Breaking the academic bubble: An interview with host Diana Xie

I’ve always pictured scientists and philosophers in antiquity as hermits, slaving away in their ivory towers and writing dissertations in obscure languages inaccessible to the most of the population. Even today science is tough to understand, with academic papers locked behind paywalls and filled with jargon.

Fortunately, this sad state of affairs is rapidly changing for the better. The recent launch of Pubmed Commons has finally pushed post-publication peer review into mainstream, which – together with F1000 and PubPeer – will hopefully facilitate constructive criticism and academic discourse between scientists. Figshare is promoting data sharing among researchers, including data that are unpublished and/or negative. Open-access journals have allowed the general public to peek into the ivory tower (though they come with a slew of problems), while research blogs are translating jargon-laded papers into engrossing articles that anyone can understand. Podcasts like the Stanford NeuroTalk and videos like ASAPScience are both fantastic mediums for an earful of science.

Nevertheless, most of these current resources target one discipline or a specific question. This is why caught me eye. is the brainchild of Dr. Dr. Jean-François Gariépy, a researcher at Duke University. It is a free-to-download talk show between leading scientists and philosophers whom share their ideas about the brain and mind. It lets you witness the type of debates and discussions that academics engage in over a beer – casual, personal, a little nerdy but packed with ideas.

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Sebastian Seung, professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT & Claire O’Connell, MITx Fellow & Education Director of EyeWire. Source: Kickstarter page

During the Society for Neuroscience Annual Conference I caught up with Diana Xie, the host of, for her vision of the project.

What differs from other neuroscience podcasts or videos? is different from other science podcasts and videos, because we dive into academic concepts and explain these concepts in parallel, so people from all educational backgrounds can understand the conversations. The discussions that happen on are the equivalent of what you would have between experts in the field in a university, but the hosts and panelists make sure that the concepts are explained in a way that everyone can understand. We want these conversations to be informal, so the dialogue style in all our videos is what I would describe as laid-back intellectual conversations. Our guests are free to speak about any neuroscience topics that they wish, including their own research, because our videos aren’t intended to adhere to the interview or lecture model. This is a tradition that we will be continuing with our forthcoming episodes, since people seem to really enjoy it.

We also want the show to be interdisciplinary, so we bring in professors from diverse fields – neuroscience, psychology, philosophy – and they talk about science from all the different levels at which the brain and mind can be studied. These conversations between our panel of regular scientists and our guests, all studying different topics within neuroscience, are recorded and subsequently edited to make them accessible to the general public. For example, if a scientific term was to be mentioned that may be foreign to someone who has not yet entered graduate school, a pop-up would appear in the video to define the term in a very clear and understandable way. Rather than glossing over the academic talk, we approach it in a way that reflects our belief that many people on the Internet want to follow such conversations.

I especially like the idea of dialogue between neuroscience and philosophy; why discuss the two in tandem?

Ultimately, philosophers interested in behavior and neuroscientists are after the same question: what are the mechanisms underlying our behaviors? Philosophers tend to develop broad frameworks to better understand the problem itself. Some of them, the best ones, will also care about integrating the vast amounts of scientific data available from neurobiology. That is how neuroscience contributes to the understanding of behaviors by philosophers. On the other hand, neuroscientists often look at very narrow questions, not because they aren’t interested in the bigger question, but simply because they are adopting the scientific approach. They have to care about the experiments that they can do in the present, otherwise things would not advance. The result is that scientists are very much aware of the fine details of experiments, the limitations of the techniques used, etc. By bringing neuroscientists and philosophers into the same conversations, we are certain that both will benefit from each other’s perspective.

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Any teasers on which topics will be covered?

I have discussed extensively with JF about what will be the subjects covered during Season 1 (2014), and all we can say is that what you’re about to see is an eye-opening, broad coverage of all the deep questions that relate to the brain and the mind. We have gathered teams of panelists who are experts in their fields. Some of the people you will see talking with each other on would never have interacted otherwise. The subjects covered will include molecular biology, cellular physiology, systems neuroscience, cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, morality and sociology.

