In Cerebro Veritas

Rome is at once crumbling and filled with life. It is simultaneously chaotic, a cradle of raw civilization and an overgrown, ancient ruin.

I step off the airplane.

A Roman June is hot. Cigarette smoke curls its insidious claws into the Italian breeze, an unwelcome respite from the 32°C heat. Turns out pollen in Rome is exponentially more evil than the British sort; my nose and throat are the playground of tireless, devilish ghouls tasked with scraping and scratching at my soft tissue. Breathing is difficult. The inhalers help, but having had my first panic attack a month or so ago, I’m a little worried about its tachycardic-side-effects – that’s a positive feedback loop for you.

Science. Science is why I’m here, I remind myself. I flick through symposia in the programme handed to me… Hmm, lots of interesting talks. Ooh, machine learning you say, don’t mind if I do. Ah, somatosensory pRF modelling? Well, my good sir, you do know how to treat your guests! I take a seat, drink my weight in silky Italian water, and read on. Keynotes look good: linking imaging and connectivity to genes, linking connectivity to PET, modelling, modelling, modelling, umm, let’s look at the posters here… 4000+ attendees you say? Oh dear. Oh, dear indeed. I fan myself, both due to the heat and due to a touch of overexcitement.

I hit them all. I see labs coming out with truly cutting edge findings, methods, analyses. Half of the things I don’t understand, and the other half I’ve fooled myself into thinking I do. So many people researching brains! I’m a child in Wonka’s chocolate factory, surrounded by shy Markov lollipops, brain atlas mint humbugs and gargantuan biobank gobstoppers. Intelligentsia are left, right and centre. “Replication!” one screams, another yells, “Model complexity doesn’t always mean better!” I stand up and yell “Can someone point me to the nearest vegan cafe…”

I meet a guy from Australia whose idea I’m going to run with. It’s my field, but better. I love it. A lady from Switzerland picks holes in my paradigm and I write it all down, “Man, why didn’t we do that!” I kick myself. I feel ideas and inspiration forming in the melted sarcophagus of my mind. So much to do! So much I’ll forget as soon as I sit at my computer back home!

I break away from brains and end up on a diversity round table. It’s incredible. It’s eye-opening. I pluck up the courage to ask a question about FEAR, obviously. I make a promise to myself that if I ever have a lab of my own, it will be the most inclusive, egalitarian thing in the universe. I attend one of the best talks on open science. I add that to my dream lab criteria. Turns out both diversity, inclusivity and scientific openness go hand-in-hand. I’m convinced that every single neuro PhD student should sit down and listen to a couple of people speak about its importance. And at the end, once their breath is taken away, I’ll stand up and say, “No, you’re breathtaking!” Seriously, come join my lab. Also, leave your defensiveness and ego at the door, please, thank-you-very-much-sir.

In all seriousness, OHBM was incredibly good. I learned a lot to apply to my own work, and have come out with more known unknowns than before, which is a good thing. Do I want to AI-ify my research? Yes, please, sign me up. Can I stick on a bit of Bayes to my pRF modelling, absolutely I will. Should I put my paper into a preprint first, make the code open and available on GitHub and write everything up in a Jupyter notebook? Aye, sir. Right away, sir.

I came to Rome choking in the heat. I leave, heavier, enlightened, tired, sweaty, but man, what a conference! (But seriously, turn the heat down for next time Italy!)