SFN 2015: Saturday’s Recap

It’s only been one day and I already have SO much I want to write about. Today, highlights from the sessions. Tomorrow, more in-depth focus on memory engrams.


Professional Development – Careers Beyond the Bench: 

  • A book for those considering careers beyond the bench, recommended by MD Benton: So What Are You Going to Do With That?
  • The Individual Development Plan or “myIDP” is an online tool on the ScienceCareers website. Set concrete goals and follow through here.
  • BEST = Broadening Experience in Scientific Training – an NIH initiative helping train graduates for careers beyond the academy. I was delighted to learn that my own school UC Davis (represent!) happens to be one amongst 17 in the nation to be piloting this.

Neuroscience & the Law: Strange Bedfellows: 

  • In the past, brain science was too readily accepted by the courts and then subsequently shown to be invalid and even harmful (examples cited: eugenics, recovered memories)
  • As a result, judges are now more hesitant about integrating neuroscience into their decision making. According to Judge Rakoff, “the blame goes both ways”
  • Regarding the current use of neuroscience in the courtroom, Judge Rakoff stated:

“My own view is that neuroscience is not yet at the stage where it can be introduced in individual cases with much scientific validity. Conversely, I am very much of the view that neuroscience has advanced to the point where it can make founded generalizations that can inform policy”

  • The prison systems are overpopulated. Solitary confinement is deleterious and backfires in terms of recidivism. We need research to inform whether or not this practice continues or is recommended for termination.

Making, Breaking, and Linking Engrams with Sheena Josselyn or S-Jo (the new J-Lo):

  • Lashley, the man who popularized the term “engram” came to the conclusion that the memory engram was specifically everywhere and nowhere at once.
  • With more modern tools, we have been able to update this view – specifically showing that fear memories are sparsely coded and that they do indeed exist in specific areas.
  • CREB is important because it helps regulate excitability of cells and thus the chances that they will/won’t be recruited into a memory engram.
  • The formation of memory engrams is dependent on a competitive process. Or in the words of Sheena: The winning neurons are encouraging the loss of the losers. The winners are inhibiting the loser neurons. For a spoiler, see paper here. Or else, stay tuned, I’ll fill you in tomorrow.

Until then, remember: “Losers can become winners with the help of optogenetics.” ~ S-Lo

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SFN, 2015: Chicago Edition.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 8.50.52 PMHello from the skies! 1 hour and 25 minutes left before touch down at ORD. Then, to a taxi. Then, to the hotel. Then, to sleep. Tomorrow: SFN, 2015. Chicago Edition. I’m excited and honored to be selected as an official blogger for the conference this year. Check out this year’s team of bloggers here. Of course, this list does not cover the many talented writers who will be active on social media this year (and there are many!) so be sure to explore the Twitter feeds using #sfn15 hashtag.

I spent all of the last flight (from Sacramento to Dallas Forth-Worth) on the Neuroscience Meeting Planner working on my itinerary for the next few days. For those of you who have smartypants phones, don’t forget: there’s an app for that! If you create your itinerary on your computer, your phone will automatically sync your schedule for you. I’m looking forward to not toting around a canvas bag full of paper schedules this year. This will be a first.

In fact, while this is not my first sfn rodeo, there are a few “firsts” for me this year and I’m very happy about them. No doubt, you’ve come across articles from sfn veterans sharing their wisdom (hash: #sfnprotips) from the little things like:

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…to the bigger things (like how to network without being a pompous peacock). Likewise, my own personal “how to succeed at sfn” manifesto includes a mix of big picture items and little-details-that-make-a-big-difference items which may or may not also be useful for you, dear reader. All protocols need modifications (including my own). This year, instead of writing a guide for what you should do, I’m simply going to share some of my own protocol amendments:

This year:  