Finally, tell me about the inception of

Jean-François first conceived of the idea of, because he wanted to make academic discussions more accessible, not only for the general public, but also for the scientists who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to participate in these conversations with such a broad range of intellectuals interested in studying the brain and behaviors, from the molecular levels up to the level of societies. When I think back to my first meeting with JF in January, I had no idea that fast-forward a year, I would be involved in such a big project. I began as a research assistant working with him to understand the effects of oxytocin on social behavior. He struck me as a very brilliant, forward-thinking person with bold ideas and the boldness to implement them. Not only that, but a person who was incredibly generous with his time and enthusiastic about science education, and by extension, exposing people to the wonders of neuroscience research. For these reasons, needless to say I had much respect for him and consider myself very lucky for having joined the lab that he worked in.

When Jean-François first pitched to me the idea of launching a Kickstarter campaign for (back in September), I thought it was the craziest idea ever. But he told me about his vision for what he wanted it to be, and I was intrigued and believed in its potential. That’s what led me to take on the challenge of joining as both director of the Kickstarter campaign and host of the 2014 episodes, despite how intimidating these jobs appeared. Even in the early stages of the campaign now, I find the experience to be very rewarding, and I love hearing all the wonderful feedback and encouragement that we have received from both scientists and non-scientists. is just taking off. If you’d like to help this fledgling project – by neuroscientists, for the world – check out their Kickstarter page.

#SfN13: Tips and tricks for first-timers

I remember my first time at an SfN annual meeting. Overwhelming is a gross understatement. Back then I had way too much enthusiasm, way too little training and no concrete project of my own. I went in with the solid determination to take in as much as I can.

BAD idea.

There is NO way you’ll be able to attend every session, talk or poster you’d like to see. Especially when everything sounds interesting. Add in the pressure of trying to network (if you’re an introvert like me) or establish collaborations, and the experience may even deteriorate into terrifying.

What do?

Here’s some advice to first-timers from someone who’s gone a few times. I’m far from an expert (and can only speak for myself), so feel free to chime in if you have anything to add. (Edit: Scroll down to the bottom for advice from Dr. Tim Murphy, University of British Columbia)


That’s only part of it. Yikes. Source:

Prepare in advance. It’s close to impossible to get the best out of SfN without some serious planning. The meeting planner is your friend. Use the search function (it’s not Google unfortunately, so choose your terms wisely). Then when you have time, browse the itinerary – I always discover things I missed. Hubbian is an alternative planner that’s free to use. It lets you build and save multiple abstract lists and is mobile compatible. You can also upvote abstracts and see how many times they’ve been viewed in the Hubbian system.

Prioritize! I can’t stress this enough. Ask your advisor and senior graduate students on which topics to REALLY focus on; generally, this would be related to your project. If you have a project that solidly fits into a theme, then you’re lucky (say, Huntington’s). Check out abstracts of posters under that theme; list then from highly relevant -> less so. Unfortunately the meeting planner doesn’t have that function; so write it down. Limit the number of posters you see in a day; the more you see the less you remember. If you have time by the end of the day (which you probably don’t), look through your notes or discuss what you’ve seen with your peers. Helps you remember.

When you’re done, check out things (and people) that you’re interested in. If you’re an undergraduate looking for a grad advisor, or PhD grad looking for a post-doc, posters are a great way to start talking to the PIs (and their grad students) you want to work with. Ask questions about their work, how their labs are run. It’s like a less-formal interview. If you hit if off, go out for lunch/coffee together, then follow up with an email after the conference. Personally I find posters much better for networking than official socials. The latter always seem more stressful and people tend to stick together with people they know.

If you’re an undergrad or junior grad without a project or with a project that doesn’t fit any specific subfield (ie technique), it gets a bit trickier. Think hard about what you want to do and what your lab’s interests are – then talk to your advisor. If you’re working on a technique, think about what area it might be used for and scout out things in that area. I worked on developing a protein degradation method for most of my PhD studies; at meetings I tend to check out protein accumulation diseases. It’s not a perfect fit, but it tends to open doors to collaborations.

If you don’t have a solid area of interest yet, then I would suggest sticking more to lectures and seminars. Posters are great to check out advancements in a field, but not that great in introducing you to the field. It’s still best to have a vague idea of what areas interest you the most – think about it as applying to grad school, you will have to choose a lab. What would the lab’s focus be on?

