my friends! Prepare to be amazed! Prepare to be astonished! Prepare to enter...


The world without the nucleus.

Well, not the world, exactly, but a nervous system in which most of the neurons have no nuclei. That nervous system belongs to the animal pictured in the upper left corner: Megaphragma mymaripenne, a microscopic wasp.


The other two cells in the picture above should be familiar to anyone who took any science in school: they’re a paramecium and an amoeba - and they’re shown at the same scale as the wasp. These wasps are tiny, tiny little animals.

Alexey Polilov has counted the nuclei in these wasps, both as adults and pupae. All of them. This is not as hard as it might sound, if you’re coming in with the expectation that most invertebrates have thousands, or tens of thousands, of neurons. Just one abdominal ganglion in crayfish holds about 600 neurons. But the total number of nuclei in the adult wasp was less than 400. And this wasp is capable of some complicated behaviour, not least of which is flying. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that powered flight is a simple behaviour that can be controlled only by a simple circuit with a handful of neurons. Flying is hard.

The lack of nuclei in the adult is not because they have so few neurons throughout their life, like C. elegans (302 neurons in wild-type adult). Rather, the wasps lose nuclei during development. The younger pupae have about 7,400 nuclei in their neurons, which sounds a reasonable number for such a tiny animal. But most of the nuclei are broken apart during the metamorphosis into the adult form. I know some other cells do not have a nucleus, like human red blood cells, but wonder if the mechanisms would be similar.

How can neurons without nuclei work physiologically? Polilov doesn’t provide an hypothesis, but he notes the adult wasps live only about 5 days, which is long given the size of the wasp. I suppose it’s possible that the adult life span is short enough that the nucleus can make all the proteins the neuron needs to function for five days during the pupal stage.

Polilov suggests that the size of the neurons limits how small you can make an animal. These wasps devote proportionately more of their body to their nervous system than larger insects: about 6% for Megaphragma compared to 1% or less for a honeybee. Despite the title of this paper, Polilov only examines the one species of miniature wasp in this paper. Whether or not other miniature arthropods would show the same kind of nuclear abandonment remains to be seen.

Reference

Polilov A. 2011. The smallest insects evolve anucleate neurons. Arthropod Structure & Development: in press. DOI: 10.1016/j.asd.2011.09.001

Related posts

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave”... because of small brains?

Protester picture from here.

16 November 2011

Vodka and vacillating voles

Browsing through the Neuroscience poster session, I was stopped by an unusual title. Almost all the posters around me featured mice, but I spotted “vole” in the title of this poster. I had to find out why these scientists zigged when all the others zagged.

The presenter, A.M. Anacker, had a great answer. Prairie voles are well known for pair bonding. This is the vole equivalent to going steady or marriage. This has been the subject of some very elegant neuroethology, which was partly responsible for the rise in people’s awareness of oxytocin.

This lab was trying to use the vole’s monogamous pair bonds to test for the potential effects of alcoholism on social relationships.

“I’m guessing your hypothesis is that the effect of alcohol on relationships will be bad.” They replied that they didn’t necessarily hypothesize that. I was thinking about severe alcohol use, but the presenter pointed out to me that in humans, alcohol has a reputation as a social lubricant. I couldn’t help but to think of the B.A.N.T.E.R. party later that evening.

The behavioural test was straightforward. Male and female voles were allowed to pair bond (how romantic!). The animals were allowed drink alcohol in their cages after the pair formed (I think). Each animal was basically give a free run of the bar; the experimenters just let them drink as much as they wanted. They also provided the voles with water, so they didn’t have to drink just alcohol.

Then, a potential new and strange partner was introduced to the tipsy little vole. Each animal was tested to see whether it preferred the individual it has previously pair bonded with, or if it spent any time with the interloper.

In female voles, alcohol did not disrupt the previously formed pair bond. The females continued to affiliate with the old familiar faces.

