Some research/training experiences of a social neuroscientist… Part 1

This post is in response to a challenge that Sharlene Newman @SharleneNewma16 set me on Science Twitter. She suggested we share some of our research/training experiences. So, given we are all stuck in our respective abodes with COVID-19 & looking for a diversion, I thought that this might be of interest to some of you. Since we might be like this for some time, I thought I make it a multi-part blog fest for those with staying power [or alternatively, who are bored as anything…]. At the very least it will get rid of my boredom… ūüôā

QVMC1
Photo from https://www.qvwc.org.au/

So, what research training/experience will I talk about first? Methinks I will start the chatter off from my exploits as an undergrad. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science at [then] Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne (Australia). Part of that gig was an entire year working in a hospital setting – as a trainee Biophysicist.

I worked in the Queen Victoria Medical Center [QVMC] in the center of Melbourne [see https://www.qvwc.org.au/ & also https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/774 for its very rich history]. Remarkable place. It was known as Queen Victoria Hospital for Women from 1896-1977. In 1977, the Queen Victoria Hospital amalgamated with the Jessie McPherson Hospital & McCulloch House (a convalescent home) to amalgamate to form QVMC. QVMC remained in its central Melbourne [Lonsdale St location] very close to Chinatown ūüôā until 1989, when it moved out to the Monash Medical Centre at Clayton – an outer suburb of Melbourne & an area closer to the demographic center of mass at the time. [Although now things have changed.] The centre tower of the original hospital was refurbished & handed over to the women of the state of Victoria. It is now known as the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre [see above photo].

QVMC3

QVMC2

The above 2 photos come from the https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/774 website & were taken in 1984. You can see the cars have changed considerably since that time. It also had a nurses’ home that was active at the time we worked there.
The year was 1980. QVMC was in the time of equal opportunity/racial & gender diversity V1.0. The motto of the place was ‘For women, by women – always.’ In response to trying to increase equal opportunity in the place – where all the department heads & administrators had traditionally been female – the push was on to increase the number of male department heads. There were only 4 male department heads at the time in the entire place – the Medical Superintendent, the Chief Engineer, the Chief Biomedical Engineer & the Medical Photographer. I worked in the Biomedical Engineering Department & the Chief Biomedical Engineer, David Smith, was my very first mentor. I learned so much from him – not just engineering & scientific knowledge, but very practical knowledge about maintaining professional behavior in all circumstances. I remain ever grateful to David for being a great role model & also a wonderful supervisor… He has, of course, long since retired & I believe moved to either Singapore or Hong Kong – we lost track of each other unfortunately when I moved to the US.

What did I do as a trainee biophysicist in the Biomedical Engineering [BME] Department? There were two main lines of work: 1. the daily grind was the repair & safety testing of all electromedical equipment; 2. a research project to benefit BME, which required writing a report/thesis. In BME all of us had our assigned roles – lots of different types of equipment to deal with in the entire hospital. The focus of our hospital though was on neonatal intensive care. The hospital was one of two [the other one being the Royal Children’s Hospital, also in central Melbourne] in Melbourne that specialized in this work – looking after prematurely born infants of very low birthweight. [Took me years of looking at regular full-term healthy infants before I thought they looked normal. I was so used to see these little tykes in their incubators plastered with all sorts of sensors…]

We did a lot of work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit [NICU] – particularly on the different types of infant warming devices & also apnea mattresses/detectors. The cardiac & other monitoring gear was also important, so they were the main things to repair. Each of us also had our different specialties in our department – one person looked after the X-Ray gear, another dealt with the pump for breast milk etc. for instance. I, unfortunately, got the short end of the stick & scored the defibrillators & cardiac monitoring gear. At the time the ubiquitous defibrillator was a LifePak 5 by Physio-Control [pictured below].
LifePak5

I recall a particularly pernicious problem once – an intermittent fault with discharging the thing – took a while to nail down the problem, which as a broken lead in the coiled cable. When it was stretched out fully the break would become apparent & when it was in its regular state it worked fine. I was ecstatic when I found the problem & had to replace the defibrillator paddles with new ones. Nasty thing a defibrillator is – you discharge it, but those big capacitors inside it can still carry a really big belt of charge hours later – you have to discharge it a number of times… a big thick screwdriver across the contacts of the capacitor is the usual trick. Lots of noise & a big spark… Happily I am still here to tell that tale. We had just bought a new defibrillator tester for our BME department – so cool – you could discharge the thing safely at full pelt without killing yourself in the process & you could see if the delivered energy level was anything close to what you thought you were giving. It looks something like the image below – although this is a current model…

FlukeImpulse7000DP

So, you place the paddles on the metal plates & Bob’s your uncle. You need to have really good contact between those metal test plates & the defibrillator paddles – usually works OK if you press down the metal-to-metal… I, in my undergraduate excitement, forgot to remove the masking tape from the new defibrillator paddles. I charged the thing to the max – 400 J – & then let it rip. Mmm. A bad idea as it turned out. I blew a hole the size of a bullet hole in the test plate [which on that older system was a good centimeter or so thick stainless steel]. Luckily nothing bad happened to me – other than getting a pretty bad fright & a stern look from my mentor later. [He did laugh about it later – we all did…] Another part of our job was in visiting other departments to help out when equipment was not working right or if people needed training – this was always fun & a great way to get to know people in the place. BME people usually knew most people in the hospital – so it was a very social environment. We also got to know all the department heads well – they were all very kind to us undergrads [there were two of us assigned to QVMC BME]. We also would go into the operating room/theater a lot because we would test a pacemaker before it was implanted into someone. There was a really formidable thoracic surgeon – her name was Dame Joyce Daws – & I was very afraid of her… [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyce_Daws & https://trove.nla.gov.au/people/756080?c=people] She was a truly amazing woman. Smoked like a chimney. Speaking of smoking. The two of us [undergraduates] once smoked out an operating room while testing a defibrillator. Happily, it malfunctioned on us while we were testing it & not on a patient. The smoke set the fire alarms off. Mmm. Fun and games. We were also required to do on-call work – one week on for each month. Bizarre to think about this now: no cell phones back then & you had to find a phone if they paged you… & you never knew which department had the problem, you had to call the Hospital’s main switchboard.

So, what about the research project – the other component of the work? As I already mentioned that infant warming devices were key in the NICU. Our undergrad projects were both in this area. Our mentor, David, was very active in the Standards Association of Australia [now Standards Australia, see https://www.standards.org.au/] – the professional body which is Australia’s non-government, not-for-profit standards organization. It sets standards to ensure products, services, and systems are safe, consistent, and reliable for consumers. Standards Australia produces standards documents that manufacturers must adhere to for their products to be used in Australia. This also includes electromedical equipment. [So, in some ways this is similar to the International Electrotechnical Commission [IEC, https://www.iec.ch/] in the EU.]