  • I began online networking and tweeting early. Turns out that social media is a much more powerful tool if you can engage yourself with the online community and participate in trending conversations. Or, non-trending if you’re a hipster tweeter.
  • I used MakeSigns.com have my poster printed and sent ahead of me in Chicago. I present on Monday and my poster will be delivered to my hotel on Saturday. In case you think this is a luxurious option, it’s really not. The posters were affordable and the transaction was a smooth and pleasant process. One less thing to check? check.
  • I used the Neuroscience Meeting Planner tool to create an itinerary ahead of time. Yes, I’ve done this before but this time: I didn’t add everything and anything that looked slightly of interest or include a single “but I probably should go to this” session on my list. This year, my itinerary only includes sessions that I am truly excited about, will help inform my own research, or develop me professionally.  As my college biology teacher once told me, “there are only 24 hours in a day and this applies to everyone” To this I would add: and thus, spend your energy wisely. NB: Conference burnout is real.
  • I did not pack a single pair of uncomfortable shoes. I just didn’t. I’m very happy about this. It was a hard earned (and blistery) lesson, but this year the lineup includes: my Sorel boots, Toms flats and cushy loafers. Sauconys were also packed to ensure that running does happen.
  • I chose outfits that I feel good about. This may sound superficial, but damn, if we’ve learned anything from Stacy London it’s that what you wear actually does affect your mindset. I put the formal dress away and put together a nice pair of jeans, my favorite t-shirt and a jacket for poster day – because then: I won’t be thinking about my clothes. I’ll just be wearing them. When I talk about my science, I want it to be the only thing on my mind.

I’ve been instructed to put my large, electronic device away. Until tomorrow.

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UC Davis and UCLA host Statewide Science Informing Policy Symposium on Early Psychosis: Prevention & Early Intervention

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On Thursday September 17th, 2015 the Behavioral Health Centers of Excellence (BHCOE) at UC Davis and UCLA will host their first “Science Informing Policy Symposium” at the Sacramento Education Building, 4610 X Street Lecture Hall 2222. The daylong conference will kickoff at 8am and will include a series of lectures and panel discussions. The emphasis of this year’s symposium will be disseminating information about early-intervention and prevention of mental health disorders, using evidence-based medicine. From the press release:

“A gathering of mental health experts from across the nation will examine how evidence-based research can advance treatments — and improve lives — for young people developing serious mental illness is the focus of a daylong symposium aimed at the agencies that most often deliver those therapies: county, state and national mental-health services providers.”

I will be hosting a Twitter chat under the handle @UCDBrainHealth. You can follow the conversation using #SIPS15 and participate in the chat at: http://twubs.com/SIPS15

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The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis Puts its Neuroscience Tools to Good Use

These days it seems that neuroscience and its fancy new tools are in the news — a lot. Coming off the heels of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative announcement in April 2013, this attention is entirely unsurprising and timely. From the extensively covered optogenetics, to the controversial and non-invasive method of transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), to the science-fiction like promise of CLARITY (a 3D visualization technique of intact rodent brains), it seems that neuroscientists are unstoppable. With these technologies in hand, the relevant question has become: how do we most effectively implement these tools to answer the most pressing research questions of our society today? 

cam carter at ucd

Dr. Cameron Carter, Director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and UC Davis Imaging Research Center addressed some of these issues in a public lecture, this past Monday, at the UC Davis Health Center in Sacramento entitled Brain Research: New Discoveries and Breakthroughs at UC Davis. During the first half of the presentation, Dr. Carter reminded the audience that with 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections, constantly changing throughout a lifetime, what’s surprising isn’t that things can go wrong. What’s surprising is that the brain ever succeeds in coordinating as mundane a task as picking up a pencil in the first place. In fact, it’s at this intersection — of mental disease and mental health — that we, as researchers, are able to glean the most insight about the limits of our nervous system. This understanding is key to the development of novel, effective, deliverable therapies and early interventions. Furthermore, these therapies and evidence-based strategies can only have a real impact if they are appropriately disseminated to the community and mental health workers at the outset.

In October 2014, with the support of Former Senator Darrell Steinberg, author of Prop 63 (aka as the “California Mental Health Services Act), the partnership of UCLA, and the tangible support of Dean Frederick J. Meyers, The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis was launched:

In the past few months, the center put out a call for pilot research grant applications (awards were $200,000 each, totaling 4.3 million dollars). 65 applications were received and peer reviewed. 16 of them were funded. UCD Neuroscience Graduate students: you will recognize some of these names and faces. The awards funded questions and methods that spanned quite the range. The projects included: the use of sensitive calcium sensors (Drs. Karen Zito and Lin Tian), non-invasive tDCS (Dr. Charan Ranganath), electrical brain stimulation to enhance learning and memory (Dr. Evan Antzoulatos), the novel combination of ultrasound and fMRI (Dr. Katherine Ferrara), and the saavy use of smartphone apps to collect mental health data on patients (Dr. Tara Niendam).

