SfN Field Report and Swag Cheat Sheet 2014

By Don Noble and Mandy Bekhbat

Not everyone comes entirely prepared for the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting. Some of us are working on our posters up to the last second, or wondering why we booked a townhouse 40 minutes from the convention center during a polar vortex. But that doesn’t provide an excuse to miss the important things in life, like national landmarks, free swag, and entertaining episodes of self-loathing.

Our swashbuckling editors Don Noble and Mandy Bekhbat attended SfN 2014 in Washington D.C. for at least one of these reasons. Don’s account reflects the experience of a seasoned veteran (i.e. old man) while Mandy’s reflects that of a second-year who on more than one occasion was sighted passed out on the convention floor from sheer exhaustion. Indeed, one’s first time going to SfN can be quite an experience. This year, more than 31,000 neuroscientists convened at SfN’s annual meeting, presenting 15,000 abstracts, and approximately 600 vendor booths exhibited their products and services. Just looking at these numbers, Mandy braced herself for an overwhelming experience. But in this case, she learned that one can never quite be fully prepared for being overwhelmed by the breadth of different types of neuroscience research and the sheer number of posters.

Additionally, throughout the five days of the meeting, the evenings were filled with SfN-sponsored socials. While some of them, including Alzheimer’s and Behavioral Neuroendocrinology socials, were packed full mostly of postdocs and junior investigators, others, such as the Clinical neuroscience social, were events where undergraduate researchers could mingle with some of the biggest names in the field. Below we describe the conference and provide photographic documentation that rigorous science and human inanity are not mutually exclusive.

Self-loathing: Michael McKinnon contemplates his own intrinsic nature, and the reason his poster got assigned to row VV.

Magnets, how do they work?
Row VV
Row Double V. Tumbleweeds airbrushed out of photo.



Landmarks: There was also ample time to visit museums and admire the incredible (in)efficiency of government.

This picture was taken shortly before Don Noble attempted to jump the fence.
A metaphor for SfN: neuroscience graduate students dwarfed by their surroundings, are reminded how small they really are.

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History provided some pleasant respite on the last night of the conference.

This same bear made a semi-transparent appearance in Don’s SfN poster.
It’s okay, fake animal. Someday we’ll understand why your brain is so small.


The vendors: If you still had energy left from meeting so many people and being mind-blown by their awesome research, there were also vendors to be explored.

One notable vendor was Backyard Brains, a start-up that designs and offers affordable electrophysiology experiment kits for students of all ages to learn about neural communication. One of their products, the Roboroach, is what they describe as the world’s first commercially available cyborg. It comes with a surgical kit that enables the insertion of electrodes into the antennae of the roach, thus allowing the experimenter to control its movements using his/her smart phone. Other products, such as the SpikerBox, are equally straightforward and interesting to students of all ages


Mandy Chimp
Mandy proudly wears her SfN freebie, then does a chimp dance.

Many of the vendors were also giving away freebies (see Mandy, now with 2% less chimp!). For the first time, we release top-secret techniques for augmenting your ‘bag’ or ‘swag’ inventory.

Bag Technique:

If you didn’t know, SfN is all about carry-bag game, and select vendors produce some beauties. In scoring the crème de la crème at SfN, you’ll need to master good bag technique. Even if – aside from drinking enough PBR at the Clermont Lounge to start your own indie band – you usually refrain from the hipster lifestyle, you’ll want to be a Hipster Bag Hag. Let us break down what this means:

i) First and foremost, you want a dank ass bag. But this means other people will also have your awesome bag, unless it is…

ii) a limited edition bag that was only available during the Sunday session, which means it’s cooler if….

bird swag
Nerd Michael says: Don, that’s a finch, not Bird Jesus!

iii) you managed to swipe one from someone else, so it doesn’t look like you spent a full week at the conference to avoid doing research.

Some examples that escaped our grasp were the Abcam and Bethyl photo bags. Nice neurons are in style for a hot minute, and these were top of the line neurons.

However, after some back-and-forth about undergraduate research in zebra finches, Don landed his favorite bag of the year: a simple yet swanky specimen from F1000 that featured a stylin’ ‘Bird Jesus’ doing im-peck-able science, crafted from exquisitely unassuming material that rivaled Kroger’s reusable grocery bags.

Swag Technique:mouseswag

Ethics often go out the window when it comes to swiping science swag. Roommate and program legend Travis Rotterman stole Don’s mail in order to get his pick of the litter: a 2GB mouse thumb drive from Jackson Laboratories.

science mugTravis: I feel bad for stealing your mail Don, use my AAAS/Science membership email to get this free coffee tumbler.

Thorlabs, famous for the complimentary lab snacks they provide when well-intentioned but brain teeverdant labmates order overpriced epoxy, gives out free t-shirts sporting their crazed wolf and some mushy-looking organ.

Play the BIOS brain tracing game to win a stuffed dragon and an outer space-esque black and green t-shirt that you may even wear at some point in your life. Protip: visit at the end of each half hour to catch the crowds by surprise and cherry-pick the dank ass swag late. Yoooiinkk!

Michael McKinnon thinks he’s onto something. World champion labmate Mallika Halder explains: “focus just ahead of the marker.”

Overall, SfN 2014 was a winning experience. Can you contribute your own pictures or story? Think you have what it takes to win some official SfN 2014 swag? Then see below!

Announcement of picture competition #2

Do you have pictures that are more beautiful (nope), more academically impressive (e.g. you surrounded by a large poster crowd, i.e. presenting something with ‘optogenetics’ in the title), or sexier (e.g. you presenting something with ‘optogenetics’ in the title) than the ones shown here? Send them to don.j.noble@gmail.com to win official SfN souvenir swag and be featured in an upcoming edition of the Sulcus!


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