At the end of the 1970s in Australia, there was still no standard for infant warming devices, so work was progressing to develop one. So, our undergraduate research projects at QVMC BME were devoted to getting the data that would help write this standard. I worked on infra-red radiant warmers & infant incubators. There was also no standard for phototherapy devices [for treating premature infants who have jaundice with blue light], so my undergraduate partner-in-crime at QVMC BME worked in that area for his research project. The QVMC NICU at the time was run by Dr Victor Yu. He was immensely supportive of our projects. Our work in BME was really a physics project Рmeasuring different kinds of emissions from the devices. For me it was near- & far-infrared radiation for these open-form warming devices that had the potential to damage the cornea or retina of the infant. I used a simulated infant Рin the form of a black body radiator Рto perform my calculations & measure near- & far- infrared levels. Was able to borrow the specialized measurement equipment I needed from the very helpful folks at the Australian Radiation Labs [now known as ARPANSA, https://www.arpansa.gov.au/research-and-expertise/radiation-emergency-preparedness-and-response/arln].  Why the open form device used in the NICU, you might ask? This was a good way to treat very ill infants as they were more accessible to the nurses, as well as jaundiced neonates [who were treated with blue light] Рas you can see in the image at left below:

Also, there were the standard infant incubators [image above right] where the neonate could repose for a longer period of time. Here the concern was about noise levels inside the unit. The neonates were lying in the incubator on the motor of the system, which had constant low frequency noise, so there was a question about what effects the constant noise might have on their auditory development. So, I had to work out a frequency response for the incubator [I tested multiple types] & modeled it as an acoustic system. Unfortunately, some units actually amplified signal in the low-frequency noise spectrum [due to their physical dimensions & vibration of the bed]. The manufacturers were also interested in what we were doing – some of them were able to make a couple of simple modifications to bring the noise levels down. A really cool thing! The other cool thing was that a new Standard for Infant Warming Devices was produced in the end.

We also got to present our research projects at the Paediatric Research Society of Australia annual conference in 1981. A scary experience – I had a platform talk. First one I have ever done. David, my mentor, videoed a dry run of the talk. We watched the replay together & he critiqued it for me. Wow. What an experience. Still use what I learned then to this day!

After I finished my year in BME I went on to graduate studies. I kept working on equipment & had a registered business name, so I could pay my bills. I also did some contract work testing noise levels in infant incubators in air ambulances. Crazy stuff. Flew around with the emergency crews of the Newborn Emergency Transport Service [NETS; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newborn_Emergency_Transport_Service] in light aircraft & helicopters. The unit had close ties to the NICU at the Royal Children’s Hospital [run By Dr Neil Roy at the time]. So, I would go off for the day armed with my battery-powered measuring equipment & usually ride in the back of the air ambulance, because the patient would be up front being cared for. Looked a bit like this from my perspective, but instead of an adult patient we had a pediatric incubator in that place:

AirAmbulance
Image courtesy of https://www.wingsmagazine.com/king-of-the-air/

When the incubator was empty [on the way there] I could do my testing – for noise levels at take-off, steady flight, & landing. Sometimes we would have to just land in a field instead of an airstrip. Was always pretty bumpy in the back of the bus… Never forgot the first time I sat in the helicopter as we came in to land at the Royal Children’s helipad. Freaky thing that – helicopters are so mobile that they can land almost on a dime. When you are used to planes you think that you will surely crash into the side of the building…

So that was the story of my pre-graduate training. Not bored yet? Tune in to the next part of the story in a subsequent blog post!

 

 

Post #OHBMx Twitter conference thoughts & also thank-yous…

So the Equinox is over & we are officially into Spring. Does not seem that way. I was recording my online lecture yesterday afternoon now that we are in COVID-19 social isolationg & had to pause the recording because I noticed it was snowing & we had plants outside! But that is the rollercoaster of Spring here in the US midwest.

In my previous post I featured most of the people in Team OHBMx – the machine behind https://ohbmx.org/ & @OHBMequinoX, but I did not get to everyone. The Aussie Hub started us off with Michael Breakspear‘s Keynote – a fabulous investigation of brain activity modes in premature babies. Tour de force investigation in so many ways – hard to get this activity in the first place, difficult to source model because of fontanelles, lots of technical issues to solve… A great way to kick us off & with lots of excitement in response to his talk. Ppl were tweeting to signal the start of #OHBMx to draw attention to the meeting [#OHBMx program is here for those of you who missed it: https://ohbmx.org/program/]

Of course Michael’s Keynote Tweets can be viewed here: https://twitter.com/OHBMequinoX/status/1240820864083349505 While Michael Breakspear [@DrBreaky] was keynote tweeting, behind the scenes the Aussie hub was working hard. Pressure was on – they were starting off the 24 hour meeting & were the ‘new kids on the block’ relative to the Euro & US hubs – no pressure… Incredible efforts by Megan Campbell [@MegaEJ_Campbell], L√©onie Horne [@LeonieBorne] & Nikitas Koussis [@KoussisNikitas]!!! They started the meeting off beautifully – everything running smoothly. [And this is easier said than done…] Thank you so much for volunteering to do this! Their smiling faces appear below:

And from the US hub we also had Sheran Khan – his photo appears further down in our feed.

While the hubs were doing their thing, I was valiantly trying to stay awake for the duration – to try to ask questions, offer suggestions & make comments etc. So I decided that I would make my #OHBMx headquarters in our Man Cave at home – booted the other half out of there for 24 hours. Nah, not quite, he was coming in to follow along the fun while he was awake. Here is my ‘pajama’ picture from the couch around 11 pm or so – we started at 10 pm our time.

PuceInManCave

Over the course of next 24 hours, I confess: I lasted 23 24 hours. I had my two trusty editorial assistants helping out – initially they were on the couch watching the action, but later when everything was under control they decided to retire to the periphery of the Man Cave – in the right pic below you can see daylight as we are into the next day already here!

As the conference progressed the tweeting began to show more & more creative use of video, which prompted Team OHBMx Head Enrico Glerean [@eglerean] to issue a challenge: perhaps we might consider an award for the best video! There were many very amusing videos – which of course were right on track with the presentations, but my personal favorite was L√©onie Horne’s. Why? Because she starred in it herself & it was very witty & fitted totally with her chosen theme!

The transition from the Aussie hub to Euro hub was seamless:

I confess that I missed the transition. I was practicing the ancient art of human brain napping. Why? In addition to taking rests between devoting my full attention to scientific presentations, in our location we had a deluge – 15 cm [6 inches] of rain in the 24 hour period that was #OHBMx. This meant that during the night I was also having to run down to our basement to make sure that the incoming water would not get out of control. Was able to contain it to one location & deal with it. Lucky thing I was up all night, otherwise it would have been quite an unpleasant surprise in the basement the next day!

So here are some action shots of Euro hub TeamOHBMx hard at work chairing their respective sessions during their stint at the control panel of the meeting: Michele V & Juulia, Onerva, Onerva & Narayan, & finally Baran & Koos.