In male voles, alcohol did disrupt the pair bond. The inebriated males showed no preference for the familiar female over the new female. This is perhaps good news for the established females; it suggests to me that maybe the males are just not able to discriminate, rather than actively seeking out new partners.

With such an interesting sex difference, the team is gung ho to find the underlying neural basis of why the males and females are having such different responses to the alcohol. They’ve tested several hypotheses, but nothing has popped out yet.

This is the point in the show where normally someone would ask whether there were any human implications. It is fun to think of parallels and joke about it. But that that this sort of study wasn’t done in mice is a reminder of species differences. If you have to do this experiment in voles because it couldn’t be done in mice, which are similar in many ways, extending the findings to humans will be even trickier.

I was definitely a winner at poster lotto. This was a great little story, and I was glad I stopped.


And the moral of the story is: Even at the biggest scientific meeting in the world – it’s important not to plan out your entire time in advance. One of the major advantages to meeting in physical space is to stumble upon something cool that you normally wouldn’t look for.

Reference

Anacker AM et al. 2011. Program No. 469.06. 2011 Neuroscience Meeting Planner. Washington, DC: Society for Neuroscience, 2011. Online. 

Neuroscience 2011, Day 4. Also, death from the skies.

I had just a half day of Neuroscience before flying back to my main campus. Yet again, we were blessed with a November day so mild that I needed no jacket. I walked to the conference center and checked out the last few posters I wanted to see. Some locomotion related stuff, mainly.

I retrieved all my goodies from the hotel (Goodbye, fluffy soft hotel pillows and high thread count sheets. I’ll miss you.) and made my way on the Metro the the Reagan airport. I met one student, and waited for my second to arrive. And waited.

Um. And we boarded. Starting to get a bad feeling now...

Yeah. Student was running behind and did not get on the scheduled flight. Oh, crap. Fortunately, she was put on a later flight, and I know she got at least to Houston.

My own flight was delayed out of Houston, so I was back rather later than I expected. When I got back home, I went straight to my campus because I had suggested a featured speaker, who was speaking that night.

I was surprised to walk into a packed house (515 people) and enthusiasm from the students off the scale:


All for this man, Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer!


I got there just as Phil was answering the last couple of questions after his talk. It had thinned out a little, but there was still plenty of people, laughing at Phil’s jokes. They cut the questions then, but those who had questions were able to ask them when Phil signed books. All the copies sold out, to the disappointment of many.

After the books were signed, Phil went out and met with more students from the Astronomy Club. We had a look at Jupiter and the Gallilean moons, the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleides, through the club’s telescopes.

I’m sorry I missed the bulk of his talk, but it was great to have him on our campus and I was so pleased to have a chance to chat with him. Down to earth, funny, genuine, Phil is a science star.

P.S.—Phil signed the students’ “Is the end near?” sandwich boards. On one he wrote, “Yes, it is” and on the other he wrote, “No, it isn’t.”

15 November 2011

Neuroscience 2011, Day 3

A brief round-up today, as it is late, and I should be getting a good night's sleep before getting on the plane tomorrow. Alas, today was my last full day at Neuroscience.

In the morning, I saw Svante Pääbo's talk. Pääbo's talk was erudite, with a little occasional dry humour. Pääbo started with his now well-known work on the Neandertal and Denisovan ancient genes, then went on a rather different direction to talk about mouse neuroscience research he's involved with to see if they can track down what the mutations that are found only in modern humans, and not Neandertals or Denisovans, actually do. Carl Zimmer will tell the story infinitely better than I can.

It was all very cool, but it left me wondering where the neuroethics were - as this was billed as the Knopf Neuroethics lecture.

After catching a few posters in the afternoon, my student Nadia and I went to the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience social. FUN was having its own poster session, and we were presenting there. There were 707 unique attendees at the social, and that's bigger than some stand alone international conferences I've been to!

The poster session was shorter than a regular poster session on the main floor of Neuroscience. In all other ways the FUN session equaled the main poster session in the crowded poster spaces, the quality of the science, and the volume.

