On a cool September day, a handful of young neuroscientists gathered in Tübingen to kick-off the start to another NeNa conference (in German, Neurowissenschaftliche Nachwuchskonferenz). Like the year before, and the year before that, we congregated at the central train station and boarded a coach bus to Schramberg, a quaint little town in the Black Forest of Southwestern Germany.
Unlike the previous years, however, we held the conference at the end of September, the last Monday through Wednesday to be exact. Perhaps it wasn’t the best time, as a lot was already going on in Tübingen that week. But, despite all that, we had a final turn-out of 30 participants, with two participants from Oxford and Lisbon. Whether we will choose the same dates for next year remains to be seen, but we always try to work around the big and popular Society for Neuroscience Conference in the States as well as other event happenings in the community.
One might not realize this, but there is a lot of thought that goes into planning a conference. One thinks not just about the optimal date, but also finding a speaker, coordinating an agreeable topic, not to mention the logistical details such as whether or not the venue is accommodating and the food is satisfying. Granted it is difficult to have everything your way, but for NeNa, we strive to make it best we can. We found Schramberg to be a comfortable venue, even with the lack of stable WLAN, it just reminds you that you are in the middle of the forest and should probably focus on socializing and discussing science. The food is generally good too. My advice: remember to savor some for later when you have the midnight munchies.
I find NeNa to always be an enjoyable experience not just because of the social interaction with amazing, intelligent and open-minded individuals, but also because of the scientific presentations that stimulate intriguing discussions. I’m always impressed by the quality of science conducted by my peers. For instance, we have Pablo Grassi who has attended NeNa for the past two years in a row. Last year Grassi won the award for best poster, and this year it was also a hard choice to make considering his organized layout and visual data representation of dynamic bistable Gestalt perception. However, this year the award ended up in the hands of one of our non-Tübingen researchers, Juan Carlos Mendez, who came all the way from Oxford to present his work on the temporal categorization in the supplementary motor area of the macaque.
Like Mendez, we had another attendee coming from aboard, Scott Rennie, from the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Lisbon. Rennie actually took home the prize for the best talk as his videos of rats working together to achieve high rewards in the Stag Hunt game captivated us all. Surely, the conference organizers had a tough time selecting who most exceeded the criteria for best poster and talk!
In addition to the insightful presentations, we had a couple of group workshops. The first one was combined with a short hike into the Black Forest, where we also had an impromptu photo shoot. Thanks to Florian Sandhäger who brought his sweet digital SLR camera! After returning from our hike, we found a nice spot on the grounds to break down into pairs and work on our personal development. Mara Thomas led the development workshop and helped us to assess what qualities we valued most in a job and what our strengths and weaknesses might tell us about ourselves. Everyone there certainly enjoyed learning more about themselves, nothing like a little psychological evaluation for and by neuroscientists.
Later in the day we had another workshop on reference management systems, which was organized by Pooja Viswanathan. She explained her thoughtful approach to organizing hundreds of papers across different devices without any cost expenditures. Viswanathan explained how she uses Mendeley, Dropbox and ReadCube to get the best organization, synchronization and aggregation of material. Personally, I was impressed at the methodology she employed to achieve such aims. I was totally unaware of some of the features of these programs, such as Mendeley’s capability to watch folders for new uploads. In the case of continuously adding papers to your Dropbox, Mendeley can then automatically update your sources from the Dropbox directory. ReadCube was also a reader she presented, which has sufficient tools to assist with the exploration of supplementary material and in-text citations. Perhaps you may want to try some of these techniques yourself? Viswanathan has also written an article about this topic for the Tübingen Neuromag and can be found here.
Overall, whether it was the continuous stream of coffee or the brilliant science, I was in relatively high spirits for the entire conference duration. It's true that not everything went smoothly, such as the cancellation of our plenary speaker, Professor Robert Desimone (MIT), but we were able to bring in a great scientist and psychiatrist from Heidelberg University, Dr. Wolfgang Kelsh, who was able to answer all of our questions in a discussion that was quite broad and very much entertaining. He really had an answer for it all - whether we were discussing the modern-day use of electroshock therapy, the prescription of medication to alter the mental state, or whether smoking marijuana may lead to schizophrenia. I laud his scope of knowledge, and thanks to him our discussion was all the more fruitful.
Naturally, we will continue to work on making NeNa a fun and entertaining learning experience. The organizing team is already taking suggestions for next year’s keynote speaker, and we are considering other dynamics to increase the diversity of the activities offered to participants. There has already been talk of having live music and more group activities throughout the day. I am certainly, looking forward to it and calling on any interested persons to register for next year (we do support travel for those outside of Tübingen)!
This article was first written for Tübingen’s Neuromag and the MPI PhD Net’s Offspring.
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 Neuroscience with Dr. Henry Evrard.