MicheleV&Juulia

OnervaCouch

Onerva&Naryan

Baran&Koos

And a reaction to something going awry – not necessarily on the ongoing [visible] Twitter feed, but behind the scenes – which we were all monitoring in Slack as well – I had it on my cell phone while looking at the #OHBMx Twitter feed on my laptop. [Permission by Juulia to post this shot…]

Juulia

The hub baton was handed over a third time to the Team OHBMx US hub – with Dimitrios Pantazis & Sheraz Khan at the helm – again these are seasoned Twitter conference hubbers. So they approached things in a lay back way:

Dimitrios&Sheraz

Dimitrios had it all under control using two computers & Sheran decided he wanted to be in a virtual Hawaii. Makes sense if you are in Boston at this time of year! They also tweeted that shot. That said though, here is a shot of Sheran’s screen:

LayOfTheLand

So he has it all going on on the monitor at once: the Tweetdeck #OHBMx feed, the #OHBMx program, Slack, & the Googledoc with the cue tweets to introduce each presentation. As you can see, there is a lot that has to be monitored at a time. Two people chairing at a time is needed – tweeters have to be contacted ahead of time to make sure they are ready, and current tweeters need to be monitored that they are keeping to time, posting appropriate content etc…

So here is a warning for those who want to do something like this. This is hard work. IMHO to organize this & run this meeting is in some ways is harder than running the main OHBM scientific meeting in June. The logistics are so complicated – presenters in multiple time zone to contend with [some regions with & without daylight saving], technical problems that tweeters might encounter that have to be solved remotely, alternate action plans needing to be implemented if a tweeter does not get their sequence of tweets right. And this happens, despite the given instructions to Tweeters. Why? Because we rely on technology to function perfectly. Sometimes this does not happen. I was a Keynote Tweeter in the #BrainTC conference in 2018. I was nervous & happily did not screw up, but I remember I had to totally keep my attention on task…

I am not going to feature the other Keynotes or Regular tweeters presentations here. They were all excellent Рthe quality of the science was truly exceptional Рas one would expect of an activity tied to OHBM. What blew me away was the ability of the presenters to present incredibly complex work [data & analyses] using only 6 tweets. [Keynotes had 10.] Figures etc. were really informative for the viewer! Do check out the presentations by searching on the #OHBMx hashtag or the @OHBMequinoX feed. We had a plan to organize & make the contents accessible on the regular OHBM website. For now there are 2 options: 1. you can just search on Twitter using those #OHBMx hashtag or @OHBMequinoX. 2. Or, even better, why not use this newly minted tool created by Anibal Sólon [@anibalsolon]. He just told us about it today Рsee our Tweet below providing links to his resource, [thank you Anibal!!!]:

Now, also do not forget to check out the @OHBM_Trainees & their activities – get involved with the OHBM_Trainees, a special interest group [check them out on the OHBM website: https://www.humanbrainmapping.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3449]. They co-ordinate activities of our huge postdoc & graduate student membership. Lots of activities all year round – not just at the OHBM scientific meeting in June. Advice regarding careers & also chances to hook up with mentors who are senior scientists. [I have been a mentor thru this program – I recommend it. My mentee was a postdoc who went on to find a faculty position – I am delighted for him!] So check out OHBMx-73: their presentation at the Twitter conference for more information & of course also the OHBM website [see link above].

So, now that #OHBMx is over there is nothing else left to do but hunker down at home & teach & work the rest of the semester from home. That & LOTS of Zoom meetings! This means work & also play – we have already have had virtual dinners/drinks with friends in the evenings.

Stay well & remember to reach out to those who are isolated – people on their own that need to have some online/phone company…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anatomy of a Twitter Conference

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I recall mentioning the idea of a Scientific Twitter Conference to a large group of university administrators ~2 years ago, as an economical & green way to engage scientists across continents. This was¬† a joint meeting of our US university & a university in France – we were in Paris to pave a memorandum of understanding between our 2 institutions [which happily happened in February 2019]. So what was their reaction, I hear you cry? Universal laughter, amusement & disbelief, which I took in my stride because I have a pretty thick hide. How did I feel about that? Overwhelming sadness. Not embarrassment or anger or anything like that, just plain old vanilla-flavored sadness: sadness that people could not see the potential of social media in spreading a positive message of science & exchanging knowledge & valuable information…

I had participated in the 3 previous Brain Twitter conferences, organized by the very capable folks at Aalto University [see the 2019 meeting proceedings here http://braintc.aalto.fi/2019/ ]. The very 1st year I was online as a participant & enjoyed it immensely – I learned a lot, met new scientists online, asked questions about their work. Altogether it was a wonderful experience. The 2nd year I was a ‘Keynote Tweeter’. That was an incredible lot of fun. The 3rd year I was again a participant – again I learned so much. I continually run into people at the main OHBM scientific face-to-face meeting that I got to know from Twitter & it is so delightful to meet them in real life!

So, when OHBM was looking for ways to engage its Members with online methods, I approached the good folks at Aalto University & asked them if they would like to do the conference again, but this time as part of OHBM. I am delighted that they agreed! Everyone involved in the OHBM machine also got really excited about it – lots of people offering their help in different ways including the OHBM Communications Committee [headed by Nils Muhlert @nilsmuhlert] & the OHBM Student & Postdoc SIG [Special Interest Group headed by Mengxia Gao @Mengxia_Gao]. Even the OHBM Scientific Board has been enthusiastic with Peter Bandettini as its current Chair [@fMRI_today]. So it has been a really marvelous community supported effort – with also additional co-ordination from the OHBM Executive Office. Huge shout out to Emily & JoAnn, in particular!

keynotes_ad_twitter_optimal_miller_parkkonen_yeo.001

So, here we are a few days out from OHBMx [or @OHBMequinox] – the online neuroimaging meeting that will run for ~24 hours on Friday March 20th – on the Equinox – that magical time of the year when daytime & nighttime are equal in the world! It is also Brain Awareness Week in so many parts of the world – so it is a nice way to end that week. Check out OHBMx.org – it gives details of the meeting & highlights the Keynote Tweeters – no need for me to do it here. So we have 3 organizational hubs which progressively kick in as the Earth turns: Newcastle University in Australia, Aalto University in Helsinki & MIT in Boston. These ‘hubs’ co-ordinate the continuing scientific tweetstorm [is this a word?]. So, yes there is order in the chaos. There is a program – see it on OHBMx.org.

I want to feature the smart & engaged people who are the brains behind this enterprise on this blog. I asked them for photos & the opinion was divided between providing photos of people in pajamas [given the nature of the conference!] & providing professional photos… So I am going to use the photos where everyone looks their best!

First up is Enrico Glerean [@eglerean] – he is co-ordinating all of our efforts & making sure that no-one goes off into the ruff in organizing OHBMx overall… He is also leading the European hub!

Image from iOS

In the European hub, as well as the OHBMx Organizational Team, we also have Onerva Korhonen [@OnervaKorhonen], Juulia Suvilehto [@JSuvilehto], Koos Zevenhoven [@@k7hoven] [nice pics below]!

… & also Baran Aydogan [@baranaydogan] & Narayan Subramaniyam [nice pics below, with Narayan looking extra scientific!].

Michele Veldsman [@micheleveldsman] from Oxford has also been helping out in addition to yours truly – so here are our [non]pajama photos – Michele’s is a lot more glamorous than mine, of course. Proud to say that Michele is also my intellectual granddaughter – via Amy Brodtmann [in the Land of Oz]! I have had an absolute blast working with all of these guys. Not only are they clever & efficient, but they are also very funny!

Then we have Michael Breakspear [@DrBreaky] & Dimitrios Pantazis [@dimitrpantazis] leading the charge of the Aussie and American hubs… We are lucky to have folks from around the world working together like this.

Their folks will come to the forefront soon enough & I will try to feature them in another post. Why? Because running one of these Twitter events is bloody hard work – it is hard to organize beforehand, & it takes a lot of dedicated people working round the clock to keep the meeting’s flow going. Let me try & explain why this is so labor intensive.