After that was done, I made my way to the B.A.N.T.E.R. party, which was conveniently located right in Madhatters nearby our hotel. Many people had already left by the time I got there, but it was still lovely to meet a lot of my online friends. After originally being upstairs, we got put into an upside down room with a table setting on the ceiling.

There were a few more other blog-worth stories, but they will have to wait for now. I might write them on the plane back tomorrow. No, wait... it's after midnight, which means I am flying home later today.

Comments for first half of November, 2011

I die (fictitiously), but Namnezia was good enough to squeeze out a poem about me.

Dr. Becca tries to buy things, and find it surprisingly difficult.

NeuroPolarBear regales student of what the Neuroscience meeting was like in the old days.

Tony Hirst does some analysis of who science types are listening to on Twitter.

Greg Whitman asks what are the Two Things in your profession?

Scicurious has a list of tips for those giving oral presentations at the Neuroscience meeting. And they’re such good tips, any one giving a PowerPoint presentation could benefit from them!

Tideliar, like me, wonders what the heck the Society for Neuroscience uses to choose its science bloggers. Maybe a spinner?

14 November 2011

Neuroscience 2011, Day 2

The dead zone.

They don’t call it that. But they should.

Way down at the far end of the Neuroscience poster and vendor hall, past the A through Z row of posters, past the AA row, almost down to the ZZ and the start of the triple AAA are a set of posters that deal with teaching of neuroscience, history of neuroscience, and other miscellaneous topics. It’s usually quiet back there. There’s more blank spots than in the main sessions, which I assume to indicate that more people just don’t bother finishing their posters.

I want to make a plea for the posters back there. If you don’t go and look through there at least once, you’re missing some of the most interesting posters at Neuroscience.

Tucked away back there was a poster about a teacher who brought a gun to class so he could talk about how gunshot wounds were used in the study of brain function. His last line was about giving up this teaching instrument when they pried it from his cold, dead fingers.

There’s more character in that one line than about an entire row of regular posters.

(Alas, I must also name and shame this poster, AAA33, along with ZZ35, for using Comic Sans.)

I also found my favourite poster graphically back there. It was a poster on how incomprehensible the neuroscience literature was, loaded with rare obscure words and other issues. It was basically a great big word cloud (a la Wordle) of the most commonly appearing words in neuroscience articles that he had analyzed. When you cam in close, you saw one word in the center, “Effect,” was actually made up of lines of small type which was the main text describing the methods and results.

There was a history poster about the mental health of Emile Zola, and how at one point the Europeans had a penchant for trying to preserve the brains of eminent individuals.

I found a teaching poster that looked to have some interesting methodology that I can adopt myself.

And the Backyard Brains guys were there, too. Drugmonkey covered how great these guys are. I met them later, and can vouch for their great indie spirit. (I actually met them later, at the Neuroethology social. They had gotten the data today for their poster that will be Tuesday or Wednesday.)

The vendor hall opened up in the morning, and I went around returning postcards that had been mailed to me the week before, in most cases in exchange for swag or a draw to enter a prize. I got a few handy tools (“Hey, I needed another lab stopwatch!”) in addition to some useful chats with people on teaching gear.

But when I walked into booth 308 to hand back my postcard, I was surprised to be greeted much more warmly than I had any right to be. I had written a guest blog post for Biodata, “Why your mentor sucks and how to fix it,” which was apparently pretty popular. But the booth didn’t say Biodata... it said Labguru, so I hadn’t recognized that it was the same group of people. Labguru is billed as a “lab management” system, and I’ll be very interested to see it in action. (Shill alert: The Labguru folks gave me a T-shirt, and asked me for a tweet.)

Finally, I would like to thank those who came by the poster by Sakshi and I had this afternoon. It was incredibly gratifying to have your interest and comments and questions. Even my pseudonymous tweeps who don’t volunteer their handles (you know who you are, Namnezia). We were kept so busy that we did not have a chance to see many other posters, so I apologize if I missed yours.

