06 August 2012
Tenth International Congress for Neuroethology, days 0 and 1
Man, I am having no luck with travel these days.
I arrived at the airport about an hour early, as usual. I tried automatic check-in, but it wasn’t working, so I went into the line for the counter. I think I was about 5 or 6 in line.
I didn’t move for about 40 minutes. But after about 10 or so, a hug long line formed up behind me. I overheard someone say that the flight had been completely cancelled. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I got an automated call from the airline telling me that I was rebooked on a flight leaving at 3:00 pm. A four hour wait.
Fortunately, the McAllen airport has free wifi. And it’s amazing what’s tolerable when you have free wifi and something to take advantage of it. A few games, some Netflix, and the time just whizzes by.
Even the replacement flight was late getting off the ground. And it was frustrating because the departure time kept sliding, a little bit at a time, so I was never sure if I could sit down for an actual meal. I could have done, but kept getting less than satisfactory bites. But we finally got on the way to Dallas about 7:45 pm. I reckoned that I’d spent as much time in delays as I had been scheduled to spend travelling, total. In the end, we touched down at about 11:25 pm. Ugh.
For stupid lack of preparation reasons, I did not make it to campus that night. But on the plus side, I was able to follow the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars more or less in real-time on Twitter at 1:30 am (no wifi at the time for anything more substantial). Amazing stuff.
On the plus side, I played a bloody awful lot of Cut The Rope Experiments. Which, now that I think about it, kind of feels appropriate for Neuroethology. Lots of three star levels... I am only four stars short of claiming them all.
Setbacks aside, I caught the first train of the Metro to the University of Maryland. I was surprised at how many people were on the 5:00 am train, but I suppose I shouldn't have been.
I got on to the University around 6:30 am or so, found some breakfast and free wifi at a nearby McDonalds, and saw the first signs of the conference at quarter after seven. I made my way to my room in student residence, had a super quick shower and shave (too fast - nicked myself) and walked into the ballroom just as the very first plenary talk of the conference was starting.
I could not have cut it any closer.
But with only one day into the meeting, a few interesting trends are already emerging. People are worried about how they are going to sell neuroethology to funding agencies.
In his opening talk, Art Popper discussed this at some length. He had the good fortune to find several issues related to his research that had clear policy implications. for example, he talked about noise generated by pile drivers and how that could affect fish stocks. Popper said he found it gratifying that policy makers really did listen to scientific recommendations.
Popper (and several others) mentioned the landing of the new Mars rover Curiosity as something that go people excited about science. He repeated the common refrain that scientists do not do a good job of communicating what they do to the general public. (Yet no social media workshop? Hm...)
This was followed by a set of talks that were mainly historical in nature, with some guessing about prospects for the future. The predominance of what Ron Hoy called the “core four” model organisms - mouse, worm, zebra fish, and Drosophila (which others started to call the evil four) was also traced back to funding agency's priorities. The NIH wanted to support research that emerged from the human genome project, And the emphasis on genetic models arose from that.
Hoy gave something of a rabble rousing speech, saying that the field is very much in transition. The core techniques are changing fast, with more genetics and less electrophysiology. It is rare to have jobs advertised for “neuroethologist.” Hoy speculated that the future of neuroethology for the next decade may lie more in small liberal arts universities than major research institutions.
In the final talk of the night, Jim Simmons also kept coming back to how he is looking for ways to pitch his research. He said, “We need to convince founding agencies that we, and our animals, have solved problems that they consider unsolvable.”
I tweeted a lot from the sessions. Search #icn12 on Twitter for more short notable quotes. But as for now, I have been up for about 38 hours and I think the long expected crash is almost here.