Keynote selection. If scientists are not on Twitter, then it is probably unfair to ask them to be a keynote. It is stressful to be a Keynote Tweeter – you want to do a good job & inform the audience. You must be very familiar with all the features of Twitter! So it is best to try to find seasoned users of the medium, but they need to be influencers & excellent scientists to boot! Rest assured that they are also stressing out over presenting their work via this medium – in some ways very similar to the anxiety that accompanies a real scientific meeting. Why? You cannot see your audience – it could be large, it could be small… you have no body language cues to tell you whether they are engaged or not, whether they understand etc.

Abstract submission. Information to be gathered for a Twitter conference involves asking potential tweeters [including Keynotes] when they would be available to tweet. We give Keynote Tweeters 30 minutes [& 10 tweets] & Regular Tweeters 15 minutes [& 6 tweets]. The flood of abstracts came in & we had more than we could fit in the time periods. So abstracts had to be reviewed & some had to be culled so that we could fit the rest into the program. So now we have Tweeters from many different timezones who all have to be accommodated into the program. You can see where I am going to go with this…

Scheduling the program itself. First, it is lots of work to set-up abstract submission to get additional data that are not gathered for a regular conference. Second, once the abstracts come in & are reviewed, scheduling the meeting is actually pretty difficult. I have been on OHBM Program Committee for 4 years, where we have thousands of abstracts to deal with. This has its own difficulties, but in my opinion, the Twitter conference is trickier to schedule. Why? Because everyone is in their home location & we do our best to try to fit into their lives. Family routines need to be respected etc… So this means that the program order might not flow as thematically as you might see in a regular conference.¬† I had a couple of goes at trying different thematic orders for the Aussie & American hubs…was never entirely happy with any of them & I left it to the experts on our team to finnish it off [pun intended!] & get them into the final order, because they know best how to do that – they have already done this for 3 years previously!

Advertising the meeting – getting neuroimaging community to support the effort. This is tricky because tweeting for science is not ubiquitous. I have already implied that it is somewhat of a generational thing – a lot of older scientists scoff at the idea… I confess that I myself had to be convinced by Olaf Sporns [@spornslab] & John Foxe [@JohnnyFoxe] – they both nagged me for years. One day they both were at the same small scientific meeting that I was at, so resistance was futile. I signed up & have never looked back…

The hub: Organizing the logistics of the meeting. This is also a complicated business – the hubs need to co-ordinate their activities with each other. Each hub takes a turn at curating the tweeting – every tweeter, irrespective of whether they are a Keynote or Regular Tweeter has to be electronically contacted to see if they are ready to go in their time slot – as a first step. Then a hub member sends out an introductory tweet to announce their presentation. The tweeter then replies to the introductory tweet & to their own subsequent tweets, so that each presentation forms its own thread. So the folks in the hub need to be on top of the action for hours at a time – something that most people might not realize & appreciate… This is why we need multiple hubs – because running this type of meeting is very labor-intensive & would be impossible for a single hub to do alone. So while you are enjoying the conference, spare a thought for the folks manning the current hub – they are working really hard & there are often moments of mad panic when things don’t quite go to plan – a Keynote Tweeter might suddenly encounter a problem or someone who is due to start presenting is not online…

Accessing the Twitter conference feed. The #OHBMx hashtag links the entire conference together. One can zone in on the hashtag & then view what is going on in the conference as a continuous feed. This includes seeing what types of questions the presenter gets & who is asking them. One way I personally prefer to do this is to use the app called Tweetdeck [see https://help.twitter.com/en/using-twitter/how-to-use-tweetdeck]. Tweetdeck allows you to focus in on a particular set of activities on Twitter in a way the regular Twitter app does not. You can set it up so that you can follow only what is going on in the conference [via the hashtag]. This is pretty easy to do – the help webpages are decent. There may well be other Apps that people find useful. Tweetdeck is one I am familiar with & like – hence my plug of it here. What ever you decide to use – do practice a bit with the App you plan to use beforehand – that way you won’t miss the science because of a technical issue.

In the lead up to the OHBMx this week, if I have some time I will try to put out another blog post with a beginners guide to Twitter, so that others who have not yet joined the Twitter Science community can also come online & join us. I will try & post links that people who are new to the medium might find useful to check out.

So, in the meantime, stay well everyone! Difficult times ahead for us in the world with Corona virus on the loose. Don’t let it getcha – don’t touch your face, wash your hands a lot & practice social isolation. The idea is to ‘flatten the curve’ – let’s slow it’s spread so that people who need hospital bed can actually get one. It is not rocket science, but it is common sense that is grounded in science. We seem to have forgotten why we got rid of the bubonic plague & communicable diseases like that in this really weird period in our 21st century… If there is a silver lining on this cloud: as we socially isolate, we will at least be able to enjoy OHBMx !

In the meantime: enjoy this image of Spring – it is almost here for us in the Northern hemisphere! It is a picture of a Red Shouldered Hawk baby reposing in its nest in our yard last spring. Linda Smith took the picture below with her 400 mm lens. My 300 mm one could not hold a candle to it!

HermanIII_LindaSmith400mm_cropped

@OHBMEquinox: Neuroimaging conferencing on Science Twitter?

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Hanging out & just rotating around the sun. Recently I was reflecting on how long I have personally stood on our Earth as it made it’s daily rotations on it’s orbit around the sun. I came to the conclusion that I have been around the sun too many times than what I would like to actually admit to here… I also reflected on the number of friends & scientific contacts that I have enjoyed making over the course of these many rotations around the sun. I also did not want to particularly contemplate how much ionizing radiation I had subjected my body to in flying around to many locations in the world for well over 3 decades.

Using technology wisely to increase productivity? I have been resorting to using technology more & more – to regularly meet with collaborators across oceans, as well as give lectures to my students when I am either traveling, or when I am unwell. [ This is a great option when you do not wish to infect the rest of your building with bubonic plague. ūüôā Let’s be mindful & not spread the infection to others…] These virtual meetings have been great – lot’s of time saved not travelling. No jet lag either.

Taking the next step with technology. So, this makes me ask the question: if we can use technology to meet with friends, family & colleagues to discuss things, why can’t we organize scientific activities such as conferences using different virtual formats? Does this mean I am advocating that we all sit at our desks & watch video feeds of talking heads? No. Not at all. That would be awful.

We need to think about different ways to interact & present our science – ways which excite & engage our colleagues! I have had the pleasure of being involved with Science Twitter for about 5 years now. What a wonderful thing this has been! I have learned so many cool new things about neuroimaging – including getting new papers/preprints of fascinating new work by colleagues whose work I respect. I have also met so many people, made lots of new contacts. Amazing, when I have gone to scientific meetings e.g. Organization for Human Brain Mapping [OHBM] I have run into folks whose Tweets I have been reading & vice-versa. What a great way to make contact with those that you do not know! I have been able to invite folks out to IU to give talks & have also gone out to visit others & talk at their institutions, after meeting them on Twitter. How cool is that?

