Society for Neuroscience 2012: New Orleans

You board the plane and look for space to stow your bag and then you notice them: the long black tubes with the carrying strap, like a sheath for arrows. Did you board the wrong flight? Is the plane headed to some remote location for a hunting trip? Wait, you’ve seen them before; the tubes contain posters, information displays for some of the 27,512 Neuroscience 2012 participants heading to New Orleans for the annual conference.

As the plane lands, you notice the person next to you reaching for one of the tubes. “Are you presenting?” you ask. She says yes, and you just have to ask the title of her poster. She inhales deeply and rattles off a 38-word, 144-syllable title before finally exhaling. She’s not done. “In infants,” she adds, which is, coincidentally, the only phrase in the entire title that you understood.

On the cab ride from the airport to your hotel, you pass the Superdome, where the New Orleans Saints play football and thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees took shelter. You walk from your hotel to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, named after the first black mayor of New Orleans, to learn, to network, to get inspired. You enter the first door you see, at Hall A, to get out of the heat. Walking to the opposite end of the building should be rewarded with a medal. You never quite make it, but you hear rumors it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. You sit in a 103,365-square foot lecture hall, enthralled as you listen to Chuck Close, the artist, tell his life story (blog post to come next week). You ride the escalator upstairs to a press conference to hear the latest research on facial expressions, one of the hundreds of topics covered during the five-day meeting.

Chuck CloseA photo of a photo of a painting: Chuck Close standing next to his self-portrait.

You return downstairs to check out the poster hall, which looks like a Midwestern corn field—seemingly endless rows of abstracts printed on white oak tag and pinned against black backdrops, six feet wide and four feet high. There are nearly 15,000 posters on display. Each has its own story, and if you’re brave enough to ask the person standing next to one what their title means, you’ll find they are eager to share their story. You make your way towards the lobby and listen to a three-piece band play some jazz tunes. You don’t remember that from last year’s conference in D.C. On your way out, you exit the first door you see, at Hall F, to get out of the air conditioning.

SfN posterA particularly long poster title.

You’ve got time before your next neuroscience-related event, so you walk down the street to the Louisiana Seafood Festival. Situated on a big lawn adjacent to the Mississippi River, you listen to some live music and stroll through a crafts fair with booths offering local photography, jewelry, and clothing.

riverboat new orleansThat boat sure does have a crazy engine!

You go to a restaurant on Decatur Street in the French Quarter for dinner. New Orleans Saints paraphernalia serves as the wallpaper. You joke with a patron: “Are the Saints a big deal here or something?” He doesn’t know you’re joking and says, “Boy, you must not be from around here.” In fact, you know all about the Saints and their scandal, where several players and coaches were suspended for participating in a bounty system in which players were rewarded for injuring opponents. They were sometimes told to target the head, a sick request given what we’ve learned about concussions over the past few years.

One night, you go to Bourbon Street. Bead necklaces litter the pavement. It’s just another weekend and yet the streets are packed. You imagine how it must be for Mardi Gras and decide that’s not something you have to attend. You wait to cross the street as what appears to be the leader of a marching band passes by. But no, it’s a wedding party. You make a note to yourself to incorporate this into your wedding.

On your last day, you share a cab to the airport with a guy who happens to be exiting the hotel at the same time. He is a neuropathologist studying autism, returning to Boston to tie up some loose ends before moving to Los Angeles to start his own lab. “What’s the latest in autism research?” you ask, because you’ve learned that the simple questions often elicit the best answers. He doesn’t disappoint, delivering a three-parter that touches on diagnosis, treatment, and funding.

You board the plane, thinking about Neuroscience 2013 in San Diego.

–Andrew Kahn

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