Reflections on the weird summers of 2020 & 2021…

It has been ages since I wrote a post on my blog – which was created out of a love of travel – typically related to attending the Organization for Human Brain Mapping [OHBM] Annual Scientific Meeting somewhere in the world… Not in 2020 or 2021 year though. I have been reflecting on those years of late, now that things have opened up, albeit with COVID still being with us.

Like all of you I spent countless hours of ‘quality’ time at home in 2020 & 2021. Fortunately we went from teaching online in 2020-21 to teaching in person in 2021-22. While that was associated with more risks for everyone, it was nevertheless a welcome change! That said, I have never really taken off the mask when going out in public, I still do not feel really comfortable doing that – particularly in crowded indoor spaces. When eating/drinking clearly the mask must come off, but I try to chose the places in where I do that…

Looking back now – I realize that I started this post about a year ago & never finished it. I thought I would describe my last 2 surreal summers to you with photographic offerings. This time it is with some of the creatures who visit our garden throughout the year & some of my favorite plants because that was my 3D world for 2 years.

In 2020 I participated in organizing 2 large online neuroscientific endeavors, which began pretty much after the craziness of OHBMx – the 24 hour neuroimaging Twitter conference we organized during the vernal equinox of 2020. That went well – we were not yet sick of being online & were desperate for scientific interactions. And it was a new an interesting way to interact scientifically, in addition to our regular face-to-face interactions. It was the 3rd time that this 24 hour conference was run & it was very enjoyable. However, at the time who ever knew that we would stay online for over 2 years! Indeed, we never returned to the Twitter conference idea largely because the online existence was no longer stimulating for people & it took a lot of work on the part of those who were in the hubs that were running the meeting.

The online mayhem was just beginning at the end of March when OHBM Council & Program Committee took the difficult decision to cancel the annual face-to-face OHBM meeting in Montreal & go fully online. It was time to buckle seatbelts & go on one very crazy ride… EVERYONE worked like maniacs to get the online meeting ready – including Council, Executive, Program Committee, Education Committee, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Special Interest Groups for Open Science, Postdocs & Students, as well as Brain Art, & many other groups attached to OHBM. Did we get it right? No. There were many things that worked, but there were also things that failed & that needed fast fixes during the 2 weeks that was online OHBM. From my own vantage point, I am glad we staggered the meeting out over 2 weeks instead of the usual 5 days. Spending an entire day online for a conference event for 5 days would have not only been exhausting, but impossible especially for many neuroimagers with young families… I attached the first image in this post – of our water lily – because the very first flower for the season opened up on the first day of OHBM 2020! Symbolic in a way. Looking back at what we did now seems really surreal. No-one had experience with running full blown virtual scientific meetings back then. We learned what not to do & what to do, but that said the lay of the land keeps changing… [Fortunately the conference center folks in Montreal were flexible to work with. We are now going back to Montreal in 2023 – that contract was not broken due to the pandemic.]

Back to our garden: there were multiple inhabitants of said pond. They enjoyed sunning themselves on the rocks surrounding the pond, or on the waterlily leaves…

…until one day our resident red shouldered hawk decided to go hunting. A scary sight if there ever was one!

After that escapade one frog was missing! The other 2 knew that they should hide & it was truly hard to spot them in there. It was many weeks before they were brave enough to venture out in the open again. That reflects running a fully virtual meeting in many ways – lots of monsters lurking out of sight & earshot…

What about other creatures that visit, but are a bit of a menace? Sometimes we have a groundhog who has a passion for sweet potato vines. Leaves just the stalks behind after one of his destructive snacking efforts. Infuriating!

In summer 2020 I also participated on the Executive of the first Neuromatch Academy – a 3-week online global summer school of Computational Neuroscience with faculty, teaching assistants & students ( It was like OHBM2020 on steroids! We all worked really, really hard – so many dedicated people trying their absolute best to make the learning experience the best it could be at all hours of the day! I met a lot of wonderful scientists for the first time there – we still remain in contact now – that experience bonded us for life! I could not continue with Neuromatch in subsequent years unfortunately, even though I wanted to as my OHBM activities still required my full attention. But I continue to watch my Neuromatch colleagues with admiration & interest – as they go from strength to strength, taking the inverted classroom format to new heights. I learned a lot about teaching from working with them. They are also filling an important niche in science globally.

