Smitten with SBN in ATL

I returned to Thrilliamsburg yesterday from a three day stint in Atlanta at the 17th annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (SBN).  If the name seems a little overwhelming, you should have been there.  I feel like my brain has been wrung out like a sponge and left out to dry somewhere.  I think I’ll be using the coming weekend to locate it and attempt to get it working again, because if I came away with anything from this astounding, humbling, fascinating conference, it would be with the message that your brain is quite important.  (Serious understatement.)  This trip is by far going to be one of the highlights of my summer, and I feel moved by the experience.  Allow me to try to tell you a little bit about it.

We left early on Sunday morning and spent the day driving down.  We stopped for gas and a stretch break just over the South Caroline/Georgia border.  Fortunately for us, there was a cute little peach stand so naturally we bought a crate of delicious, juicy peaches for the week.  I feel obligated to report what happened next: the man selling the peaches went by the name Zeeny Cobb.  He writes songs and sells peaches on the side.  He proceeded to give all of us his business card, and sing us a song about Jesus with his well-loved guitar.  In case you were wondering, his newest song “The Peach Man” is on YouTube and he would love for you to go listen to it.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBBVi0wo6wc.  You’re welcome, Zeeny.

Anyways: The group of Dr. Heideman, 6 of my labmates and me arrived in Atlanta around 6:30 pm.  After dropping our stuff at our less expensive hotel, we walked the few blocks over to the luxurious Loews Hotel on Peachtree Street for the opening reception.  Immediate impressions: lots of super smart people milling about, sipping casually on drinks from the bar and reconnecting.  The atmosphere was relaxed and intellectual and friendly and I imagine had I not been a nervous undergraduate, I would have felt very much at ease.  Dr. Heideman encouraged us to make friends and strike up conversations with new people, but for the moment I mostly wanted to grab some snacks and pretend to be a fly on the wall.  Instead, Dr. H. introduced us to Jill Schneider right off the bat.  She’s an accomplished investigator in the field, and is the guest editor of the upcoming issue of Hormones and Behavior.  Hormones and Behavior is the official journal of SBN and is also the journal we will be submitting the manuscript I am working on finishing up for previous students in the lab.  Thoughts while shaking her hand: She’s a real person!  And she’s so nice!  How cool is that.  I’m shaking Jill Schneider’s hand!  (A friend later remarked to me that I act as if some of the researchers at the conference were celebrities.  Well, in the world of behavioral neuroendocrinology, they kind of are celebrities.)

A few words about Atlanta: it has beautiful, breathtaking skyscrapers and IT HAS BELUGA WHALES.  I REPEAT, BELUGA.  WHALES.  I’ll pause to let that sink in.

For those of you who were Raffi fans when you were a kid, take a moment to relive your childhood with this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDx9zqDpSik.  If you weren’t a Raffi fan when you were little, then I guess you don’t understand quite as well but let’s just say it was somewhat of a childhood dream to visit the Beluga whales at the Georgia Aquarium.  Did you know it’s the biggest in the entire world and that it’s kind of like heaven on Earth and that they also have whale sharks?  Now you do.  All in all, it seemed to be a vibrant and interesting city.  I wish we had had more free time to explore and hit the various landmarks, but given the little free time we did have I’d say we did alright.

Below: Elise and I munching on the Peach Man’s peaches; one of the many photos of Atlanta I snapped with zero tourist-y shame; ONE OF THE BELUGA WHALES AT THE AQUARIUM.

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Overview of the conference itself: FREE COFFEE EVERYWHERE.  AND LOTS OF SNACKS.  So things were great right off the bat.  Other than the gastric perks, each day started off at 8:30 am with a morning symposium consisting of a few talks.  Monday morning focused on steroid hormones and cognition and aging (awesome), Tuesday featured a collection of miscellaneous but interesting research and Wednesday’s theme was early life origins of brain disorders (super awesome).  Between 11 and 12 each day, a keynote speaker gave a talk about a highly relevant topic, and usually discussed some groundbreaking discovery their lab had made in the last few years.  Most of the talks made a little bit of sense, but they usually got too technical for me to follow.  I don’t think I understood more than 30% of everything that was said, and that’s being generous.  This inaccessibility didn’t present too much of an issue, surprisingly.  I can’t describe how cool it was just to be there, listening to these great scientific minds talk about cool science.  I felt like I had been admitted to a club of some kind.  There would be a break for lunch every day, and then the afternoon would feature another series of talks under a certain theme.  Most of the afternoon sessions were focused on steroid hormones being seen in a new light.  Estrogen, especially, is more than a long distance signal.  There is a growing literature supporting steroid hormones as “neuromodulators” being produced and used directly in the brain.  One of the biggest science-y things I took away from hours of lectures: estrogen is the hormone overlord.  She is responsible for not only masculinization of the brain, but regulation of tons of pathways that you would never think had anything to do with estrogen to begin with.

Following the afternoon talks, there would be a two hour poster session during which everyone (most people) that wasn’t speaking had the opportunity to present their research on a poster.  This became my favorite part of the day.  It was held in this beautiful space called “The Overlook” which was simply floor space with floor-to-ceiling windows lining one side.  It “overlooked” the city, and generally required several moments of staring out at Atlanta every so often.  There was a bar for this part of the day (and more snacks and coffee of course), so it was essentially two hours of curious and engaging minds milling about, sipping classily on beer and wine and discussing science.  I would like to emphasize again how nice everyone was, and how excited everyone was when you would ask them to walk you through their poster.  Some thoughts I took away from these sessions:

  1. Why am I not 21 so I too can sip classily on alcohol and discuss science?
  2. There are far more model organisms than I ever imagined there could be.
  3. Behavioral neuroendocrinology encompasses everything from clinical psychology to molecular cell biology.
  4. New, desperately needed ideas for the GnRH Challenge.
  5. Scientists are the nicest, coolest people ever.
  6. I am definitely in the right major and on the right professional path.

I feel like I grew as much as a scientist in these three days as I have in the last year and a half since I joined Dr. Heideman’s lab.  I can tell that I am better at asking experimental questions in my head and I have a new spark of creativity for designing protocols and evaluating predictions.  I didn’t think it was possible for me to become nerdier or more excited about biology, and yet lo and behold it seems I have tripled in those aspects of myself.  I could ramble on and on for pages more about what I loved and what I took away from this experience; but I feel this is already a long enough post and maybe I should wrap things up.

Concluding thoughts:

1. Everyone seriously considering pursuing high education in the sciences or any kind of a research career should attend a conference in the field they are interested.  Just go.

2. I now understand why grade schools put children through the torture of participating in science fairs.

3. Being a nerd is one of the coolest things I can think of doing with my life.

4. I must figure out a way to attend the 18th annual meeting in…wait for it…Sydney, Australia.  🙂

Comments

  1. After attending the conference do you have some new ideas as to what you might be interested in researching in the future in graduate school? Do you think you’ll want to stick with studying mice, or did you see some other model organism or specific area of research at the conference that you found super exciting/interesting?