EDIT: This account was written in late-February 2016. I was 19, starry-eyed, and fortunate enough to have been awarded an undergraduate travel grant to attend Cosyne (Computational and Systems Neuroscience) in my sophomore year of college. This was the first conference I ever attended, and Anne Churchland (who played a huge role in getting funding for the travel grant) encouraged us to blog about our experiences. As I read this in the present day, I find myself slightly cringing at my naïveté, yet feeling a pang of nostalgia for the days when the world of science felt so shiny, glamourous.
So here it is in its unadulterated form: a genuine and candid first reaction to the vast world that is brain research. Enjoy~
Cosyne played an integral role in my deciding to pursue a future career in systems/computational neuroscience research, and I would encourage all undergraduates (especially women!) to apply for the grant!
Day 1: Greetings from Utah!
Hi all! As promised, I am blogging about my experience at Cosyne 2016. Cosyne is an annual neuroscience conference focused on the crosstalk between computational and systems neuroscience. It’s only been a day, yet I have so many thoughts on this conference already!
To give a little background, Cosyne is split into two parts: the main conference held at Salt Lake City, where everybody is together attending talks and poster sessions, and the workshops at Snowbird, which are focused on specific areas of research presented by up-and-coming experts in the field. I’m honored to be here on an NSF-funded undergraduate travel grant that was created as an opportunity for young students interested in neuroscience to explore what an international conference is like. Topics here include decision making, memory, sensory motor circuits, neural representations during target search, and many many more. As one of the only undergraduates here in a sea of over 600 graduate students, post-docs, and PIs, the first day was quite an eye-opening experience.
As soon as I arrived at the airport, I met up with a girl from Berkeley whose flight arrived around the same time as mine. We took the rail to the hotel and then had lunch at a cute nearby cafe called Blue Lemon.
In the afternoon, we convened with the rest of the grant recipients for a conference “orientation” where we learned how to navigate poster sessions, process talks, and network. Additionally, we were all assigned to two older mentors who served as our buddies for the conference. Yay for new friends! Mine were Lawrence Hunt from UCL and Helen Hou from Harvard, who I immediately recognized as the poster girl for the Janelia Undergraduate Scholars website 🙂
I had the incredible opportunity of meeting Dr. Anne Churchland, power-woman scientist-extraordinaire who played a huge role in getting funding for us to come to Cosyne! It was really inspiring to hear about her path to becoming a scientist and all the struggles she had to overcome along the way. I asked her how she managed to start her lab and get tenure in 5 years while being a mother to 2 kids, and her honest answer was very much appreciated: “Science is hard! You need a good support system of people who will have your back.” Helen also added that “sometimes you just got to suck it up and do the work.” Seems like an incredible exercise in time management and discipline 🙂 Dr. Churchland also created annelist.net, a pretty cool website highlight female systems neuroscientists.
The first talks of the conference were given by NYU professor Xiao-Jing Wang and Google’s Blaise Aguera y Arcas. I wish I could succinctly summarize their incredibly interesting and informative presentations, but I must admit, a lot of the technicalities and computations went over my head. However, it is nice to absorb and recognize what I do understand (thanks to my computational neuroscience course!). I suppose most of this conference will be like this: listening, absorbing, meeting people…
Ah! Speaking of meeting people…I was really excited to talk about science and meet new people at the first poster session in the evening! I met this really awesome guy from UCLA who presented on a Bayesian model for audio-visual spatial localization with regards to frames of reference. His work was probably the closest to mine out of everyone there. I got so excited as we talked about different models of multisensory integration…
Then I met a grad student from Rice in the ELEC department studying predictive models of epilepsy. We exchanged contacts, and he told me I should think about doing some computational work with his lab in the future 😛
And then SURPRISE! I met Dr. Josh McDermott unexpectedly…which is funny considering the last email I sent him mentioned how “I hope we cross paths again”…He was equally as surprised to see me (makes sense) and we talked a little about the status of a summer program I applied to (MIT Amgen). I’m still waiting on a response, which is nerve-wracking since I have another NSF-REU offer on the table to work with Dr. Mehrdad Jazayeri (also at MIT…and apparently also at this conference!).
Anyway, to conclude, this first day was definitely exhilarating and filled with fun. Shoutout to Jill and Robert, the two people who helped organize the undergraduate program. I’ve been having a great time meeting people, hearing and talking about science, and lurking next to famous people I could only dream of working with someday 🙂
Day 2: Caffeine, Chatting, and Connections
It’s currently 11:30AM, I’m on a caffeine high after taking a caffeine nap for the first time, and I’m rushing to spill my thoughts on the first set of invited and accepted talks.