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Freebies. I usually scout out the exhibitioners during lunch break or when my brain needs a rest. Don’t go when they’re still preparing. Tote bags and pens are a-plenty; cooler swag generally include T-shirts (I think F1000 gave some out last year), pipette-shaped pens, posters, pins (Elsevier has them), notebooks (Nature Publishing Group often has those), brain-shaped squeeze sponges and neuron plushies (above). Word-of-mouth is generally the best way to know what this year’s pickings are. Twitter is also a good source of info – follow the hashtag #SfN13, many vendors tweet.

If you take their stuff, don’t grab and run. Talk to them. I especially like talking to people from publishing houses – about open access, journal subscription, working in journal marketing etc. It’s a nice break from science and an opportunity to get a first-hand account of work options beyond the bench.


Socially awkward penguin scientist. Source:

Socials. The one that I make sure I go to every year is #SfNbanter. It’s organized by the GREAT! @doc_becca and always attracts a wide group of social media savvy-neuroscientists, science journalists, editors and publishers. Great conversations. I’m met MANY of my personal sci communication heroes there. I can’t recommend it enough.

I have to admit other than that I usually just chill-out in the hotel (introvert). UCSD generally organizes good socials; follow them at @UCSDNeuro on Twitter for news. Otherwise keep your eyes and ears open, there’s always something going on.

If you’re still confused, PDW07.Getting the Most Out of SfN: The Annual Meeting and Beyond (Saturday, Nov 09, 2013, 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM) might be worth checking out.

@Neurolore has a great packing list on her blog. I’d like to stress a few more things:

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  • Passport and US dollars if you’re international.
  • Comfortable shoes. You’re going to be doing a LOT of walking (I averaged around 30766 steps per day last year) so bring the best you own. Flip-flops are ok!
  • Poster tube strap (see left). I got this idea from @scicurious. Last year I used a present-wrapping ribbon and clipped it in on both sides; tape also works. You can free up a hand for other luggage, plus it makes your poster tube easier to find.
  •  Chargers for your devices. Wifi tends to be a bit shaky at the convention centre causing battery drain. I always make sure to have one on me at all times.

Let me know if I missed anything! Don’t worry if you don’t see everything or meet anyone your first time at the conference. If you keep running into the same people, you’ll make an impression. Bottom line, there’s no need to stress about it more than you have to. Plan to the best you can and then go enjoy yourself.

Edit: Dr. Tim Murphy has kindly provided additional advice from a PI’s point-of-view. Two things stood out for me: meet your funders, and get excited!

Here’s the full list!

1) Have a plan before you go. Use all modern tools available, itinerary planner, perhaps new, even social media tools that may be available. Share your itinerary with others in your lab to make sure all the relevant presentations are found.  Make sure you search key people in your field and search on particular methods you may want to explore.

2) Learn something new, branch out. I’ve seen too many people making rounds of posters of their colleagues at their own university. Make a concerted effort to see new work.

3) Fuel up; make sure you have enough food and water for the whole day. The Convention Centre food and drinks are notoriously bad and overpriced and there are long lines. Convention centres seem to be at least 5 km from reasonably priced food.  I typically buy a sandwich in the morning of the conference and take it with me along with some drinks and extra food. This allows me to get through the day and to see some key posters between 12PM and 1PM as the take down and put up time is often a quiet period over which one-on-one questions can be handled.

4) Dress comfortably and wear comfortable shoes. This sounds obvious, but one can walk at least 10 to 15k within the Convention Centre. One thing limiting you getting the most of the meeting is fatigue. Also, in a related note, try to plan your movement through poster sessions, so that you avoid backtracking.

5) Every day and every session has something truly amazing; there are no afternoons or mornings off. You all have given some oral presentations and you know how much time is put into this. Celebrate the presentations of others. If you are tired and you’ve seen enough posters, camp out in a symposium; perhaps learn something new, that is related to your topic of research. This is our opportunity to catch up on a lot of research. A few years ago in New Orleans I decided to go out to an evening presentation and had a joy of hearing Christopher Reeve speak. Sadly, this joy is no longer available.

6) Meet your suppliers. This is a great opportunity to ask technical questions from camera or microscope manufacturers or any manufacturer in that regard.