In a sense, these funded projects are a confirmation that enthusiasm for the novel development and application of neuroscience tools exists today. Yet, this initiative sets itself apart in its practical application of basic science to the real mental health problems we face as a society today.

The atmosphere at yesterday’s lecture was primarily one of hope. This stands in contrast to the attitude in clinical brain research today, Dr. Carter explained to the audience. For the past few years, there has been a discrepancy between how much we’ve learned in neuroscience and how difficult it is to develop drug therapies despite this knowledge. So, what gives?

There’s still hope, Dr. Carter urges. The more we learn about how brain circuits function, he explains, the more well-poised we are to develop therapies for when those circuits malfunction. “Let’s use this knowledge to fix the broken circuits,” said Dr. Carter. In essence, this is the exhortation shared by the BRAIN Initiative, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

From this graduate student’s perspective, this can only be done effectively if policy makers, basic researchers and affected individuals in the community continue to communicate.

For those interested in participating more directly in this conversation and learning more about the center’s iniatives, mark your calendars for the “Early Psychosis Symposium” planned for September 17th, 2015 at the UC Davis Health System, Sacramento Education Building, 4610 X Street Lecture Hall 2222. A copy of the agenda can be found here.

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Can you plagiairize…yourself?

UPDATE: Jonah Lehrer has officially resigned from the New Yorker. Turns out that he has apologized for outright lying. Copies of his book “Imagine” are being recalled by the publisher as we speak (very expensive and arduous process). Perhaps a follow-up blog post is due to be written. In the meantime, here is a link to a NYTimes article which discusses the current updates on the situation.

His name is Jonah Lehrer. He is thirty years old – and he’s somewhat of a celebrity in the world of science writing. As former undergraduate researcher in Eric Kandel’s lab at Columbia University, he began first researching and reading – then writing about science. His blog The Frontal Cortex quickly gained popularity and it was only a matter of time before it grew to be a regular section at the popular science magazine Wired. You may have also heard him on the radio, as he is a regular contributor to the well-known science show: WNYC – RadioLab. In addition to blogging, he has three published books to his name (his most recent one entitled “Imagine: How Creativity Works”) and to top off his list of achievements, he was recently hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker (yes, THE New Yorker). At the rate he’s going, it seems there is nothing that can stand in the way of this young, ambitious science writer.

Unless, of course, the thing standing in his way happens to be himself. Just last month, Romensko published an entry on his site alerting everyone that Jonah’s pieces over at The New Yorker seemed to be reeking of self-plagiarism. Since that day, the Internet has been abuzz over the controversy, with several individuals citing numerous other instances of Jonah’s self-plagiarism. As academics, we are all too familiar with the term “plagiarism” – but what, you may be asking, is self-plagiarism? According to the website “Plagiarism Today” self-plagiarism is “when an author or other content creator uses portions of an earlier work in a new one without citing the original content.”

By that definition, the verdict for Jonah seems pretty unambiguous: guilty as charged. However, many (including myself) are not entirely convinced the story is quite so straightforward. For one thing: there’s something strange about the term “self-plagiarism”. It seems mildly…oxymoronic. If you write something – do you need to request permission from yourself in order to re-use, recycle, or “repurpose” the material? Is it just me…or does this sound like a bad joke? Jonah’s publisher points out that “he [Jonah Lehrer] owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work.” Indeed, even the post on Plagiarism Today bears the following admission: “To further complicate things, most of the definition of what is and is not self-plagiarism, as with regular plagiarism, depends heavily on the arena the accusation is being made in and the expectations that come with it.”

Well. To be fair, we can only assume that the expectation of his editor at The New Yorker was that he would be writing fresh material. Not to mention: what responsibility does he bear to his readers (especially his most loyal followers) to generate new material? Before moving from the Wired to The New Yorker, Jonah himself wrote directly to his readers, saying: I’ve got some news to share: I’ve decided to accept a staff writer position at the New Yorker. Needless to say, I’m very excited. […] This also means that my blog, Frontal Cortex, will be moving to the newyorker.com. You can find all my new posts hereExcept, it turned out that his posts weren’t really all that new after all. There’s no doubt that there will be some measure of overlap in Jonah’s ideas and his writing – but what really is the point of writing literally the same thing over and over again? Did he really think no one would notice? In the words of Rohan Maitzen “Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.”