An OHBM Science Experiment. For the last 3 years the very capable young neuroscientists based at Aalto University in Helsinki have run a Brain Twitter Conference Рwith key note Tweeters & regular Tweeters. It has run for a day & has been a lot of fun Рsee previous conference abstracts/program from 2019 etc. here:  http://braintc.aalto.fi/2019/

This year we all decided to embark on a crazy experiment during the Equinox as our Earth takes a daily rotation around the sun – over a 24 hour period. It will be the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, Autumnal Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere. Everywhere there will be an equal balance between the number of hours of day & night. Cool to contemplate, no? So as our Earth rotates around on this particular day – March 2020, we are going to devote it to neuroimaging/neuroscience! The new day dawns in Australasia first – so our Aussie hub – led by the inimitable @DrBreaky [a.k.a. Michael Breakspear] will start us on our journey. As the Earth turns during the day, we will turn to Europe/Africa/Middle East & to our Finnish hub – led by one of the architects of BrainTwitter conference @eglerean [a.k.a. Enrico Glerean] & the very capable & experienced team in Helsinki. Further on as the day nears its end we will be looked after by the experienced & seasoned US hub – led by the indefatigable @dimitrpantazis¬† &[a.k.a. Dimitrios Pantazis] in Boston. [Just as well – since his team will be closing out the day for us…] So as the Earth turns, we turn to 3 hubs who will co-ordinate our neuroimaging activities!

Where to get more information? Check out: OHBMx.org & submit an abstract soon! And check out @OHBMEquinox on Twitter. I will write another post with updates on the activities soon…

PuceLab couch surfers
Matt Winter & Kami @salibayeva breaking in the PuceLab couch for Brain Twitter conference.

Meanwhile, our lab is ready for this: new couch/coffee table in the lab where we will be able to hang out & enjoy the fun on the Equinox – March 20! Note that this is also co-incides with Brain Awareness Week in many parts of the world – so consider including @OHBMEquinox #OHBMx in your activities on that Friday!

Even the creatures in Indiana are going nuts about this…

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…don’t miss out. @aina_puce

 

 

 

 

 

From the frying pan into the fire!

Two weeks spent in Italy were wonderful, but the weather was hot. I got quite a surprise when I got back to Paris for my last week there. When I had left there the weather was very cool – indeed most of May & part of June had been that way. But things changed quickly – a stalled weather system over Europe was going to make things very toasty – bringing southerly winds from Africa. So we were going to have ‘la¬†canicule‘ or heat wave to get through. This was potentially a very serious problem: I saw on the French national news that an estimated 4% of French households have airconditioning [compare that to ~90% in the USA]. My 6th floor apartment of course was not airconditioned & my way of cooling it was to open every single window after sunset [& have the windows & shutters closed during the day]. That actually worked a treat – provided the temperature drops down at night. But during a canicule that does not really happen & there is no breeze at night, no respite. So I got prepared this time, because I had experienced that in the same apartment last year on sabbatical [thankfully only for a very brief time]. I went out & bought a fan to leave in the place for these rare occurrences. But I had to assemble the thing & did not have all of the tools to do it. I literally got 90% done & could not finish the last part because I either needed an extra hand or a special tool. Ironic & tragically funny at the same time. I was comparing heat stories with a friend who was staying with family in Germany while waiting for a new work visa – her problem is that they could not find the fan that one of her family members had ‘put in a safe place’ – so they were also having a similar problem! I finally got it fixed when my landladies stopped over as they were taking a pet to the vet in Paris. It took 3 of us to get it going. Ironically, I was only going to be there for 2 more nights… Here is a sunset from one of those nights. Looks as hot as Hades, but thankfully our temperatures were nowhere like those in Germany & Spain at the time…

HeatWaveSunset1

The day I returned to Paris was the longest day of the year Рright in time for the Fête de la Musique which takes place on the night of the 21st June every year. It started in Paris in 1982. Everyone comes out into the street & makeshift stages pop up in neighborhoods. Anyone can sing or play music of their choice Рso of course you get the good & the bad as well. More organized [& even televised events] take place in Paris, Nice etc. where well-known singers all come out to perform one song each. Music plays long into the night Рwhich can be quite late since it does not really get dark until about 11 pm. As I starting to pack up some of my stuff I was very happy to be listening to some nice jazz filtering in through my open windows. [I missed this event last year because I was at the OHBM scientific meeting in Singapore.]

At the start of the week I had to attend & speak at a conference organized between Sorbonne Universit√© & my own Indiana University – on artificial intelligence. What do I know about artificial intelligence, I hear many of you cry? Well not much. I had to present the work of a colleague & made sure that I made that clear…

One day we ended up having lunch in the same ‘tower’ that we were in last year for a similar meeting. The view from the 25th floor of the Zamansky Tower [of UPMC, or the science/technology campus of the Sorbonne] where we were was stunning. This year though, Notre Dame looked very different. Compare the two images below, the top one is from this year in late June and the bottom one was taken from the same location about a year ago.

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UPMC_Zamansky_06

The damage in the top image is very evident & is quite extensive. I had previously posted images of the Notre Dame taken from the other side of the city – from 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse [see images a few posts ago]. Those images did not look as bad as this one. Now I understand why people here think that it will likely be impossible to renovate it in the 5 year period proposed by Emmanuel Macron.

As part of the conference we had a collective dinner that was organized at a very well-known restaurant near the old Sorbonne campus called Bouillon Racine [see http://bouillonracine.fr/] in the 6th arrondisement. The word ‘bouillon’ is apparently the precursor word for ‘brasserie’ – the latter of which was originally used to designate places that brewed their own beer etc.¬†¬†Bouillon Racine is quite an institution in the area – being around since 1906 & being lavishly decorated in an exuberant Art Nouveau style, as the panorama image below shows:

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It was a very toasty affair because we sat upstairs – with all the windows open, as can be seen from the street view:

BouillonRacine_02

I would like to return there when the weather is cooler & one could sample some of the more heavier, traditional dishes. That particular night was one of those nights where you drink copious amounts of water, very little wine & sit forward in your chair so that the sweat can run down the small of your back. That said, however, we had a beautiful dinner & the conversation flowed nicely. It was really great to get to know colleagues from the Sorbonne as well as my own IU, that I had not really interacted with previously. Nice! After dinner, I retired to the coolness of the Metro for a fairly quick ride home. Happily, as I flung open my apartment windows that night we actually had a bit of a breeze – bearable. That said, however, the mosquitoes this year were really abundant & mean – probably the artifact of a cool & wet spring. Last year I was in the same apartment in summer & did not have that problem at all, so this was an unpleasant surprise…

The rest of the week was spent in dinners out catching up with friends to say adieu, finishing up at the institute, as well as packing up & cleaning out the apartment. Ironically, the last day I was there cleaning the apartment was the hottest one of all! So I made sure I got up early & moved my baggage out to a nearby hotel. I then fortified myself with a croissant from my favorite bakery & declared war on the apartment. The worst part was the dust – everything gets so dusty quickly when all the windows are open to a very busy street. Happily I was done by noon – so did not have to work during the hottest part of the day. Instead I joined my colleague for a long & languid lunch [which I followed up with a siesta later in the afternoon…]. It was a really nice time to spend some last hours together. I decided I would have a decent size meal, as my plan was to have just a snack for dinner. So I had a steak tartare & frites & a salad from my favorite local brasserie & a place I like to hang out in regularly. That way I could say my goodbyes to the lovely staff who work there. I have spoken about it previously, you might remember that… My colleague managed to do a stealth move & secretly paid for my lunch. What a lovely surprise that was!