12 November 2011

Neuroscience 2011, Day 1

After one half day of Neuroscience, my students were saying, “It feels like it should be really late,” when it wasn't even 7:00 pm.

You’re taking in so much more information in an afternoon of Neuroscience than in a regular day, it feels like the day is much longer than it is.

Before the talks started, I completed a long standing personal quest. One that had been running since grad school, to visit someone who is about the same age as I am. I’ll have a little video later, I think.

We made our way to the convention center. I have been here before, but I'm disoriented. Both of my students had a little trouble getting their badges, but this was soon resolved thanks to the excellent professionals behind the desk.

Security, however, seems a little short-tempered. They are very vocal about checking for badges and making sure nobody is taking pictures of the exhibit hall, even from a great distance.

First order of business was to have a tweet-up with @Katiesci. I'd given her a little help with her poster, so was anxious to see the final result.

I made my way back to the one neuroethology session, and while approaching, I heard applause. Applause at Neuroscience? This I had to see.

It turned out that I had just missed the singing of “Happy birthday” and blowing out the candles on Melissa Coleman's birthday cake. Melissa was on a very cool poster describing dueting in birds, which had just been published a couple of weeks ago in Science (a summary of it is here on Quirks and Quarks).

These little wrens sing duets. But unlike duets where one partner sings a phrase, then the other sings a phrase, or when both are harmonizing, in this species, the female and the male alternate note by note. If you here it, you can easily mistake it for one bird singing. The neurobiological punch line is that neurons of each sex responds most strongly not to their own song, or the song of their partner, but to the combined song that needs both birds.

It’s a project that almost deserved applause in its own right, but the applause was for the birthday girl. Melissa's lab was handing out cupcakes (I got one with a big heart shaped ring), everyone was having a good time...

When their epic win was converted to an epic fail in a split second.


I said, “Five second rule...” and salvaged a strawberry.

I was amazed, though, that a few minutes later, you wouldn't have known what a mess there was. I said, “If I ever commit murder and need the crime scene cleaned up, I know who to call.”

I was also thrilled to discover a fellow challenger of the #SciFund, Diane Kelly, co-author of the Force of Duck project, was attending Neuroscience! She will be presenting a poster on Monday afternoon (board VV13), which is not related to her #SciFund project.

After a great chat, Diane joined my students and I for dinner. First pizza place had an hour wait, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise when we went a little further and discovered a pizza place with the wonderfully geeky name Pizza Pi.

Of course, I had mentioned to my students earlier that I was meeting with Diane, and had given them a preview of what the project was about. At the restaurant, my students wanted more information, so Diane showed them her #SciFind video on her swanky fancy iPad:





This was the first time she had seen people watching the video live (click to enlarge):


Diane said, "Now I can picture the expressions on people's faces when they're at home watching the video."

The people sitting in the table behind us may have gotten more than they bargained for, too. They gave us some priceless expressions, too.

Image at top from Sci.ple.

J.B. Johnston Club, 2011. Also, Nozenber.

Sex changing wrasses! Cave catfish! Bats with wings rendered hairless by depilatory cream! Zebra finch jailbreaks! Tentacled snakes! Turtle ears! Miniature pigs! Three spined stickleback spatial memory showdown! 

God, I love the J.B. Johnston Club.

At a time when mainstream neuroscience is very much focused on research that helps to understand human brains, this satellite meeting is a wonderful celebration of the beautiful diversity of brains and behaviour.

Had a chicken "sandwhich" for lunch that was better described as a chicken seive (messy!), had my picture taken with a can of Dr. Pepper 10 (which was pretty good) - tell me if you see my picture in an ad someplace - and worked on my "Best PI ever" nomination by bringing my students cupcakes.

I picked up my copy of the 2012 fundraising calendar, and got to see the other eleven pictures for the first time. (Crayfish neurons are February, by the way. Because that's the month of Valentine's Day, and everyone knows that crayfish are love.)

Ended the day with great conversations that somehow ended with the Very Important Lesson:

Never say no to panda.

Meanwhile, Andrew Thaler has dubbed this the month of Nozenber!

