At 10 am, a bus filled with 50 people pulled away from the main train station of the small Swäbisch town, Tübingen. The bus was headed for the outskirts of the Black Forest, or the Schwarzwald, if you care for German translations. It’s also interesting to note that on the weekend just before the conference, there had been snow in Tübingen, however, this snow didn’t last long in the small town.
Only the road that carried those 50 graduate students to another little town called Schramberg parted the white trees and grass. Perhaps it felt a little cold outside, but inside the bus, there was a hustle and bustle to finish handing out homemade -but professionally done - abstract books for the event. The whole conference was outlined in the program for everyone to review and get excited over.
Day 1. The first day continued after the bus arrived at Schramberg and the hungry students had their fill of the grub. Attendees were paired into groups of five or six to share temporary homes on the outskirts of the Schramberg conference center. Not too much later, all came together for the commencement of talks and poster sessions. The norm of a scientific conference, yet much more laid-back - the way we would oftentimes prefer. This year, the conference organizers, such as the author herself, evaluated talks and posters; however it must be noted that everyone there presented quality work – data or no data. And that’s when I realized a thank you is in order to everyone who came out there with us.
It does not stop there either. We had Axel Lindner (Uni Tübingen) and Markus Fendt (Uni Madgeburg) team up for a back-to-back discussion on the potential trajectories for the career of a young neuroscientist. This could be summed parsimoniously as 'academia or industry, which would you prefer?'
Day 2. The second day doesn’t start with breakfast. In fact, the second day was brought in with bowling (or Kügel in German), billiards (or pool in American) and some tasty beverages…all that was missing was more food. Let’s just say that no one went to bed early that night, including myself. But, after a few hours of sleep, we were on again for the morning and another round of talks and poster sessions. Overall, the vibe could be described as nerdy-chill.
We even had the pleasure of hosting Kai-Markus Müller, CEO of The Neuromarketing Labs who visited before lunch to share his experience after leaving the Graduate Training Center of Tübingen. This experience includes the build-up and management of a company that uses neuroscience methods, namely EEG (electroencephalography), to classify brainwave patterns during the observation of specific commercial products. It is an interesting idea to look at the differences in neural activity during product-cognitive mismatching - you could definitely learn a lot from this kind of study. For you younger researchers out there, he’s looking for interns!
After Müller’s interesting talk came lunch and coffee to fuel the brain and get everyone ready for the evening session of talks. Considering the overall theme of the conference was science communication, I think everyone was able to relate to the topic - myself included - which served us well given the diverse backgrounds of the participants. As a co-founder of a non-profit organization aimed at providing credible information and informing the public about the use of animals for scientific research, I was happy to speak about Pro-Test Deutschland.
When our keynote speaker, Stefan Treue of the German Primate Center (Göttingen), joined the conference that evening the course of discussions began to drive home a few points. The first point is about the abundance of misinformation out there, which gives the general public an inaccurate portrayal of scientific research. One such example would be that scientists choose not to use alternative methods so they could engage in lucrative animal research. Yet, to the contrary, a scientist would be glad to employ alternative methods, e.g. computational modeling of neuronal activity, and they often do! In fact, by German law, the ethical committee would not approve a scientific research project using animals if the same study could be conducted using an alternative approach. However, these alternatives cannot always replace animal research. Furthermore, one does not earn more money through the pursuit of animal research considering the costs of husbandry and animal care are multitudes more than nearly all alternative methods.
Another point to drive home is that most of the general public receives information about animal experimentation from animal rights/protection groups. This is largely because scientists do not possess a voice loud enough to be heard over the opposition. But things are changing with the formation of groups such as Pro-Test Deutschland, NC3Rs, EARA (European Animal Research Association) and the Basel Declaration. These groups give scientists a louder voice, one that is strong and backed by the facts.
Finally, one last point to remember from that night is to learn how to explain your research in a concise and understandable manner. This meaning, one should practice their 2-minute poster presentations as well as their 30-second elevator pitches. Remember not everyone has an undefined amount of time to listen to you talk, while also possessing the background knowledge to understand the complex details. Scale back and employ a bottom-up approach to build your topic and capture the interest of your listeners.
Day 3. The last day of the conference began like the day before, with breakfast, except this time there was a lot more snow! It had snowed throughout the previous night, therefore, the next morning truly looked like a Winter Wonderland. There were a couple of workshops: one led by André Maia Chagas on Arduino circuit boards and the other by Jonas Rauber on Github. The workshops were a great opportunity to introduce two very different concepts and you can also check them out by clicking on the links if you’re interested.
Overall, we received positive feedback from the course of events. Everyone even had time to play like kids in the snow before taking the bus back to Tübingen. We’ve actually never held NeNa so late in the year before, but this year certainly had a nice aurora, and we are considering this aspect and many more for the planning of next year’s conference. So, you’ll just have to wait and see what we have in store for 2016!
Renée Hartig is from the USA and graduated from the Neural and Behavioral Neuroscience Masters Program '15. She is currently a GTC doctoral student in the Laboratory of Functional and Comparative Neuroanatomy in the lab of Dr. Henry Evrard.