Curious as to what Jonah’s response has been to all of this, I scoured the Internet only to find this statement: “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” Alright then, so is this really just a case of (self-proclaimed) laziness? In reading through all the criticisms of Jonah, one point that I did read in his favor was his willingness to accept and acknowledge when he’s made a mistake. His openness on this front will help any offended readers and fans, I’m sure, move past his infraction (at this point I am dropping the term self-plagiarism altogether). And his editor at The New Yorker, Nicholas Thompson, has decided to keep Jonah on staff (though all of Jonah’s pieces now appear with an Editor’s Note that acknowledges and regrets the duplication of material).

Still, some readers are scratching their heads wondering what all this fuss is about. In response to the most recent article posted on the NYTimes, one reader writes: Yeah, you should never borrow from yourself! Hard to be upset about this. I myself haven’t written an original word since my first New York Times comment in 2004! and reader,  Margaret, comments: I don’t see what the issue is. This seems like much ado about nothing (credit: Shakespeare).

Well, there is certainly nothing like a bit of humor to bring us back to the real issue at hand, to remind us when we may have taken things a bit too far – and there’s no doubt, the situation has gotten a bit out of hand. Yet, as I read through the various articles and posts about the Jonah Brouhaha (my shorthand for this controversy) – I realized it’s going to be awfully difficult for me to completely align myself with the: “what’s the big deal?” sentiment. It would be nice, as a fan of Jonah’s writing and as an ambitious writer myself, to throw my hands up and say: “Oh well – it’s not such a big deal. What’s all this fuss about?” I almost wish I could say it’s much ado about nothing. Is it really nothing though? I’m not entirely convinced.

Not only is it not entirely unimpressive to be so repetitive as a writer, but it also sends the wrong message to readers. At best, it comes across as disingenuous. At worst, it’s like trying to get credit (or in this case: money) for the same work twice. That latter point – the fact that Jonah is getting paid twice for essentially the same material is itself enough to make him culpable of something even if it doesn’t go by the ugly label of plagiarism. Indeed, many have suggested a different label. Erik Wemple over at The Washington Post “Lehrer took his own work and presented it as his own (fresh) work. That’s bad, but it’s not so bad that it should be described with any variant of the term ‘plagiarism.’ It becomes an interestingly hairy situation when you don’t even have a name to give to the crime. Which brings me to this point: perhaps this issue is bigger than Jonah himself. Perhaps this is about our inability to be clear in our language. Or in the words of Shawn O’Rouke over at Poptech: “While both sides of the Lehrer discussion and the larger issue of self-plagiarism make compelling arguments, perhaps the debate’s very existence is emblematic of the imprecise nature of the language being used.”

So, perhaps to answer the question of this post: Is it possible to plagiarize yourself? I say: yes and no. That’s the problem with this term – it is entirely dependent on expectations and on context. And with regards to the Jonah brouhaha, I argue that this term is entirely unhelpful. It seems that many have used this loaded term, in part, to criticize Jonah for other issues they have been secretly harboring against him (he cherry picks research results, he simplifies scientific findings, he has made scientific errors in his writing, he’s too young to be this successful, etc) and I think that this detracts from the conversation at hand. The point is that Jonah (someone who recently wrote an entire book about creativity) has cheated himself and his readers somewhat by repeating himself in his writing. I agree with Wemple on this one – that’s bad, but it’s not so bad as plagiarism.

In an interview with Colbert back in April (prior to this controversy) – you can witness a sad twist of irony and a bit of eerie foreshadowing: “You’re one of the contributing editors of Wired, you write for The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal – you’re coming up with material all the time, so you’re one of the creative types, right?” To which Jonah replied, “well, I try.” Indeed he does – and he usually succeeds. So much so that he has become the target of a disproportionate amount of fury. Let it go, people. He’s a talented writer who makes neuroscience accessible and engaging for many. He made a mistake and he apologized. Let’s move on.

Colbert Interviews Jonah on his book “Imagine”

P.S. Thank you to our very own, Ling Wong, for the tip-off/idea to blog about this! I had great fun reading all sides and exploring a pretty complex issue! Would love to hear thoughts/feedback.


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The Wildness of Being Human

There were SO many interesting talks this morning…I’m pretty sure all of us are still “digesting” the concepts and implications of the ideas discussed. Keep your eye out for more posts. I’ll be more comprehensive later (took good notes!). Before took the break for lunch, we ended the first half of the conference in the best way possible: with poetry.