In addition to #SciFund, The Weekly Weinersmith, and being at JB Johnston Club and Neuroscience, today I was featured on Sci.Ple and my recent collaboration with Nadia Carreon and Brian Frednesborg was Parasite of the Day.

11 November 2011

Neuroscience 2011: How good you’ve got it

This year’s Neuroscience meeting is weird for me. Because the first time I went was in... 1991. That’s right: it’s my twentieth anniversary at this meeting! Crap, I’m old.

In 1991, the meeting was in New Orleans. At the time, Neuroscience was a “mere” 13,000 to 16,000 people. I learned an important life lesson there: Never bet a shoeshine in New Orleans.*

The experience of the meeting itself hasn’t changed. Sure, the posters were more likely to be assembled in pieces than a single sheet of paper, but that’s pretty trivial. When you start with tens of thousands, a few extra thousand here or there doesn’t make a difference in the feel of the event. The biggest changes are in the lead-up to the meeting.

Okay, kiddies, listen up. “Back in my day...” (Imagine that said with a quaver and just a hint of goat.)

You had to format your abstract and make it camera-ready yourself. You had a paper form with a box, marked out in non-photo blue in the lower right, and you had to put camera-ready copy in that box. Many people still typed their abstracts into the box using typewriters. (Laser printers were just becoming available.)

Then, one you had your abstract carefully printed in the box, you had to physically mail the piece of paper to Neuroscience headquarters. To be accepted, your abstract had to be postmarked by the deadline date. People would often not just drop off their abstracts in a mailbox, but take them up to the counter so they could see the postie putting the dated postmark on the envelope.

But wait! It gets even more crazily inefficient.

Once all the abstracts were compiled, they got printed in these massive abstract books, six abstracts to a page, on thin paper. The abstract books looked a lot like phone books: about the same kind of heft, and printed on the same kid of thin, almost tissue-like, paper.

A few weeks before the conference started, the abstract books would start arriving in the department mailboxes. Sometimes, all the volumes would come in at once. Sometimes, they’d be shipped separately.

In the first couple of years of my career, you’d get two of them. Before I finished grad school, you’d get three.

Because everyone formatted their abstracts differently, flipping through the abstract book was a study in contrasts. Some people followed the formatting guidelines to a T, and had laser printed abstracts. Others people ignored the formatting rules and had barely readable abstracts.

How could you find the abstracts you wanted to see? It was easy to find the themes of the sessions, or the names of authors. The abstract books also had lengthy title keyword index. The keyword index was clever, in that it had the keyword appear with a little bit of context of words in the title around it.

Each year had a different colour cover, and each volume had a slightly different shade of that colour (one light and dark orange one year, three shades of blue the next), so you could easily tell them apart. Scientists would have whole shelves of bookcases in their office or their labs with collections of Neuroscience abstracts.

And people would haul these dog-eared tomes around on the convention center floor!

(And by the way, the meeting was still officially “Society for Neuroscience meeting” then; not sure when the name was officially abbreviated to “Neuroscience.”)

I am not a nostalgic person, and a post like this reminds me why I am not a nostalgic person. Online submission and publication of abstracts is so much better.

* Remember this for next year, when Neuroscience returns to New Orleans.

10 November 2011

On the eve of Neuroscience...

I just had the most amazing experience.

I flew in to DC with a very ill Sakshi in tow. We eventually made our way via Metro to the hotel to check ourselves and a waiting Nadia. After crashing the reception of the Karger Workshop for a while, I went out to find a drugstore to get a few supplies and eat.

First, I found this great little burger bistro called BGR. I don't know about you, but I eat so many mediocre burgers that I can forget how awesome the best burgers can be.

As I walked out and started to head back to the hotel, I heard what sounded like live music. I hadn't seen any outdoor pavilions or anything earlier, so I was curious and made my way across Dupont Circle to find the source.