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Thus fortified, I went back to my apartment to give back my keys & say goodbye to the gardienne of the apartment building &, of course, my landladies. They were hanging out in Paris that weekend because their cat had another vet’s appointment. So they insisted that we should go out for dinner & bailing out was not an option. We went to one of their favorite Thai places in our quartier [Tha√Į Papaya, 51 Rue des cinq Diamants, 75013 Paris]. The food was really delightful & pretty authentic. It has been years since I had a coconut based Thai veggie red curry whose whereabouts I could track exactly through my digestive system! Delightful! A great way to beat the heat. I remember I used to do this exactly that as a student in Australia when we did not have airconditioning – a Malaysian or Thai curry was just the thing to make one feel better during a heatwave.

ThaiPapaya_dinner

It was also good to sit pretty much out on the street instead of the back of the restaurant – much more comfortable. Sprayed myself with a ton of insect repellent. I think that that coupled with the garlic & chillies frightened away those nasty mozzies.

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My landladies insisted on paying for the dinner – I did feel a bit uncomfortable about that, but there was no way fighting that, they were adamant…

So it was time to head back across the Atlantic again, back home – so nice to have that Delta Airlines direct flight between Indy & CDG in Paris! Other half was away in Australia, so we had made a plan to exchange cars in the airport car park. The trick was to ensure that we both knew which car it was going to be so that I would have the correct keys. The other thing: text a picture of where the car was parked & the parking receipt. Easy peasy – we have done this before! Nice to get home to see the greenness of the garden etc. And of course to have an unpacking assistant or two to help out…

UnpackingAssistantFuture posts will deal with more scientific topics, pet peeves [not of the four-legged kind] & important issues that concern our profession etc.

I hope you are all well wherever you find yourselves in the world…

 

More wanderings in Italy’s far north

 

PaluEnvirons_06

The next stop in our chillout trip was a village in the Alto Adige called Pal√Ļ di Giovo, located roughly 10 km north of Trento. The terrain is very hilly & covered with vineyards. Narrow roads crisscross their way across hills with lots of hairpin bends that make for fun driving – if you have a good car. Unfortunately, ours was pretty gutless – when I tried to test it out on the autostrada by putting my foot to the floor, pretty much nothing happened. This was a bit of a worry because driving on the autostrada in northern Italy starts to become a little more like driving on the autobahn in Germany – lots of fast cars in the right lane, except this time it is not uncommon to see Maseratis & Ferraris. The local roads in the region also have some pretty steep grades – on one occasion I thought we would not get up the hill in 1st gear it was so steep.

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We stayed on a vineyard/apple orchard in a B&B called Maso Pomarolli [see https://www.agriturmasopomarolli.it/index.php/en/], which was part of the ‘farm stay’ or Agriturismo network.¬† The property was certainly in a picturesque location.

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They make a very nice white wine and also a red from the grapes that they grow [We did not try the red because the weather was rather hot.]

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The B&B & parcel of land is owned by the families of two brothers [who inherited the property from their father & grandfather]. They have had the B&B for about 20 years to supplement the income they make on their farm. It is clear that they genuinely like to meet & interact with people – but they do not speak English, only Italian. This goes for other people in the village also. Indeed, the local region is interesting in that way: in some of the neighboring valleys no Italian is spoken at all. Instead, a dialect called Tedesco is used in those locales. So, when visiting the area, one needs to consider which language is spoken in these more mountainous regions – otherwise communication might be difficult.

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The B&B is not that far from the Western part of the Dolomites & also from Lake Garda. We did take a drive up to the northern part of Lake Garda – less touristy than the southern end – & it certainly was scenic, as this iPhone pano shows.

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Lots of birdlife on & around the lake…

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We also took a trip up to Molveno Croz Dell’Altissimo – a very beautiful cable car & then chairlift ride with views of Lake Molveno. In winter this is a skiing area & in summer it is a hiker’s & mountain biker’s paradise.

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The locale made me think a little of Switzerland, but when I got on the chairlift I really did feel like I was in Switzerland because of the way cowbells could be heard at a distance…

It was an unexpectedly hot day – we had taken the obligatory layers with us & it was a surprise to be sitting on the chairlift with a t-shirt on. Unfortunately, of all the time spent away, that was the day that I felt quite unwell – but the scenery did certainly help you forget about that…

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In the afternoon we could see that the weather was rolling in & were able to get down from the mountain before an almighty thunderstorm. Wow, how the thunder resonated in the valley!!! Since the weather was going to be crummy we decided to look for indoor activities as we headed back to our locale. We stopped in to the Casa d‚ÄôArte Futurista Depero, in a smallish town called Rovereto. This museum is devoted to displaying the life & works of Fortunato Depero [1892-1960] a local Italian futurist who was a painter, sculptor & designer. He was one of the founders of the Italian futurist movement in the early parts of the 20th century. The exhibit also features textiles, woodworks, furniture etc. of his designs. Overall, I liked his work a lot – there is a certain warmth in it that is usually missing in work by other futurists. I cannot show you the works – photography was not permitted in the museum. One of Depero’s most iconic functional designs from the 1930s is of the triangular small Campari Soda bottle that is still in use today! I had bought one in Rome when I was at OHBM, but did not yet know that it was a design classic or even the back story behind it…

CampariSodaBottle_Despero1932

The above image comes from the museum’s website [see: https://www.inexhibit.com/mymuseum/casa-darte-futurista-depero-museum/]

Back in our locale that night we went out to dinner at a really great restaurant called Trattoria Vecchia in a tiny little village called Sorni [see https://www.trattoriavecchiasorni.it/]. Thanks to local Trento neuroinformaticien, Paolo Avesani, who recommended the place to us! The road to it was interesting, pretty much room for 1.5 cars & lots of hairpin bends. Would have been nice if the car we had was less gutless… The trattoria has been there for aeons & has had to expand into a second space across the ‘road’ from the original restaurant & kitchen. The new space is delightful – it is pretty much all glass [sliding open panels] with gorgeous views of the valley with vineyards & surrounds, as the image below shows:

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Needless to say the food was fabulous – here is what we had for dessert – a nice apricot tart & a millefeuille with fresh cherries & pistacchio creme. Delightful!

The next day we took a trip to Bolzano – an interesting small city even further north in Italy, getting closer to the border with Austria. It is actually in a region called the S√ľdtirol. As it’s name would suggest, German is one of its languages alongside Italian. That said, I do understand a bit of German, but the version of it spoken here is a dialect – so I had no idea what was being said. I had to try to listen to people speaking Italian instead [even though I have trouble with that also]. The city is picturesque in the way you would expect – markets, old buildings in narrow streets with a mountainous backdrop:

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One of the things that Bolzano is famous for is it’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology,¬†which was entirely renovated to feature the Neolithic mummy called √Ėtzi the Iceman.¬† √Ėtzi’s¬†remains were found by a German couple hiking in the mountains northwest of Bolzano on the 19th of September 1991 – across a route that has likely been used for millenia. He is called √Ėtzi because he was found in a region known as the √Ėtztal Alps on the Italian side of the Austrian‚ÄďItalian border – the black dot below shows where he was found in relation to Bolzano today [red dot] [map adapted from¬†https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi].

