Some thoughts on conferencing in our current times


This is a very different of post to my previous ones – although the focus is still on traveling for science. Today I want to talk about what priorities we should set for improving the lot of younger scientists in our field.

Having returned from the annual neuroscience nerdfest attended by about ~ 29K attendees this year in San Diego, I got to thinking about what makes an excellent conference & what I personally find desirable about a scientific meeting. I typically only regularly go to 2 annual scientific meetings/year [but will, of course, go to additional ones if I get invited to speak at them]. The annual meetings that I have regularly attended for ~25 years or so are: 1. Organization for Human Mapping [which was held in Singapore this last June] & that typically has ~3K attendees; 2. Society for Neuroscience [SfN] [which just occurred in San Diego] & that typically has ~30K attendees. This year in San Diego the number was smaller – perhaps a consequence of the non-attendance of many foreign neuroscientists who were not issued visas by the American Government. This was very problematic – there were many empty poster boards – because the presenters were preventing from attending the meeting. There is currently a grass-roots push to lobby SfN to create a vehicle for these people to show & discuss their work. The science community is also petitioning SfN to give a complete refund for conference registration etc. for those people [usually trainees] who could not travel to SfN because of these issues. Flights & hotel room booking left many of those out of pocket – despite the fact that they could not attend the meeting. Incredibly, despite the SfN President publicly talking about inclusion & international participation in the meeting the entire week while we were in San Diego, the SfN has stayed silent & completely inactive on this issue [at least until the time of writing this post]. Is this because SfN is so large that the implementation of initiatives is stifled because of a large administration, or is it because the organization is just parochial? Not sure which alternative is more likely at this stage, but I have my suspicions.

So what, in my opinion, makes for a great conference – a meeting that will keep people coming back for more?

First, the most important thing is to provide a welcoming atmosphere that stresses inclusivity & safety for all delegates [an environment that is free of old white male dinosaurs inflicting their will [& themselves in some cases] on everyone…].

Achieving an environment like that requires that the society/organization that runs the meeting do more than just pay lip-service to these issues. There needs to be visible evidence of concrete initiatives to attempt to level the playing field for all & to push diversity. There should also be a very public declaration of what constitutes acceptable behavior at the meeting & associated social activities. Many societies are doing this now – including SfN & OHBM. We are generally pretty fortunate in science – scientists of all persuasions typically do come together & discuss science in a collegial way. Let’s tear down any remaining barriers that a minority of senior white male scientists put in the way to stop this from occurring. If need be, we might need to drown out those voices & also call out unacceptable behavior when we see it – this means dealing immediately with observed instances of racial prejudice or sexual harassment, or of senior scientists just taking up air time from younger ones whose views deserve to be heard… I am fortunate to say that this has never happened to me at a conference, but that does not mean that I am not aware that this is a problem. I had a pleasure of attending the Neural Oscillations Social at SfN – a wonderful evening hosted by Jonas Obleser & Saskia Haegens. At the same time as our social there was also a social on Neuroethics & the scuttlebutt I heard about this one was that this latter problem [hogging air time] had surfaced. Ironic isn’t it? Neuroethics of all things! I wish I had been a fly on that wall to know exactly what happened there – the ‘feel good’ vibe at the Neural Oscillations social was too good to leave.

OHBM has been good in setting up initiatives, such as a committee for diversity, as well as having discussions on the Program Committee that make sure that we have diversity in our Keynote speakers and so on. I know that SfN also tries to do this. What I would like to see more of in both societies, particularly SfN, is the recognition of scientific excellence that transcends gender. That was very apparent to me in San Diego as SfN awards were given out – the idea that scientific excellence can exist only in ivy-league institutions from work by scientists who have impeccable scientific pedigrees is very dated, methinks… As someone who grew up in another part of the world where funding for science was not as abundant, I learned that scientific excellence [e.g. good ideas, painstaking methods] are not reserved for elite institutions of learning – even though people over the years have tried to tell me so. [Seriously, this is what I heard a lot while I was at Yale – thankfully not from my mentors or the folks who worked in our laboratory].

Second, if inclusivity exists at a scientific meeting, this automatically sets up an open & free environment to discuss important, controversial & unresolved scientific issues – this is what pushes the field forward & everyone benefits from that! This has become a highly visible & positive component of the OHBM meeting. Why is this so you might ask? Because it comes down to the attitudes of the leadership of the society – if the leadership values these goals, then the meeting will get that overall feel. What has been good about the leadership of OHBM over the years is that it has tried to change with the times. OHBM Council has had both older & younger scientists as members & the older scientists have known what to do to remain current with the times. Unfortunately, I cannot see that SfN has changed in that way. I have been a member of SfN for 25 years & it seems to me that the leadership i.e. elected officers etc. has not reflected the diversity we have in the regular SfN membership. SfN will be 50 years old next year. This is an incredible achievement & something that really needs to be celebrated. What better way to do that by turning over a new leaf in the annals of the SfN & embracing diversity in all it’s forms? This means championing it, not only from the podium, but from concrete initiatives that are clearly visible to the membership, as well as using its considerable lobbying power to influence public opinion & politicians about science & making the world a much better place than it is today. I see this happening at the OHBM meeting yearly & I always come back from this meeting with a real buzz… If we cannot make the world a better place for others in the present, as well as for the future, then why are we practicing science in the first place?