As I got closer, the music kept going and resolved into an unstoppable brass beat. In front of a donut shop and a metro entrance was ten guys playing music. A drummer, a percussionist, a tuba, a flugel horn, and six trombones. They stood in front of a bucket on a drum pedestal that had "Brass connection" written in marker on it.

The word that popped into my head over and over again to describe the music was, "joyous."

And women were dancing on the sidewalk.

Not just "nodding their heads and tapping their toes" dancing; these women were right into the groove. And they all had these incredible smiles, just spontaneous and delighted and in the moment. I haven't seen so many people so obviously, completely, and totally happy in a lot time.

I joined in, but was a little constrained by the bag of supplies I had just picked up from the drugstore. I stayed and listened to about three more songs before they took a break and I came back to the hotel.

I pride myself on being a rationalist, but there's only word to describe what happened:

Magic.

09 November 2011

How to thrive at Neuroscience 2011

Other bloggers offer you “survival” guides to the Neuroscience meeting. Here at NeuroDojo, I believe that just managing to live through Neuroscience is not enough! I’m here to tell you not just how to survive, but thrive! To come out the other side better, stronger, smarter, faster, and sciencer than before you went in!

1. This is no time to be shy. That person who wrote the paper that revolutionized your field could well be at Neuroscience. If you want to talk to that person, don’t chicken out. “Oh, she is so famous, how could she ever be interesting in talking to me...” Find her. Talk to her. The vast majority of scientists are genuinely friendly and interested in chatting about your work and theirs. Of course, use common sense. That is, don’t ambush the Nobel laureate in the washroom. Awkward.

And if you’re a student, it’s just as important to make connections with people who are at roughly in the same point of their career as you as to find the“famous” people. Your peers will be important. They’re going to become your colleagues who will invite you to campus and the reviewers of your manuscripts.

“But Zen,” I hear you say, “the meeting is so big. How can I find the big name people and people with similar interests who I have never met before?”

2. The meeting feels smaller than it is, You sit there and think, “Neuroscience is the size of a small city, how am I ever going to find anyone?” The good news is that the sessions are generally quite well put together. So if you’re interested in hippocampus and spatial memory, you go to the first poster session on that. The next day, there’s another session on spatial memory, and ... you’re likely to run into the same people again. Because they have the same interests as you. You will run into people multiple times, because people are moving around so much.

3. Conferences are as much about hallways and lunches as talks and posters. Ask the people you meet if they have plans for lunch or dinner.

4. No frickin’ Comic Sans on your poster. People will be too polite to tell you that their respect for you drops 4-20 notches. I have lots of poster advice for you in this post at my Better Posters blog.

5. No frickin’ Comic Sans on your slides. See point #4. I have lots of presentation advice in a short little e-book, Presentation Tips. It’s a free PDF.

6. Get to the vendors early.. Of course, the vendors will be there all week, but if you are the sort of person who can use pens and promo gear and stress relievers and coffee mugs and other swag... go early. They run out of swag and freebies early, because they don’t want to pack it all up and take it home.

7. Fuel a project at the #SciFund challenge. Because fueling one of the awesome science projects will help you sleep better, put a spring back in your step, and make you more confident and attractive. And not just for the Neuroscience meeting!

8. Water. You’ll be talking a lot. And the air in those conference centers always dries you out.

9. Play hooky for half a day. There’s a lot of great free stuff to see! The conference won’t miss you if you take a couple of hours to see one or two sights. The Metro in DC is a great way to get around.

10. Take your badge off outside the conference center. There are limits to how nerdy even a brain scientist about look.

08 November 2011

#SciFund challenge round-up, 7-8 November 2011

Jai Ranganathan talks about the #SciFund challenge on the Science Cabaret podcast.

One project in particular gets coverage at io9. Gee, it’s the duck penis project; what a shocker.

Although Kelly Weinersmith’s project is already funded, I can’t resist putting a link to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal which her husband promotes her research.

My project makes a cameo appearance at Mad Art Lab blog - thanks to Tree Lobsters, who have been working the crustacean . SF Fedora connection way longer than me.