OtzalAlpsEtc

√Ėtzi’s remains have been dated back to ~5K years & the artifacts he had on him [a copper axe!], as well as his clothing, have necessitated a revision of archaeological history. No photographs are permitted in the permanent exhibit. One can view the remains through a glass window in a purpose-built ‘cold room’ designed to replicate the conditions on the mountain that he was found in. In this way the remains will not deteriorate. The precautions to preserve √Ėtzi are very elaborate – there is a generator in case of a power failure, a second cold room he could be moved to if there was a problem in the original room & the local hospital also has a 3rd cold room for him, if all else fails. The exhibit is really worth visiting – there is so much interesting background information – piecing together the details of his life & the fact that he was murdered [shot in the shoulder by an arrow that pierced a major artery]. There is also a full body/facial reconstruction of him – made using modern 3D technology for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. It shows the 45 year old √Ėtzi in a full-size model that is really compelling…

Otzi

The above image I have reproduced from the museum’s website –¬† for more details take a look at http://www.iceman.it/en/.

It would have been nice to check out more of Bolzano, but time was very short as the next day we had to make our way to Verona Рas I was flying out from there to get back to Paris. The other half stayed on a bit in Italy for a few more days. On our way to Verona, we did stop at the Castel Beseno Рa truly amazing fortress about 20 km from Trento that was of major strategic & military importance in the region for many centuries [https://www.buonconsiglio.it/index.php/en/Castel-Beseno and also https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castel_Beseno].

CastelBeseno_08

The Castel Beseno complex is very extensive & completely covers the hill. It has been built up progressively in stages over the centuries. It overlooks the valley [as can be seen in the image below], so potential invaders can be seen from a long distance away.

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Altogether there are 5 such fortresses in the region – the others are Castel Caldes, Castel Stenico, Castel Thun & the Castello del Buonconsiglio. [This reminded me a little bit of the ‘5 Sons of Carcasonne‘ – a set of fortresses strategically positioned in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southwestern France to keep the Spaniards at bay…]

Many battles for the possession of these 5 castles in the far north of Italy took place over the centuries as power struggles between the German Empire & Italian city-states ensued. Unlike the other 4 fortresses, Castel Beseno was never captured by invaders because of its inaccessibility on the hill, as well as its many stages of fortification.¬†The oldest parts of the fortress date back to medieval times. As the centuries progressed, fortifications were extended to encompass increasingly more parts of the hill. The final imposing structure measures some 250 meters in length & 50 meters in width – forming the shape of an ellipse that crowns the hill. This was its final form in the 16th century –¬† impenetrable because of the intricate set of gates & inner walls that it had. It had a garden & rain water was also collected in a cistern, which is still there today. It is truly an imposing structure when seen from the valley. Walking around the complex also takes a lot of time – so many nooks & crannies to explore & so many stairways to go up & down… The image below comes from the brochure that is available at the ticket office – the only way to really appreciate the entire structure is from the air [or perhaps by drone].

CastelBeseno_aerial_view

Remarkably, over the centuries only 3 families have owned it! First it was family Beseno, then the Castelbarco & finally the Trapp family, who had it from 1470 to 1973! It was then donated to the Autonomous Province of Trento & is used today for events & historical enactments. Below are some more photos I took of the place:

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With reluctance, the next day we headed to the airport in Verona – it was time for me to head back to Paris. That said though, I was very happy when I got to Rome’s Fiumicino airport – during my layover I was able to stop in at the Venchi store & get some gelato for lunch…

It was pretty sinful. I chose 2 flavors: caramelized fig/mascarpone & a gelato made from their nocciolata. Double pleasure… [Their nocciolata is my favorite hazelnut chocolate spread – it is not very sweet & is made of dark chocolate. It has hazelnuts from Piedmont & a little bit of olive oil. Happily I can get it in the USA… see https://us.venchi.com/spread-and-other-chocolates/chocolate-spreads]

This post ends as it started: with an image taken from from a scenic point in the hills on the way to Maso Pomarolli. The sun had gone to bed for the day & the nice coolness of the evening was beginning to roll in. Nice to sleep with all the windows open & ‘listen’ to the peace & quiet in that farming community. Thankfully for us, there the roosters crowed in the mornings at around 10 am, so there was no commotion early in the morning. There were a few days when the cows mooed extremely loudly – sounded like they were having a bit of a turf war [pun intended]… Sorry about the pun, but a particularly punny friend of mine who was also traveling in Europe has been driving me bonkers with punny direct messages for the last couple of weeks…

PaluEnvirons_07

How quickly our time in Italy came to an end. It was a really good week for me – got a much needed recharge of my mental & physical batteries. Next post? Me back for my final week in Paris, before heading back home to the USA.

Exploring the Alto Adige in Italy: Mantova

After the noise & chaos of Rome, as well as the immense scientific energy of OHBM2019, it was time to chill out. The other half & I took a week to see a part of Italy we had not spent time in before – the Alto Adige. This region is very well known for it’s wines & indeed when travelling through it, there are vineyards everywhere as the Adige River wends it way through this very hilly region. We first travelled to Mantova [in the Lombardy region of the Alto Adige] where we stayed for 3 nights. Mantova is a fascinating city that started out as an ancient Umbrian settlement, which then became a home for Etruscans & then subsequently Celts & of course, Romans [see https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mantova]. Given the perpetual state of wars & conflicts in the region, there was a need to protect oneself from invaders. Therefore, in the¬†12th century Alberto Pitentino (an architect & hydraulic engineer) re-engineered the course of the Mincio River. Incredible for its day, he was able to create 4 artificial lakes using water from the river. The 4 lakes [Superiore, di Mezzo, Inferiore and Paiolo] surrounded the town, forming a defense system for the city. The surrounding countryside was accessed via two bridges – the Ponte dei Mulini & the Ponte di San Giorgio.

The city is very picturesque, with narrow streets & very old buildings. Everyone rides bicycles – including very well-dressed elderly folks – that was very impressive.

There is quite a mélange of architectural styles which are evident particularly in one of the largest squares in the city, as seen in the image below:

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In terms of people that the city is known for, the poet Virgil [70 BC-19 BC] is the most famous son. As he was born in the region, there are tributes to him everywhere. Also among the rich & convoluted history of the town, there is also the Gonzaga family dynasty who had long prevailed over it, leaving behind many monumental buildings. One of their major building projects spanning the 14th to the 17th centuries was the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ducal_palace,_Mantua]. The extensive complex of buildings includes ~500 rooms & occupies an area of ~34,000 m² Рwhich includes long corridors with frescoes leading to hidden gardens & very elaborately decorated rooms, as some of the images below show:

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The most amazing aspect of the complex for me was the intricate detail in the rooms – usually very fine woodwork & marble…

The above images come from a section of the complex called the Apartment of Isabella d’Este. Isabella d’Este [1474 ‚Äď 1539] was the Marchioness of Mantova & was married to Francesco II Gonzaga [Marquess of Mantua]. She was born in Ferrara & was a very well-educated woman. So much so, that she became a major political & cultural figure – being a part of the Italian Renaissance [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_d%27Este]. At one point she served as Regent of Mantova – after her husband was captured & held hostage in Venice from 1509-1512. Apparently she was a better ruler than her husband, leading Mantova’s military forces & successfully keeping invaders out until his return. She was also a major patron of the arts. Interestingly, in 1499 Leonardo da Vinci drew a profile image of her, as a study for a painting, which he never painted. That said, the similarity of the drawing to his painting of Mona Lisa [painted between 1503‚Äď1506] is striking – resulting in speculation today that she was the original subject for La Gioconda. Check out the drawing at [https://www.leonardodavinci.net/portrait-of-Isabella-deste.jsp].