This mornings first session was on memory and temporal integration–a topic I closely follow since it’s related to my own work 🙂 We heard from Mark Goldman of UC Davis and then three interesting accepted talks by people from Janelia, Champalimaud and UW. I found the talk from Champalimaud the most interesting–they described the role of dopaminergic neurons in modulating duration judgements in rodents. It really made me think of psychophysics in a whole different way. As someone who does human behavioral work, I’m beginning to see the perspective that comes from training animals to do the same tasks. Following a coffee break and some more talks on network dynamics, I went to lunch with some of the girls in the grant program and we had great conversations about academics, future, college life, etc.
After lunch,I found the series of talks on human computation very interesting! Dr. Edward Chang of UCSF gave a talk about the organization of human auditory cortex, and how speech and phonemic representations were largely localized in bilateral posterior superior temporal gyrus, or Weirnicke’s area. In my neuropsychology class, we just hit the topics of deep dysphasia, dyslexia, and functional evidence of pheonemic representations, so it was awesome to see all this prior knowledge and new work come together in a cool story. Of course there is still so much to be done in the potentially “hand-wavy” field of language, but these ECoG data presented in Dr. Chang’s talk provides that next step to figuring out this whole, rich network of auditory information.
After dinner, Valorie (one of the sophomore girls from Wellesley) and I went to go fangirl some of Dr. McDermott’s posters. His lab’s work is in computational audition, which is extremely novel and cool since primary auditory cortex and the surrounding belts are not well understood. One of his post-docs presented on low and mid-level auditory features. Think about how low-level visual features are edges…what is the auditory analog? 🙂 Another one of his postdocs was studying auditory response to a whole library of natural sounds, of which included music, speech, doors slamming, babies crying, etc. His model was able to explain more variance than standard spectro-temporal models in non-primary areas of auditory cortex. BASICALLY, I have a huge scientific crush on auditory work, and it would be an amazing opportunity to work in this lab someday.
Another girl from the undergraduate grant program (her name is Ariel) told Valorie and I all about her summer experience working in the McDermott lab. We chatted up, and I basically deemed her the master of networking. Ariel’s an awesome girl who just seems to know like, everybody, and it seems really useful to know so many people and have so many science friends. Right now all I can do is sort of stalk from afar and try to sneak a chance to introduce myself 😛 Connections are so useful, and I find it really fun getting to know so many different geniuses in systems and computational neuroscience.
Day 3: In an Elevator Full of Men.
Today was by far one of my favorite days! I started off the morning by getting into the elevator. If you were here, it would be needless and unsurprising for me to say that I was the only female in an elevator full of dudes. Quite a simple observation, but one with many implications.
I have been meaning to comment on the gender imbalance here, but I decided to save it for today since this was the day that the “Women at Cosyne” luncheon occurred. Some background: apparently 22% of the students/post-doc Cosyne attendees are female. However, on the first day, it easily seemed like half of that. Where were all the women? Were they just hidden in the crowd of tall, white men? (Ok, not all of them were white but you get the point). Were we just all to short to stand out, or all too shy to speak up? Why didn’t I see nearly as many female poster presenters as male presenters?
There’s not one answer to these questions. And honestly I’m not even sure I know what all contributes to the inequity of gender representation in computational neuroscience. Is it that girls are actually not good at math? Is it because guys have always been given more opportunities? Is it because males are more competitive? Is it because females usually enter neuroscience from psychology backgrounds? These are the type of questions that were discussed at the luncheon.
It was awesome getting to meet older girls from different schools. I met two grad students from Penn, and one from Princeton and Yale each. It was so refreshing to know that I wasn’t the only girl who still sometimes felt dumb asking my male PI questions, or felt shy approaching big-name scientists. Why is it that we feel this way? Is it society? Is it us?