Heathen Hub features Cancer? Yeast has the answers!

I have no idea what “Milde Gaben für die Forschung” says until I run it through a translation program, but it has the #SciFund logo on it! I think it’s a German edition of Scientific American.

And my project was featured on the #SciFund blog on Monday and on The Weekly Weinersmith podcast on Tuesday. Please don’t believe all those scurrilous rumours about my awesomeness.

Tuesday Crustie: Chopper

Later this week, I’ll be going to Neuroscience, so a travel / transportation theme seems appropriate...


Seen here, where even more pictures can be found.

No, you will not get something this fancy as a #SciFund reward. Sorry.

07 November 2011

Why crowdfunding?

Why get involved with the#SciFund challenge to raise a bit of money for my research? Kristina Killgrove gave her answers to this question. Here are mine:

  • Crayfish belong to the people! Marmorkrebs (or “Amazon crayfish” as I’ve nicknamed them for this project) weren’t discovered by a professional scientist, but by hobbyists. Pet owners who were paying attention got a find that was published in Nature.* Pros wrote the paper and confirmed it, but smart amateurs made the find. Marmorkrebs research started at the grass roots; crowdfunding is a way for the research to stay connected to those roots.
  • More people will learn about Marmorkrebs. People want to be responsible and do the right thing. But they often don’t know that something that sounds harmless, like using crayfish for fishing bait, can have repercussions. I know where crayfish sit in the list of things that people think about: it’s not high. Introducing these cool animals and giving people an inkling of the science is a win for me.
  • Putting my money where my mouth is. I’ve written a lot in this blog about the virtues of small science. I wrote about microgrants over four years ago, for instance. I would be a hypocrite if I sat on the sidelines for the challenge.
  • A chance to learn and grow. It’s easy to get complacent. I knew that while the #SciFund Challenge might play to some of my strengths (e.g., my lack of pride, shame, and modesty), I was going to have to raise my game. I’d been avoiding video, and this made me get over my reluctance to make them.
  • A chance to play. It’s fun to pretend that I’m an adventurer in the field instead of a geek in front of a computer.

I am not crowdfunding because:

  • Not because it’s easy. I’m putting a lot of effort into the Challenge. I hadn’t made many videos before, and certainly nothing as complicated as the main one on my RocketHub page. By the time these six weeks are over, I will probably have put in as much time as I would have for a full blown external grant.

And having just wrote all of that, I realized I didn’t mention one of the reasons you might think I would have for doing the Challenge. And that’s because it’s not about the money. Science rarely is.


* And crayfish haven’t graced the pages of that glamour mag in the eight years since.

06 November 2011

#SciFund Challenge round-up, 5-6 November 2011

#SciFund just got its first fully funded project with Kelly Weinersmith! It only took five days for Kelly’s project to hit its target - not a surprise given that she’s done crowdfunding before. Go go zombie research!

But over 40 other projects still need your help - including mine!

Where are those projects located, you might ask? Ask away, for we have built a Google Map Look at all the places #SciFund participants are coming from!


View #SciFund Challenge Participants in a larger map


Speaking of compilations, I have a list of challengers on Twitter who have been actively tweeting about their projects.

Kristina Killgrove has a nice explanation of why she jumped into crowdfunding. (I’ll share my story on Monday.)

Kalani Kirk Hausman is curating the #SciFund Challenge with a Scoop.it page.

More Chronicles from Hurricane Country:

While the scientists involved were sweating over their presentations and gaining a pre-launch audience -- that #oss2011 hashtag on the timeline at bottom right points to this year's Open Science Summit, where #SciFund co-founder Jai Ranganathan wowed the crowd -- I could feel that pre-launch tension building. Would this thing work? Were enough funders out there?

The challenge is featured at the Citizen Science League.

04 November 2011

#SciFund Challenge round-up, 3-4 November 2011



The #SciFund Challenge now has a Facebook page! Please head over and like us!

