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Scientists, Lectures and Biotech, Oh My!

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Author: MaryAnn Hobbs | Category: Beyond The Bench | Neuroscience | Neuroscience | November 27, 2017

This past week from Nov 11 to 15, I had the opportunity to represent Mark Shapiro’s lab from here at UT Health in the 47th Annual Society for Neuroscience (SFN) conference in Washington D.C. This gathering is the largest neuroscience convention in the county, with around 30,000 participants every year.

SFN and conferences like provide opportunities for people in all parts of their scientific careers to learn about the most recent, cutting edge science discoveries in an environment with peers, mentors and role models. 

Vendors, who provide a wide range of materials and services in research, come to present the latest technological advances, giving them the opportunity to grow and build personal relationships with possible future customers. Students benefit from this environment not only by gaining experience in listening and participating in high-level lectures and discussions, but also through poster presentations they can gain confidence and receive meaningful feedback.

Having very little experience in attending conferences, I was unsure of what to expect. Everyone said it was a huge event but I could’ve never imagine a conference of this magnitude. It was like thousands of kids walking into a very expensive candy shop—only those kids can range from being students to world-renowned scientists, and the candy can cost $100,000 or more. Among the coolest new science tech gadgets were the virtual reality demonstrations, some of which allowed for samples to become 3D structures for one to interact with virtually. Other companies were showcasing new imaging dyes and improved quality of resolution across differing types of microscopy—sounds nerdy but many of the image products were being framed and sold as psychedelic pieces of art!

With over 3000 vendors booths, consisting of start-up biotechs and big industry names, in the same room with anywhere from 500-1000 posters being displayed at any given time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to decide where to start. But that’s just in the main convention hall. Multiple nano-symposiums and lectures are simultaneously happening, forcing you to prioritize all the events and topics since there is so much overlap.

One speaker, Dr. Demis Hassabis, spoke about how the best and newest Artificial Intelligence Programs are inspiring creativity in some people, two topics not usually associated with each other. His company DeepMind created “AlphaGo” an AI system that made headlines for beating the best Go player in the world (Go is a game popular in Asia considered to be a much more complex analog to chess). 

“AlphaGo” came up with a novel strategy to a game that has been being played for over 3000 years, thus inspiring creativity and life into Go players all over the world. This is just an example of the wide range of topics showcased at SFN.

After a few lectures there is time to meander through some vendor booths, collecting freebies and scrounging for discounts for the lab. The day begins to slow down and the real fun can begin. In the evenings of the conference there were SFN sponsored socials scattered throughout downtown DC, giving participants the opportunity to mingle with people relevant to their field in a less professional setting.

These socials are a great platform for people early in their career to be in a low-pressure situation where they can talk to famous scientists or editors of some of the biggest science journals. It also allows relationships with future and past colleagues to be strengthened, fostering the collaborative environment necessary for meaningful scientific breakthroughs.

For me, a recent graduate on the cusp of continuing my education via a masters or Ph.D. program, and not knowing exactly what I will wind up doing with either, the conference gave me the opportunity to talk to people in the careers I might pursue, and hear of other career possibilities I didn’t even know existed. I am thankful for the opportunity I had, and I encourage anyone that has the opportunity to attend a conference to do so and take full advantage of all the resources offered. 

About the Author 

MaryAnn is currently a research assistant in the Cellular and Integrative Physiology department, with hopes of attending a Biochemistry and Structural Biology graduate program in fall 2018.

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