Mantova’s Basilica di Sant’Andrea¬†[https://guideturistichemantova.it/st-andrews-church/?lang=en] is one of the most elaborately decorated churches I have ever set foot in. It is also one of the largest churches in Europe. My photographs do not do it justice… It was commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga in 1472, but took ~300 years to complete! The project was started by¬†the famous architect Leon Battista Alberti, whose sudden death meant that the project had to continue under the supervision of a different person – Luca Fancelli.¬† It’s very large dome was a late addition, being added at end of the 18th century by Filippo Juvarra.

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When you are in the church it is staggering to look at the decoration – & it is even more of a surprise when you realize that it is all trompe l’oeil – a visual illusion – there are no actual carvings on the walls…

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So many Catholic Churches have relics of Christ & this one’s relic is more unusual than some of the others – the so-called Precious Blood of Christ. Purportedly it was brought to Mantova by the Roman soldier Longinus, who had picked up a bit of soil soaked in the blood of Jesus after his crucifiction & had become a Christian. He came to Mantova in 37 A.D. after apparently roaming around for years. He was killed & no-one actually found the relic. Legend has it that the relic was found in 804 by a beggar who had a dream where St. Andrew showed him the spot where the relic had been stashed… The relic is now housed under the floor of the church.

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It is so hard to capture the scale of this amazing space with a camera…

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Speaking of trompe l’oeil, another interesting example is the Teatro Scientifico Bibiena [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teatro_Bibiena].¬†This theatre is a small one – the stage is 12.3 metres wide X 5.6 metres deep, with a full seating¬†capacity of 363. The non-stalls seating consists entirely of boxes, which looked like they could only seat 2 people. The theatre was designed & built by Antonio Galli Bibiena between 1767-1769 in a late Baroque or early Rococo style – which was in vogue at the time. This multipurpose theatre was commissioned by the Royal Virgilian Academy of Science and Arts [Accademia Virgiliana].

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The really cool part about the history of this theatre is that 3 weeks after it opened the young [12 year old] Wolfgang Mozart played the piano here in a concert which was a resounding success.

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Standing on the stage I tried to imagine the scene back in the day with the young Mozart at the piano playing to a packed wigged audience who would have been dressed up to the nines. This is the view that the young maestro would have had from the stage:

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Apparently, Mozart’s father wrote about the experience & waxed lyrical about the theater in which the performance had taken place.

When we visited Mantova, we stayed in an apartment – which was great because I could catch up on my washing after Rome & also have a meal at ‘home’ after the week of eating out in Rome. The apartment was very comfortable, but had a bizarre arrangement in that the washing machine was in the loft. The stairs to get to the loft were astounding to say the least… more like a ladder actually. Thought I would have to put the washing in a back pack to go up them…

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Our landlady showed us around the place & pointed to the stairs & noted that that was where the washing machine was. She did not climb them. Probably a good idea since she was pregnant. The other funny part was the floor in the living room was sunken relative to everything else. So when you came down the stair/ladder from the loft & thought you had made it down safely, you would then stumble on the 3-4 cm little step down. Took us about 2 days to get used to that one…

We were able to buy some lovely groceries at a local deli & also went to a wine merchant to get some local product. Everyone was very helpful, but few people in the area speak English [& indeed there are not that many tourists there either]. My other half can hold his own in Italian, so we were good. The nice people in the deli also gave us butter & a local speciality cake – they were very generous. The local cakes have a lot of sugar & butter – see below – as well as whole almonds. The one we were given is a called a Sbrisolona.

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The image above on the right is a local wine – a dry moscato, that was not unlike a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc – which is unique to the region. It was great to try it – thanks to the suggestion of the friendly wine merchant.

One of the other things we tried were the ‘tortelli di zucca’ – essentially¬†ravioli filled with pumpkin [a special variety that is on the small side & has a green outer skin]. The pasta filling has also a lot of nutmeg & mostarda di frutta – a special type of local apple that has been preserved with some mustard [which to me actually tasted more like wasabe…]. After you cook the pasta you dump it in a butter & sage sauce [that was why the deli folks gave us the butter…]. This was a very lovely local dish. Might have to try to make something like this when I get home…

The last thing we did in Mantova was to check out a small art exhibit featuring the works of Georges Braque [1882-1963] [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Braque]. A lot of these were on loan from the Kunstmuseum Pablo Picasso M√ľnster, in Germany.¬†The exhibit was interesting because it featured more unusual works such as drawings, lithographs & images that had been specifically produced for books on various themes at the time. The style was also interesting – the works were not in the cubist style that he ultimately become famous for. Birds & vegetation were the main topics of the exhibition. The image below is a good example – I would never have guessed this was a work by Braque…

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Braque, like other artists in his day, had many friends in the literary world. Therefore, he also made drawings & lithographs for the books of others – which might include books of poetry or literature, or books on the artists themselves, as the images below show:

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The exhibit also featured work by other artists, including a set of original Matisse works from a book called Jazz that was produced in 1947 in Paris by Editions Tériade that are currently in a private collection in Mantova [see image below]:

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There was also a 2019 recreation attempt [Flavio Favelli vis-a-vis] of a studio sculpture & then an illustration of it by Flavio Favelli. In Braque & Picasso’s experiments with various art forms including cubism in 1912-1914, they would assemble models or ‘sculptures’ in their studios, which they would subsequently draw or paint. The sculptures were composed of cardboard in Braque’s case & glass/wood for those of Picasso. They were usually destroyed after the images had been made. Indeed, only a few of Picasso’s models have survived, whereas all of Braque’s models have been destroyed. Therefore, it was good to see a modern day example that illustrated how the masters had created innovative work in the studios in the earlier parts of the 20th century.

The exhibition itself was held in the Pallazzo della Ragione [see https://www.comune.mantova.gov.it/index.php/cultura/musei-e-monumenti/palazzo-della-ragione] a building dating back to 1250. It was built as a hospice by the Canossa family for pilgrims visiting Mantova to see the relic of the Precious Blood of Christ. Later, it became a ‘town hall’ and then subsequently used as a site for a market – which now occurs in the main town square. In the 15th century it functioned as a palace of Justice & notarial archive. Today the space is used for exhibitions & events, although it suffered some damage in the earthquake of 2012. The building has been restored beautifully by the Mantovan architect Aldo Andreani in 1942. Amazingly, there are still extensive fragments of frescoes signed by Grisopolo da Parma dating from the 13th century).¬† Some of the frescoes can be seen below:

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These reminded me a bit also of some of the extensively frescoed walls in the Palazzo Ducale that I discussed at the beginning of this post:

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Overall, Mantova is such a beautiful place to visit – narrow streets, picturesque buildings & attention to detail.

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Check out the concrete blocks that are used to channel traffic for roadworks – even those have been produced with an esthetic mindset!

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People are friendly & look out not only for each other, but for creatures also… While we were there the weather was very hot, so that everyone got fed & watered in the outdoor cafes. When little Fido came to sit with his owners he got his bowl of water too…

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Our next stop in the Alto Adige was a village called Pal√Ļ di Giovo – more on that one in the next post.