So as not to end on a negative note here: let me share with you my highlights of SfN. First, the session on the first day of the meeting, entitled Dialogues between Science & Society featured the very talented jazz musician & composer Pat Metheny. He was an absolute delight to listen to – he was able to clearly articulate about his very high goals that he sets himself for every performance, as well as giving the audience an idea of what goes through his mind as he improvises during a jazz solo & how he composes music.


Needless to say also, the special & keynote lectures were all excellent – with engaging & diverse speakers delivering accessible talks of a very high-standard to interested large audiences.

I did have a second highlight – a very personal one – almost embarrassed to admit it. But here goes anyway… as always I enjoy going around the commercial exhibits & looking for new equipment/software,& of course books. Nice to see our ‘MEG-EEG Primer‘ with Riitta Hari on sale at the Oxford University Press stand! So if you are new to MEG or EEG, check it out – it is targeted to you, & you might find it helpful… [see it is available on Amazon & Google Play]


OK. I admit it. That was a shameless promotion…

So at every scientific meeting you go to there is always an iconic image that remains with you after you have left the meeting. So what image will stay in mind from San Diego this SfN for me?


A lightning fast trip to the Lion City!


Have just got back from Singapore – the Lion City – where I caught up with friends & colleagues at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping annual scientific meeting.  The meeting was held at Suntec City – a really great high-tech convention center with excellent facilities – the consensus of pretty much everyone I spoke with.

Great to catch up with old friends & get to know new people – particularly some of the younger ones in our neuroimaging community! In the session I chaired, a lot of trainee scientists presented talks & it was great to see them do such a fine job. Since I am on the program committee, I also made a point to connect with as many people as possible to get feedback on the meeting. The meeting itself opened literally with a big bang  – a local drumming ensemble started us off…

Overall, the 5 day meeting was intellectually very stimulating, but also a lot of fun. A big thanks to Mike Chee & his very capable team for hosting such a wonderful meeting! The opening reception was outstanding – a variety of great entertainment & no shortage of good food & drink. My favorite was the Chinese Dragon…

The OHBM meeting always has a really feel-good inclusivity vibe to it, so I am always mentally re-energized after each year’s events. That said, this time around I had the worst jet-lag that I have had for a long time. Everyone else was complaining too. In this post I will not talk more about the meeting – it has been covered well on science Twitter [#OHBM2018] & science-related blogs etc [].

Unfortunately, I did not have much tourist time in Singapore [unlike my usual trips to OHBM meetings], so I leave Singapore with a long to-do list of things to see for my next visit. That said, when I look back at what I did see in Singapore – I focused on some of my many obsessions, so those of you who know me well will probably laugh when you read the rest of this post!

Since I am a gardener, for me the Gardens By the Bay was a must see – a place to explore either during the day or at night. I made time to see it at both times. It opened in 2012 & features award winning outdoor & indoor [two very large, distinctively shaped conservatories] that feature tropical plants in one [‘The Cloud Forest‘] & varied types of plants & flowers in the other [‘The Flower Dome‘]. [See ] The Cloud Forest is amazing – it features a mountain of tropical plants that is 30 meters high & includes a really high artificial waterfall. It also has an arial walkway that almost reaches to the top of the mountain – with stunning views of the plants & views out to the city of Singapore as well. The walkway also has misting pipes, so that it also serves to push moisture out into the environment to let the plants flourish & help create a cloud forest habitat. It is very atmospheric in there when the mist is present…


There is a huge orchid garden, where orchids grow & flower like weeds, as well as a display of miniature orchids – only seen by magnifying glass…

The other greenhouse, the Flower Dome, is also really great – it is a longer & flatter structure relative to the Cloud Forest. It features different types of environments from around the world.


It has an excellent collection of succulents & cacti among other things.

The featured temporary exhibit was on begonias this time – so many varieties & colors. Who knew?

Outside in the Gardens by the Bay there is a grove of ‘Supertrees’ – striking man-made structures that are essentially columns for tropical vegetation to grow.

But that is not all – the columns are simulated canopies that house elaborate lighting, so at night these things really come to life. Apparently, the exhibit is solar powered & has rain water catchment systems that are directed to watering the plants. It feels like you are truly in another world when you stroll through there at night…


The exhibit has a nightly light show set to music which attracts whole families of locals, not only visitors to Singapore.

What really struck me about the visit to the gardens was how this was such a great bonding experience for whole families – grandmothers to toddlers are all fascinated by the plants & flowers. Teenagers [who are usually unimpressed with most things] were going crazy on their cell phones taking close-up pictures of flowers & plants instead of taking the usual copious selfies. That was really cool. Plants have that power!