Jennifer Raymond, a professor at Stanford, gave a short talk about empowering women in science. She challenged us to think about 1) how we could empower ourselves, 2) how we could empower our fellow women peers, and 3) how Cosyne could help empower women scientists. We had a great discussion that ranged from how “women don’t ask” to family matters to recommendation letter biases. Through this discussion, I realized that much of my personal problem is a lack of self-confidence. Dr. Yau always told me I should be more confident of my work, that I have “nothing to worry about” when it came to summer program acceptances. I, of course, didn’t believe him at all. I guess a lot of it comes from the fact that high school was a time when I was always faced with “smarter” male peers. Especially being in a science academy, most of the guys dominated math, computer science, and physics, which is partially why I felt that I couldn’t excel in those areas, because those subjects weren’t my primary strengths. High school was all about securing a unique niche that no one else could compete for…But as a result, a lot of my confidence in my quantitative abilities and scientific abilities in general has sunk.
This was interesting, as I applied to many computationally oriented summer programs and indicated that I really wanted to refine my quantitative skills. It was a big leap for me. I know as soon as I step into the lab on day one….BAM. Imposter syndrome all over again! But just the fact that I got accepted into these <3% acceptance rate programs completely surprised me. I never in my life thought I could be thought of as scientifically competent, let alone come across as mature in my personal statements…And it’s not even me trying to be humble, it’s just me being completely and utterly shocked by what I thought I could never do.
I think this lack of confidence is why I internally feel hesitant at times in scientific settings. I’m afraid I’ll be judged for what I say, or critiqued for my lack of experience or my young age. This is also partially the reason why I wanted to run away as soon as I spotted those big-name science hot-shots. But I guess the extroverted, risk-loving side of me takes over, as I force myself to go out of my comfort zone. And I think that has made all the difference in my scientific career thus far. From joining the Yau Lab to asking for recs, to emailing and Skyping MIT profs…I think I need to keep doing that–keep putting myself out there. Women can’t wait to be recognized, they kind of have to demand recognition. Which I need to learn to do better…Then one day perhaps my science will speak for itself, and I won’t have to worry about sounding dumb anymore.
Since today’s post was a little more reflective, I’ll continue the trend with some more general thoughts. This conference has left my brain hungry for more. Never have I ever experienced such a wealth of intellectually stimulating knowledge, never have I ever been so immersed with such gifted and talented people. Names on a paper in Science or Nature Neuroscience suddenly become real faces to me, faces I’ll never forget, and faces I’ll probably try to look for again at SfN. The science noob in me is screaming in delight. My brain has become a triathlete: biking through the day’s talks, swimming with ideas as I go to sleep, and still running with the previous nights conversations as I wake up. Is this the life of the scientist? If it is, well, it’s pretty awesome.
Day 4: Fin.
It’s been an incredible four days to say the least. My neurons are saturated, my feet are sore from walking. This morning I walked into an elevator with Konrad Kording and didn’t realize it until we got off the elevator…Yeah. It’s crazy how I’ve met so many smart and down-to-earth people in these four short days. I’ve met so many incredible friends (some of which will be in Boston this summer!), and talked about science for hours on end.
It’s been exhausting, fun, and crazy inspiring. One talk I really enjoyed this morning was delivered by Peggy Series from the University of Edinburgh. She talked about ways in which Bayesian statistics could be used to model internal states of people with psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Her talk really opened my eyes to the ways in which computation could actually be applied to clinical problems. The question of priors acting as internal states and beliefs got me thinking about my own interests in time perception and how internal representations of time in individuals with Parkinson’s and ADHD might be altered…Perhaps there is some way to change these internal priors back to normal? How might we do that?
Another random thought: effective slides win people’s attention. There was a grad student (or postdoc?) of Dora Angelaki’s from Baylor, and his talk was by far the most clear and easy to visualize. His simple Bayesian framework was easy to understand, especially when drawn out in different colored Gaussians…OH, and the transitions were really nice too. He did the thing where parts of the slide would remain and shift into the corner, creating a really nice transition into each take-home message he wanted to convey. Slide goals right there.
The undergraduates who were still here went out to lunch at a really good pizza place. Daniel Kimmel, one of the mentors (super cool, nice, ad intelligent guy btw), had us all go around and share one thing we really enjoyed about the conference. Many people brought up the “Women at Cosyne” luncheon, others talked about specific talks or posters they had seen. Everyone agreed that the mentors and organizers were to be appreciated 🙂 Bob told us that the 13 of us had been selected out of 50-60, and I really felt honored to be given this opportunity.
Thanks to NSF for the grant money, to Dr. Anne Churchland for helping Cosyne get this funding, and Jill + Robert for dealing with all the logistics 🙂 It was truly an honor to be among other talented undergraduates, mentors, and accomplished neuroscience faculty from all around the world!