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I heard about Society for Neuroscience (SfN) for the first time seven years ago. It was during a smaller conference I attended where everybody was talking about seeing each other soon at SfN. I was a graduate student back then and got an initial impression that SfN was a grand gathering for all neuroscientists around the globe. I hoped one day I could attend that meeting too. With that in mind, I kept pursuing my neuroscience dream and now I was finally here. My mentor had everyone in the lab attend SfN in 2021, so I landed my first SfN in San Diego in November 2022 and presented my work in a poster session.
What is SfN to me?
While I was waiting for my boarding at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, poster tubes everywhere were pouring into my vision. The flight attendants were smiling at us and helping us, a group of young neuroscientists, upload our posters into the closets of the plane. I was so excited that I could finally attend this meeting and fulfil my seven-year dream.
Founded in 1969, SfN now has more than 36,000 members in more than 95 countries. SfN’s annual meeting regularly attracts more than 30,000 attendees, representing 80 countries and 536 exhibiting companies. This year, the meeting took place in San Diego Convention Center, which covers 2.6-million square feet along the waterfront in downtown San Diego. This was the first in-person SfN meeting after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The meeting consisted of several big and small scale of sessions, lectures, symposium mini-symposium, basic-translational-clinical roundtables, dual perspectives, storytelling, meet-the-clinician-expert session, meet-the-expert session, nanosymposium, poster, social, professional development workshops, networking/public outreach and advocacy, neuroscience meet-ups and satellite/ancillary events.
The SfN app
The SfN app was one of the most extraordinary features of the meeting. It benefited the participants who were eager to get the most out of the conference. Via the app I knew when and where all the events would take place and make a schedule on what to attend. I could also gather all meetings, posters of interest in the app’s calendar so that I wouldn’t miss them and also better spot conflicting sessions. When a talk or a session was finished it turned grey in the app, which made it easier to follow the schedule. I made plans every night before the next day sessions began and the conference app made me more productive and efficient.
Scientists who had made great contributions to neuroscience field were invited to give a one-hour talk for the lecture session. Since there were around 2 000 in the audience, they were asked to type in their questions in the app so the hosts could read them to the speaker at the end of the talk. The room was also supplied with several large TV screens to project the slides together with one TV showing the speaker. It was a very immersive experience. Not all talks were related to my work, but I enjoyed them regardless of their field. Although focusing on psychiatry disorders, their fields were so appealing that I couldn’t resist listening to them in-person.
Nanosymposium and Minisymposium
Symposiums of various themes took place every day in different conference rooms. Each “small” symposium had hundreds of attendees in the audience. The rooms usually can hold around one thousand people. Questions from the audience through the app were answered at the end of the talks with panelists sitting at the front. Each symposium consisted of several small talks and each talk lasted 15 minutes. The speakers could be faculty members, postdoc trainees or students.
There were also poster sessions every day. Each half-day of posters had a different theme. Hundreds of poster boards were on the first floor of this huge stadium and thousands of participants were talking about what was going on in neuroscience. The atmosphere was really inspiring.
There were also social events in the evenings where scientists from different fields could gather together and build connections.
My abstract was part of the theme “stem cells” since my work is basically based on induced pluripotent stem cells and organoids. My poster presentation was scheduled to be on the last morning of the conference together with other stem cell posters. I was not expecting a large audience from stem cell peers since my project simply utilized stem cells and organoids as an approach instead of studying neuronal stem cells. But I turned out to be wrong. I received a good number of peers coming over to learn about my work and I established some important connections. One of them had done work highly related to mine and could find supportive results in my work. We reached similar conclusions but from different approaches. Both of us felt more confident about our work and were convinced that the results could be really helpful to the field.
Pros and cons of a huge event
SfN has been my dream meeting and I finally made it. It covered all the walks of neuroscience and gathered neuroscientists from around the globe, from cellular and molecular neuroscience to system neuroscience; from cognitive and behavioral neuroscience to computational, translational and clinical neuroscience. Participants could learn from fantastic talks and posters; build new collaborations and move forward together. However, since the scale of this meeting is large, we cannot meet all the scientists in our own field all the time compared to small scale meetings.
During smaller meetings, we meet the same participants throughout the whole week either in meetings or mealtimes. Thus, small meeting creates more social time with peers. During big event like SfN, participants live in different hotels near the convention center and eat outside the center. I see more lab mates hang out together than making new friends. This makes the trip more like a group gathering than trying to explore new opportunities. Small meetings have more focused themes and posters are up during the whole meeting period instead of specific sessions. Participants can always learn from the posters and can easily find the author since they are in the same venue all the time.
My lesson from this type of big event is to get well-prepared in advance to find and talk to the scientists of your interest using the app and present the poster or talk very well since you will surely get questions from a large audience of different fields. It can be challenging to do a good job in a giant conference like SfN, but it is also rewarding to get feedback and always learn good stuff from those extraordinary and professional scientists.