After OHBM2020 & then those 3 weeks of Neuromatch was over, I really needed a rest. No-one was really going anywhere because of COVID, so I spent my time in the garden. There, we were lucky to have a Mexican sunflower growing in a pot next to the pond. It was a real butterfly attractor – must have produced lots of nectar I guess. Butterflies are such welcome visitors to the garden – they are beautiful to look at & do not destroy plants…

I really like the above shot because this monarch butterfly is dangling her little back tootsies in the air – like she is doing pull ups…

She spent ages fossicking for nectar at this plant. It was a truly beautiful sight!

After another year, summer 2021 came. Another virtual OHBM meeting ensued. This time it did not take us by surprise – we already made the decision to not go to Seoul in August. OHBM Council looked to the Local Organizing Committee in Seoul to make the final decision – it was only reasonable since they would have to incur the hardships should the pandemic be prolonged. And who would ever have known at the time that this was truly the right call to make! I am looking forward to going back to Seoul in 2024 – we are all grateful for the patience & wisdom of our Sth Korean colleagues. I am looking forward to the opportunity to see their city & also check out their science in more detail!

What was happening in our garden in that summer in 2021? Well the water lily bloomed perfectly on cue for the start of OHBM again!

The decision to go fully virtual presented a lot of opportunity to craft what we wanted. We assembled a Technology Task Force (headed by Alex Fornito) to explore options for running the meeting, as there was no real software that existed to run a meeting the size of OHBM with all of its moving parts. It still took a monumental amount of work with program content occurring across 4 time zones – spearheaded by the indefatigable Daniel Margulies. Made for some really long days for us on the Program Committee & Council. What a weird year to be OHBM Council Chair it was – no in person interactions! Very frustrating in a way, but we made the best we could of it on Planet Brain! Things went a bit better than the year before because we spent the whole year planning & did not want to repeat our past mistakes. And of course everyone worked their butts off, just like in the previous year!!! I was so grateful to have such wonderful hard working colleagues! Did we get it right? No. But we learned what worked & what didn’t… a step up from the craziness of the year before.

What else went on in the garden? This year though we had some special visitors – who only come out every 17 years – from the ground! Yep, Brood X, the cicadas came to visit. What a sight it was…the nymphs emerged from the ground leaving perfect little circular holes. They climbed up the nearest tree & there they emerged from their brown shells. They were particularly fond of our chestnut tree…

When they emerged from their brown shells they are white & already had their characteristic red eyes! After a little while in the sun they get their characteristic black color. Weird creatures. That white one in the image below at left looks to me like it has struck a yoga pose!

The color change is dramatic, to say the least! The black one at the bottom right still has not quite got it’s wings ready to fly yet… & neither is this one…

These guys have got their wings ready for take off!

They are LOUD! They sounded a bit like Aussie cicadas – although their song frequency is different. They also sing longer – they usually started up around 7:30 am & didn’t finish until well after sunset. One afternoon I went outside & clocked ’em at 90dB with the sound level meter on my cell phone. Remarkable! I felt one land on the back of my neck, so I tried to gently shoo it off with my finger. No dice! It shrieked loudly & flew into my ear. Not a pleasant experience…

So, here is another one of our resident rogues – Mr. Alpha – the white tailed male who loves to dine on the ‘salad bar’ of day lilies & hostas that are in full swing at this time of year. He is taking a summer afternoon nap on our lawn in this photo… He has 5 other buddies. Sometimes in fall they lock antlers on the same lawn. You just have to listen to that characteristic ‘clack’, ‘clack’ sound! In fact, in the image below he is ready for battle.

Here he is in his grey winter coat & with wood-hard antlers – all that lovely velvet has gone… He is quite pesky at this time of year – he has to be politely invited to leave the garden & urged to go to his retreat to the woods on our block of land.

And last but not least, our resident pileated woodpecker comes regularly to feed on suet at our feeder. Here you can see he has stuck out his tongue. From what I can tell, it’s dark blue… So, he & his other half regularly have their babies come to the feeder – they are like little ‘mini-mes’ – so cute.

I also found this text I wrote in summer 2021: What will summer 2022 bring? Goodness knows… Hopefully we will be able to travel to OHBM2022 in Glasgow – fingers crossed. Seems like we have been stuck in 2o20 for so long. I no longer recall when exactly different things happened. It is all such a blur – have to look at my calendar at past events to put everything into place…

So what will be the topic of the next blog post? Some reflections of OHBM2022 in Glasgow. Some of you saw my closing remarks in Glasgow, but I will add my impressions & thoughts that I did not share with you when we were together in person.

Be safe & hopefully, well wherever you are on our blue & green planet.

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