I have written a number of previous posts on art & I also have more than a passing interest in ceramics. So a must do was a visit to the Asian Civilizations Museum – reputedly one of the best of its type in Asia []. The afternoon I went was hot with a blazing sun, so it was nice to enjoy a cool space for a few hours. [Because of the combined heat & humidity, there are so many shopping malls in Singapore, so restaurants, cinemas etc. are usually located in them.] The ACM features a very striking exhibit of ceramics from the Tang dynasty [7th-10th century] shipwreck that was discovered off the coast of Java in 1998. The story of the shipwreck is astounding for a number of reasons. First, it was carrying 25 tons of ceramics – mainly modestly decorated bowls that were produced on a commercial scale for the market in Asia & the Middle East. Yes indeed – commercial production of Chinese pottery was already a thing in the 7th-10th centuries!


Second, when the ship sank, incredibly all of the pottery survived – because the bowls were packed loosely in lateral circles [left image below] & cushioned with straw. The silt on the ocean floor acted to protect the ceramics from damage as well, so they still look pretty pristine now. Incredible to think that they were submerged for so long. That said, the archaeologists took 2 years to dissolve the coral & other deposits on some pieces with a simple, slow chemical etching process [right image below shows some ‘before’ & ‘after’ pots].

The ship was also carrying a small number of precious objects crafted in gold & silver – the workmanship was very fine indeed as the image below shows:


The other amazing exhibit I saw at the ACM was centered on the famous Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia [] . Incredibly, many pieces of the exhibit were on loan to the ACM from the Guimet Museum in Paris! Funnily enough, I have not yet been to the Guimet [] – but it is on the top of my list of things to do before I leave Paris. It’s funny how life is a series of coincidences [something I have previously posted on related to Finnish & Baltic Art]. The exhibit was incredibly informative & featured old photographs of an archaeological expedition to the Angkor area by a French team. Interestingly, when they wrote about their observations, they had to make drawings of the temple & other features, because photographs could not yet be produced with the commercial printing process!


The ACM is also full of other interesting artistic curiosities – showing ceramics, silverware, enamel work, filigree in silver, ceramics, textiles. In all of them the workmanship is very delicate & fine. Each piece would have taken a very long time to make by hand… This is one of the most incredible museums I have ever visited. The works were truly amazing. The image below left shows a sireh set – a combination of ceramic & metal with fine filigree. The image on the right shows a door that has been crafted of mother of pearl.

Sireh sets were designed around the practice of chewing betel nut leaves – a practice popular among the Peranakan people. The sireh set will also feature storage for betel nuts, tobacco, lime & a nutcracker [which is seen in the bottom of the image in a highly decorated form]. Peranakan culture is a hybrid that resulted when Chinese traders married local Malay women. There is a great example of a typical house from this culture – with the characteristic open space in the center of the house, which allows heat exchange with the outside air. It is a museum which also houses the ‘True Blue‘ Restaurant []. I was taken to the True Blue Restaurant [see] by a friend who has a Peranakan family history. The food was delicious – very finely prepared & spiced – apparently most dishes take about a full day to prepare!

Having grown up in Australia I always had the opportunity to try food from different Asian countries. Singapore is such a great place because so many Asian cultures have a local presence here because of its rich history as a center of a [southern] sea trade route going from China to the Middle East. This trade route rivalled that of the Silk Road to the north. I was also able to catch up with my favorite cuisines – Malaysian & Thai – something that is not readily available in its authentic form where I live in the USA. Was able to tuck into my comfort food – a curry laksa. This is a coconut curry soup that has an udon noodle base with deep fried tofu & lots of chilli paste [the dark blob resting on top of the soup in the image below] – leaving you with a nice post-chilli pepper euphoria. It will also have veggies, that will vary from restaurant to restaurant. Typically, it comes in chicken or seafood varieties. The seafood laksa I had in Singapore also had quail eggs, in addition to calamari rings & shrimp. Sometimes fishcakes are used in some recipes. It was absolutely delicious!!!


If you have read some of my previous posts, you know that I am seriously missing my cats. I look forward to bonding with them when I get back to the USA in mid-July. To make things a bit bearable I took myself to the Singapore Cat Cafe – a haven for cats & humans alike. The cats are all rescue animals. You can sit & hang out & pat & play with the little creatures [see]. They have a pretty good life – they all look very healthy & are very chilled. If you sit down at a table & don’t chase after them they will come to you. I had a beautiful black short-haired tom come to chat & hang out with me. He clearly had had a hard life earlier – he had lost his tail – but now he was living a very comfortable lifestyle. Good food. Pats. Toys. Cat trees & cat scratchers. Not to mention other furry companions to hang out with. The animals all seemed to tolerate one another very well. So if any of you are in Singapore & need a cat fix – this is the place to go!

Overall, the trip to Singapore was wonderful! Lots of wonderful memories from another memorable OHBM & some great chill out time as well. Life is always good when it is in balance…