Jane Hirshfield walked up to the podium after a morning spent discussing: our multiplicities, our complexities, our illusions and delusions, our interconnectedness…all part and parcel of what it means to “be human”. One word we left out of the mix, she said – was wildness. We are endlessly interesting creatures after all – and even our seemingly rational behaviors are at times inherently irrational. We don’t always understand why we do what we do nor do we always have conscious access to our unconscious experiences. Yet, we are here. We live on. We muddle through this existence … and we do so strengthened by the bonds of love we share with one another.


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Kicking off the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies (ISCS)

The first-ever International Symposia of Contemplative Studies (ISCS) began in Denver, Colorado on a dark and stormy afternoon. No, really – it did. As Jon Kabat-Zinn rolled up his sleeves and sat down on a cushion to lead us into meditation prior to offering us his opening talk, the room filled with the sound of silence and rolling thunder. Considering that the room was full of individuals who had just flown in from all over the country (and abroad!) it was a great way to call for everyone’s presence and attention. Jon-Kabat Zinn is a name that likely conjures up a host of associations, especially for those in the contemplative research community. He is most well known as the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a complementary medicine program that includes body scans, breath-focused meditation and a wide range of other exercises aimed at increasing self-awareness and decreasing stress in daily life.

I, myself, attended a 12-week MBSR course held at the National Institute of Health (NIH) taught by Dr. Rezvan Ameli and Tom Goddard in 2009 and greatly benefited from the experience. I respect and appreciate Jon Kabat-Zinn and very much enjoyed his insightful comments at the 2012 “Being Human” conference. Yet I’m not here to write to you about MBSR. Nor am I here to write about how much I respect Kabbat-Zinn. I’m here to share with you all – especially those of you not present at this symposium – what it’s like to be here. Reporting to you from the front lines, if you will – and if I’m honest with my readers I will say that I was sorely disappointed by this first talk.

Let me explain. First, my expectations: since it was the kick-off lecture, I expected that the talk would speak to the vision behind this gathering, the impetus behind this weekend, the hope for what these next three to four days will offer us. I expected that the talk would provide us with a framework. Please note also that this is the first time ever that this conference is happening. So not only was it the opening talk, it was the opening talk to an inaugural event. To be fair, Kabat-Zinn did attempt to call for recognition of how unique this gathering is – but it quickly slipped into a bit of nostalgia and maybe (though obviously sincere and heartfelt) effusive reflections on how far he and his colleagues have come.

The rest of the talk simply felt disjointed. He spoke about Albert Einstein’s vision of expanding circles of compassion (love that quote, by the way), about taking care of the earth as a reflection on how we take care of ourselves, and even a digression on Michael Pollan and mindful eating. Each of these points was in and of itself a great platform to launch into a larger point about the importance of contemplative research. I was hoping he would make a point about the nature of this work and its importance for our lives as human beings.

One point he did manage to spend more time on was the importance of clarifying our use of the term “mindfulness”. This word, he said, was created as a sort of “umbrella term” for the Buddhist equivalent of “dharma” – roughly defined as the set of teachings that serve as the very ground for cultivating greater self-awareness. “My nightmare,” Kabat-Zinn shared with us, “is that people think this is a concept that I’ve created.” Yet he was insistent that we consider “using the term more”. I’m hoping that what motivated this statement was his recognition that we ought to better define what “mindfulness” means.

I should wrap this up by saying this much: in hindsight I am actually grateful that this was the first talk because it taught me something about myself. In monitoring my own personal reactivity to this talk, it’s clear to me how invested I am in advancing the quality of research that is done on such an important practice. At least I know even more deeply now – just how much I care and just how invested I am in this.

As I once wrote in an email to my own dear Bay Area “Sangha“: Essentially, I recognize that the curiosity that draws me to the meditation cushion and the curiosity that draws me to research are one and the same. I am committed to investigating this reality with an open heart and mind (both on and off the cushion!) As Pascal shared during our retreat – the beauty of the dharma is that it is essentially very investigative in nature. “Come and see for yourself”, the Buddha said. Ehipaśyika. That is what I am trying to do from every possible perspective!

May the journey continue.

P.S. Comments are always welcome! Especially by others who *are* here and had different perspectives. Just click the “thought bubble” at the top right hand corner of this post 

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