30,000 neuroscientists walk into a conference center

Each year, approximately 30,000 neuroscientists descend on one U.S. city for 5 days, flying in from all over the world to attend the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference. Some come to present posters, while some have been selected to give talks (which range in length from 10 minutes to an hour, and range in attendance from dozens to thousands). Some are undergraduates thinking about applying to graduate school, while some are well-renowned professors at the tops of their subfields. The variation in attendees’ day-to-day lives is perhaps vaster than the differences in their ages or levels of research experience. Some might model neural circuits with complicated algorithms, some might spend their days looking under microscopes, and some might be doing research part of the week and seeing patients on other days. Not all attendees are even researchers themselves – some work at companies trying to design tools to enable researchers to discover the Next Big Thing™. Despite their differences, these 30,000 people have at least one thing in common: they want to be part of the search to better understand the brain – how it develops, how it functions when healthy, and how we might be able to reverse its damage and degeneration. 

What does 30,000 people look like? Here are images of ~30,000 people at a WizKid concert in Tanzania (top), a protest in Munich (bottom left) and a rally in Copenhagen (bottom right).

A very, very tiny fraction of the poster presentations that occur simultaneously each day of SfN

As you might imagine, there is no one single itinerary of presentations that would appeal to all 30,000 neuroscientists… and for all of them to attend any one part of the conference, it would have to take place in a large stadium. Thus, unlike smaller conferences in which all attendees sit through the same set of talks and attend poster sessions and socials together, the SfN experience is a choose-your-own-adventure event. There are endless presentations going on at the same time throughout the conference center. There’s even a phone app that allows you to search your favorite topics or scientific heros and curate a program for yourself that will then sync to a calendar within the app.  

If this sounds completely overwhelming to you, you’re not alone. Many neuroscientists stay far away from SfN. While there are several reasons for this aversion, they mainly stem from its size. For instance, a researcher is far less likely to present exciting unpublished data at SfN as it’s difficult to trust that, among 30,000, no one would scoop your idea and publish the finding before you.  And there is a reason that Dr. Anita Devineni’s (@BrainsExplained) ingenious SfN bingo includes experiences like “spend 30 min in line getting coffee” and “get constant group messages saying ‘where are you guys?'”

Dr. Anita Devineni created an SfN bingo game! For more of her blog, check out https://www.brains-explained.com

While I understand those who shy away, I love SfN, and apparently about 29,999 others also seem to feel that it’s worth attending. I asked around to get a better sense of people’s favorite aspects of the conference.

Fellow NeuWriter Susan says:

“My favorite part of SfN is that I always leave with a ton of knowledge on something interesting I’ve always wondered about but don’t study myself. Of course, it is an awesome experience to carefully select posters in the huge exhibit halls on related topics from other labs that can help inform my own research, but I also love going to lectures on topics I know nothing about, like how mosquitoes choose which people are the tastiest targets (by Dr. Leslie Vosshall) or which neurons control maternal behavior (by Dr. Catherine Dulac).”

It’s true – SfN is a rare opportunity to listen to talks and chat with scientists who do NOTHING related to what you do. Any smaller conference would be attended by people working in the same niche. But at SfN, you could spend all of your time learning about exciting work that you otherwise might never come across in your focused research. 

On Twitter, Dr. Marc Coutanche (@MarcCoutanche) echoes this sentiment, saying “It’s one of the few meetings where I feel that I get a true perspective on just how large and creative the field really is.

Dr. Diana Martinez (@5FootScientist) explains, “I love SFN. It’s a great chance to meet new scientists, see great science, socialize, and get new ideas. I always come back with a newly renewed outlook to my research.”

The incredible breadth of neuroscience research occurring across the world is awe-inspiring, yet there is also a practical component to experiencing such a vast melting pot of ideas and approaches: you might be inspired to look at your own research with an altered perspective that helps drive it in a novel direction.

Dr. Ho Yu (@yucanuck08) says:

The socials. Best place to network and reconnect. Oh, and my presentation, of course!”

I’d say the social aspect is my own personal favorite thing about SfN. I can reconnect with scientists I have worked with in the past, which often leads to socializing with their colleagues, thereby expanding my network. Networking is – for better or worse – a vital component of the academic world, from learning about job opportunities to setting up collaborations. 

This was a SfN party in Chicago in 2015. These are all neuroscientists on a Monday night. The club turned the lights on to signal closing time, but everyone just kept going.

While there are endless opportunities for impromptu socializing at SfN, there are also SfN-sponsored socials. These are themed and are meant to bring neuroscientists with similar passions together in a casual, social setting. For instance, this month at SfN 2019 in Chicago, on a Monday night, you might attend (among many other choices) the Cerebellum Social, the Pain, Touch, and Itch Social, or the Psychopharmacology Social. This year, there’s one official social that I am particularly looking forward to: the Neuroscience and Writing Social

NeuWriteSD (with NeuWriter Megan Kirchgessner taking the lead) teamed up with NeuWriteWest to plan a social for neuroscientists interested in writing! It will include an exciting panel of awesome science communicators:

If you will be at SfN, please add this social to your calendar and RSVP here (RSVP requested but not required). 

If you are not a scientist but happen to be travelling this weekend, look out for people trying to cram poster tubes into the overhead bin. Feel free to give them a knowing smile – they are likely on their way to SfN. 

And if you live in Chicago, apologies in advance – we are on our way!