Neuroscience 2013, Part 1

The San Diego Bayfront, where all the festivities for SfN '13 are being held.

The San Diego Bayfront, where all the festivities for SfN ’13 are being held.

Nearly 30,000 neuroscientists and neuroscientists-in-training are making their way to the San Diego bayfront this weekend, slightly lowering the average IQ’s of their respective home cities, to attend one of the world’s largest scientific conferences. The University of Chicago is well represented, with scientists and students presenting more than 80 posters or session presentations over the span of the five day meeting. For the next three days, we’ll also have one writer (trying his hardest to avoid the perfect 70 degree weather, beach and amazing restaurants just across the street) on location to see what amazing new things UChicago scientists are learning about our brains. This post will be updated as the day progresses, assuming he doesn’t get lost in the massive convention center, of course.

SfN ’13 kicked off with Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation studies, talking about one of the fundamental things that make us human: creativity. A physicist and computer scientist by training, Catmull talked about his path building and leading what was effectively a science research group toward critical, commercial and technological success. Pixar has made fourteen films, each a blockbuster with revenues north of $600 million. Catmull’s main point? The ability to be creative relies on a culture of creativity, whether in a neuroscience lab or a Hollywood studio. Too often, barriers exist to prevent that culture from forming. Some are entrenched in bureaucracy, some are subconscious, but these barriers need to be removed for creativity to flourish. Catmull shifted his goals after finally making the first successful computer animated movie toward monitoring the culture of his company. Trust, honesty, safety when sharing ideas–these were group dynamics that are easy to say but difficult to implement. He mentions people not being completely honest with their thoughts because of respect, politeness, embarrassment, fear of failure, unconscious behaviors and other reasons. My takeaway: being a good researcher and leader means redirecting these behaviors so that trust and honesty can flourish. It’s a lot easier said than done of course.

Just a small portion of the gigantic, gigantic poster/exhibition hall.

Just a small portion of the gigantic, gigantic poster/exhibition hall.

Attendees used every bit of space they were allowed to use at the convention center. Thousands and thousands of people roamed the corridors, lecture halls, seating areas and of course, the massive exhibition hall where scientists from around the world presented their work to their peers. It’s almost impossible capture just how many posters and how many people were in the exhibition hall, but hopefully I’ll have a video tour up of it, eventually. For now, let’s check in with what UChicago peeps are up to. I ambushed several researchers at their posters. Better descriptions of their work to follow, when I have the time.

Michael Allen, PhD, research associate (assistant professor) in the Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care presented on a potential nanoparticle to treat ALS.

John McDaid, PhD, research associate in the Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care presented on how nicotine makes people more resistant to alcohol.

FreedmanDavid Freedman’s lab was out in full force today, with four posters right next to each other. Large crowds gathered to ask his students and postodocs questions about their work studying how the brain processes perception.

Jillian McKee, Computational Neuroscience graduate student, described her work on how neurons in the brain process new or familiar visual stimuli.

Nicholas Masse, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, described his work figuring out how neurons work during visual category learning (how we place visual cues into groups to help us interpret our sensory environment).

Arup Sarma, Neurobiology graduate student, described his work on how a part of the brain works before and after visual category learning training.

There were several more UChicago researchers presenting that I was unfortunately unable to get to, due to time but mostly the size of the crowds of scientists asking questions. It’s a challenge finding a moment when the researchers aren’t explaining their posters!

Finally, the day ended with Scott Emmons, PhD, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, speaking to a packed room of thousands of neuroscientists about… worm sex… ok about the neural circuits and network (or “connectome”) of nematode worms, but he did show plenty of videos of nematodes doing things like eating each other, avoiding deadly fungi nooses, jumping(!) and mating. A better write up of this fascinating talk will be up later.

About Kevin Jiang (147 Articles)
Kevin Jiang is a Science Writer and Media Relations Specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. He focuses on neuroscience and neurosurgery, orthopedics, psychology, genetics, biology, evolution, biomedical and basic science research.
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