Eileen Maler: A Peek Inside the Annual Neuroscience Conference

The second weekend in June, the 24th Annual McKnight Conference on Neuroscience was held at the Aspen Meadows Resort in Colorado. The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is a nonprofit funded solely by The McKnight Foundation. Since 1998, the national conference has taken place in Aspen because of its relatively central location and picturesque setting. I have managed McKnight’s Neuroscience program for over 5 years, and every year I look forward to this inspiring conference.

The conference always begins with a Friday reception and ends with an early morning breakfast Monday. In between, time is filled with exciting science as current and former awardees present alongside invited guest speakers. The Keynote Speaker for Friday night was Yadin Dudai, a professor at Weizmann Institute of Science and New York University. Dr. Dudai’s research focuses on the interrelationship between brain function and conceptual memory.

Photo2 Saturday’s schedule was jam-packed, beginning with 8 a.m. presentations by current and former McKnight awardees. This session was followed by the Brain Disease Workshop, which each year focuses on a specific topic; this year’s topic was “The Genetics of Brain Disorders.” After an afternoon of committee meetings, the Endowment Fund board meeting, and some free time, the Saturday evening Technology Workshop consisted of a current McKnight awardee, Tim Ryan, Weill Cornell Medical College, and a guest speaker, Loren Looger, Janelia Farm. This was followed by Technology Demonstrations, during which anyone can present a technology they’ve developed. This session has a simple format — just table tops and laptops — and usually sparks intense discussions and potential collaborations. In the photo above, Jamie Tyler, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, shows Winrich Friewald, The Rockefeller University, his McKnight supported innovative technology.

Photo3 Held at the same time as the Tech Demos, a new feature this year was a Poster Session. 11 current awardees shared visual summaries of their work via 4’ by 6’ posters, a common format for many scientific conferences. In the photo on the left, Nate Sawtell, Columbia University, is describing a part of his work to Mani Ramaswami, Trinity College, Dublin.

On Sunday, our scientific sessions closed with a keynote presentation by Dora Angelaki, Baylor College of Medicine. Dora’s research focuses on the mechanisms involved with how our minds process sensory and spatial information. Prior to Dora’s talk, Columbia University’s Tom Jessell, the Endowment Fund’s board chair, honored McKnight director Pat Binger for 10 years of service to the Endowment Fund’s board. (The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience was created because of a specific board interest in brain science and memory, and such direct links with the McKnight Foundation board have remained a program mainstay.)

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is directed by a board of eminent neuroscientists, and awardees are identified through national selection committees, also made up of prominent scientists. So I’m not a neuroscientist myself and don’t understand all the science (ahem, any of the science!), but every year I am still inspired by the enthusiasm with which the participants approach all the talks, demos, and presentations. Even casual chatting at meals sounds like Nobel Prize-winning preambles… You’d be hard-pressed to find a harder working, more accomplished, or nicer group of over-achievers, and I feel lucky just to help manage it all!

EBM_mk0402_cEileen Bloodgood Maler
Neuroscience Program Manager, McKnight Foundation