Of course, coverage slows down after the launch. But it continues at The Daily Kos:

Now more than ever scientists need public support, and we would prefer not to rely on private corporations for funds. We know that our work should benefit all of society, and you can be sure that the SciFund projects are for everyone.

Jai Rangathan, #SciFund co-founder, explains the #SciFund Challenge in this video. And I should have a big link round-up of participants’s blogs and such in the near future!

If you haven’t checked out the projects yet, get thee to RocketHub!

Seen on campus: Way cool science stuff


I have no idea why this should be plastered on the disused pay phone that sits outside my building. But I love it anyway.

02 November 2011

The official SfN neurobloggers, 2011

Colour me puzzled.

Last year, I wrote about the puzzlement about the Society for Neuroscience’s choice of official bloggers. I didn’t recognize a one.

With today’s announcement of the Neuroscience 2011 neurobloggers, I confess I am still baffled by the SfN’s social media strategy. Unlike last year, year, I do recognize one blogger, the mighty Scicurious.

I wonder if the strategy is to shine a light on new bloggers.

Looking at the Twitter accounts, Scicurious has more followers on Twitter than all other ten neurobloggers combined. Most have tens of followers when I checked, a few hours after the announcement. The Twitter feed of one of the neurobloggers is currently protected, not open, which seems contrary to the spirit of covering the meeting. (Of course, the person could make their feed public when the meeting starts.)

As for the blogs themselves, one – Neuroflocks – doesn’t seem to be a blog in the traditional sense. It’s a cool-looking tweet aggregator and analysis site, but I’m not seeing any posts.

I’m most baffled that two blogs didn’t exist at all a week ago, which happened last year, too. The application to be a neuroblogger asked for samples, including previous conference coverage. I bow to the two blog authors, who I can only assume wrote great proposals for what they would do.

I’m looking forward to all the coverage of one of the world’s biggest scientific meetings, both official and unofficial! Neuroscience is so big that even 100 bloggers could not cover it all...

#SciFund Challenge round-up, 2 November 2011

Day 1 of the #SciFund challenge has seen a lot of money raised and a decent amount of online coverage. The #SciFund challenge appears on Chronicles from Hurricane Country:

Call me a science fan. I'm interested not only in the projects themselves, but in the journeys being undertaken by people who have banded together across the globe, designing their crowdfunding pitches, including videos, in less than a month. Some have learned new outreach skills on the fly. They are all bringing science to the public in a way seldom seen -- and never before seen in such a team effort among many.

Take Part:

It's hard not to like the way these guys are thinking. With a wide red swath of the country still in denial over evolution and climate change, challenges like these could bring the science back into the discussion and raise awareness for the quickly evaporating pool of research money.

Geeks Are Sexy:

The SciFund Challenge is best described as Kickstarter for scientists: research teams post their projects, potential crowdfunders choose those they’d like to support, and BAM. We’re all doing science.

And Boing Boing:

Not interested in duck sex? You're a rarity on the Internet, but there are plenty of other options.

01 November 2011

The #SciFund Challenge launches!

The wait is over.

The final version of Doctor Zen and the Amazon Crayfish Civilization is now ready for viewing at RocketHub! If you have three minutes, you have more than enough time to learn about my project in the #SciFund Challenge!

Why can’t you watch the video here? Because I want you to go to RocketHub, and not only watch mine, but look at the other insanely cool projects that have come in from around the world. If you don’t want to support me, please consider supporting someone else.

The #SciFund Challenge is an experiment in funding science. Over the next six weeks, I will be asking for your help in raising money for a research project. I’ll be talking more about the whys and wherefores in the next few days.

Want to learn more? Or perhaps even... donate?

If each person following the blog (according to Blogger) kicked in $6.41, my project would be fully funded.

You should go to RocketHub right now!

Tuesday Crustie: Revenge

Wait for it...




Hat tip to Ed Yong.

Comments for second half of October, 2011

Sheril looks at the academic job market.

Namnezia get reviews, and wonders what to do about stylistic recommendations. He also tracks the story of the first neurotransmitter, which includes a dream sequence.