7) Know your funders. Quiz the people at CIHR/NIH about their programs and way they see trainee funding going. Give them feedback.

8) Get excited, empower yourself. There are two ways of looking at the meeting: first is that it is extremely intimidating. There are 30,000 neuroscientists here. The other way to look at this is: “This is exciting; I’m a part of the group of 30,000 doing cutting edge research on the brain”.

9) Take lots of notes. Perhaps, the easiest thing to do is to pick up an old-style composition notebook and write a few notes on each poster. This will go a long way in jogging your memory afterwards.

10) De-brief after the meeting. When you return to your home lab, tell people of what was good and what you learned. Also, share with your PI both strengths and weaknesses of your own work that you learned about by presenting your poster.

Above all, enjoy yourself and use the meeting as a key professional development experience that it is meant to be.

#SfN13: Here we go!

You might have already heard the news that I’m officially blogging for the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Conference this year. (YAY!)

For those not in the field, the SfN conference is a yearly geek-fest uniting over 20,000 (source) neuroscientists from around the globe. Packed with lectures, seminars, poster session (yes, posters – that’s how we share our research), exhibitions, socials and ancillary events, it is a true bonanza of cutting-edge neuroscience.


Poster tubes stacked at the passage way right off the plane. 

During the conference (Nov 9-13) I’ll be blogging about the most exciting, surprising or plainly weird advancements in two specific neuroscience subfields: cognition & behaviour and disorders of the nervous system.

You DO NOT have to be a neuroscientist to learn from the conference. Follow the hashtag #sfn13 on Twitter for a constant stream of neuro-news, check out all the official (and non-official) bloggers to get an in-depth and highly accessible look at individual neuroscience studies.


PS. As it happens, this year the conference will be held in San Diego, at the same convention centre which hosted Comic Con a few months ago. The geek in me is silently rejoicing.


Back from break!

I was in Winnipeg, Manitoba for the last three days attending the 26th Annual Canadian Student Health Research Forum. It was a lovely multi-disciplinary symposium, complete with:

Poster session/competition:

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View from above, at the University of Manitoba Health Science Centre. Posters come in all shapes and sizes. And no, they’re not movie posters 😛

Graduate students trying to dance:

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Lectures on “Big Science” from great speakers with a sense of humour:

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The Human Microbiome. It’s FASCINATING. I’ll blog about this very soon.

I have several things I want to blog about in the near future. But for now, I’d like to share with you a lovely infographic on drug addiction & relapse, by Adrienne Erin (I’m a sucker for infographics, btw, r/infographics is a great place to visit if you want a knowledge-shot). I mentioned in a previous post on a heroin vaccine that relapse is part of what makes drug addiction so sinister.

Here’s the breakdown:

Relapse: The Revolving Door Infographic

I find it mind-blowing that the relapse rate for painkillers/opiods is 97%! If you’d like to contact the designer, she can be reached here: adrienneerin77 (at) gmail

Hope you all enjoyed, and talk to you soon!

NeuroPunk! “Harder Better Faster Stronger” Neuroscience style #video

Feel free to skip the preamble and go for the meat at the bottom. Yum.

I took a break from blogging last week, mostly in preparation for the 1st UBC Neuroscience Retreat. Overall, it was extremely rewarding. In a jam-packed 1 1/2days, I heard lectures from 17 profs in diverse subfields of neuroscience, caught up on research by my peers in an intimate poster session, and had GREAT conversations with anyone willing to jabber with me about SCIENCE! Seriously, as a friend wisely (haha) noted: “Most of what I’ve learned is from talking to other people, not from reading papers.” All the while with this view outside my window:


It’s a luxury hotel at the luxurious Whistler Ski Resort in British Columbia. My jaw literally dropped when I first saw it.

Academics aside, the profs encouraged grads to “let loose and showcase your creativity”. As in, “make a viral video”. As part of the Grad Student Association I overlooked the project. Two weeks after several mass emails, on the 1st day of the retreat, we had only one submission (“Neural Correlates of the Harlem Shake”, which is FANTASTIC). Long story short, I freaked out, got car sick, and somehow my creative juices came poring out, cultivating in this:

Basically, story of my life ;P.

Hope you enjoyed, and I’ll be posting again soon.