11 November 2011

Neuroscience 2011: How good you’ve got it

This year’s Neuroscience meeting is weird for me. Because the first time I went was in... 1991. That’s right: it’s my twentieth anniversary at this meeting! Crap, I’m old.

In 1991, the meeting was in New Orleans. At the time, Neuroscience was a “mere” 13,000 to 16,000 people. I learned an important life lesson there: Never bet a shoeshine in New Orleans.*

The experience of the meeting itself hasn’t changed. Sure, the posters were more likely to be assembled in pieces than a single sheet of paper, but that’s pretty trivial. When you start with tens of thousands, a few extra thousand here or there doesn’t make a difference in the feel of the event. The biggest changes are in the lead-up to the meeting.

Okay, kiddies, listen up. “Back in my day...” (Imagine that said with a quaver and just a hint of goat.)

You had to format your abstract and make it camera-ready yourself. You had a paper form with a box, marked out in non-photo blue in the lower right, and you had to put camera-ready copy in that box. Many people still typed their abstracts into the box using typewriters. (Laser printers were just becoming available.)

Then, one you had your abstract carefully printed in the box, you had to physically mail the piece of paper to Neuroscience headquarters. To be accepted, your abstract had to be postmarked by the deadline date. People would often not just drop off their abstracts in a mailbox, but take them up to the counter so they could see the postie putting the dated postmark on the envelope.

But wait! It gets even more crazily inefficient.

Once all the abstracts were compiled, they got printed in these massive abstract books, six abstracts to a page, on thin paper. The abstract books looked a lot like phone books: about the same kind of heft, and printed on the same kid of thin, almost tissue-like, paper.

A few weeks before the conference started, the abstract books would start arriving in the department mailboxes. Sometimes, all the volumes would come in at once. Sometimes, they’d be shipped separately.

In the first couple of years of my career, you’d get two of them. Before I finished grad school, you’d get three.

Because everyone formatted their abstracts differently, flipping through the abstract book was a study in contrasts. Some people followed the formatting guidelines to a T, and had laser printed abstracts. Others people ignored the formatting rules and had barely readable abstracts.

How could you find the abstracts you wanted to see? It was easy to find the themes of the sessions, or the names of authors. The abstract books also had lengthy title keyword index. The keyword index was clever, in that it had the keyword appear with a little bit of context of words in the title around it.

Each year had a different colour cover, and each volume had a slightly different shade of that colour (one light and dark orange one year, three shades of blue the next), so you could easily tell them apart. Scientists would have whole shelves of bookcases in their office or their labs with collections of Neuroscience abstracts.

And people would haul these dog-eared tomes around on the convention center floor!

(And by the way, the meeting was still officially “Society for Neuroscience meeting” then; not sure when the name was officially abbreviated to “Neuroscience.”)

I am not a nostalgic person, and a post like this reminds me why I am not a nostalgic person. Online submission and publication of abstracts is so much better.

* Remember this for next year, when Neuroscience returns to New Orleans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I HATED those little blue boxes. We would photocopy it to have practice runs with the laser printer, but then it always ended up slightly off. I would also spend a week going through the program making my itinerary.