Reflections from the Alcohol Research Conference

For my inaugural post, I’ll start with something fresh on my mind: a recent alcohol research conference down in San Francisco.

But first, I suppose it’s appropriate to start with a bit of personal background. I began my Oregon Trail quest, not from Independence, Missouri, but from Deerfield, Illinois (northern suburb of Chicago) nearly eight years ago. After a layover at Colorado College to get my BA, I finally made it out to Oregon in the summer of ’09, only one time did we have to caulk the [station] wagon and float. Dysentery was avoided. For the last three years, I’ve been working in David Rossi’s lab in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience trying to understand the brain mechanisms that predispose alcohol abuse and dependence. These mechanisms can be approached from many angles, but I have chosen to use electrophysiological techniques to address why the brains of individuals who are at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder respond differently to alcohol than those at lower risk. So yes, I do alcohol research, which I believe necessitates the caveat that I am in no way opposed to participating in happy hours, or for turning most hours into “happy hours”. My experience in the alcohol research field has suggested that I am not isolated in these views. Exhibit A: the annual Research Society on Alcoholism conference in San Francisco.

Here, scientists from around the world share groundbreaking research on the mechanisms, treatment, and etiology of alcohol abuse and dependence. Interestingly, in the two years I’ve attended the conference, I find that many of the scientists are in behavioral contradiction to the goals of their research: scientists attempting to rid society of alcohol use disorders by day, college fraternity boys and sorority girls by night. I like to think of it as conducting experiential field research (at least it’s safer than injecting myself with near lethal doses of cocaine to study its potential as an anesthetic as Dr. Edwin Katskee did in 1936, the last one being lethal). The final morning, I eagerly attended a seminar by a well known professor whose papers have greatly influenced the direction of my research. Red faced and glossy eyed, he fought through his twenty minute presentation, only to “fall asleep” immediately after falling back into his chair. Apparently, even some esteemed professors had sought out the San Francisco Animal House Experience.

Aside from the social adventures that take place after hours, the conference itself can be a motivating, fascinating, exciting, stressful, or humiliating experience. Fortunately, I believe I was able to avoid the latter. But sometimes, it feels like it could go either way. Here’s why: As a member of the scientific 99% (the other 1% hogging all of the grant money), science often feels competitive. It shouldn’t, for, as my grant proposals claim, the purpose of the basic science research is to “… (lots of jargon, yada yada yada)… direct the production of pharmacological treatments to combat alcohol use disorders”. So if we’re doing this research for the greater good, then it shouldn’t matter which path is taken to achieve this greater good, right? Well, sort of. Of course we all want to see cures for diseases, and in particular, I would love to see a pharmacological treatment to combat alcohol dependence. But the point is: I want to remain in the game while this goal is being achieved. As a collective scientific team, our goal is to solve real world problems, and no one person can do it on their own. My contribution gives me value to the team, and the bigger the contribution, the greater my value. Value should get you funding. If my contribution is deemed insignificant, at the next opportunity I’ll be pulled out of the game and riding the pine pony.

At this conference, I need to prove my value and convince others that I deserve to be playing. This Alcohol Research conference, particularly an afternoon poster session on the second-to-last day, was the first opportunity for me to show my scientific peers that I deserve to remain in the game. I’ve been preparing for this moment for what feels like years; I began collecting these data around the time Hot Tub Time Machine came out in theaters, to give you an idea. These data were to be part of a unique story that would enhance our understanding of the mechanism by which alcohol disrupts our balance, coordination, and may increase consumption. It was close to being ready for publication, but not quite; I wanted to get others excited about these results (Potential journal editors/reviewers may have been stopping by, this was their first impression!). Here was my chance to finally be sharing my research “story” outside of OHSU, and as the poster session approached, my adrenaline started flowing (consequently causing me to sweat at an unsustainable rate, think Gatorade commercial). Mind you, I have no problems giving an oral presentation, and in fact, most of the time I enjoy the rush of being up in front of my peers trying to subtly convince them to be interested in whatever it is I’m blabbering on about. A poster can be a similar experience, but uniquely, it provides you the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with someone who knows a hell of a lot more than you do and whose own lab’s results may not entirely agree with yours. Be ready for confrontation; I was certainly expecting it in this particular case. Why? People have always believed that alcohol disrupts the normal firing patterns of neurons by inhibiting their activity. That’s not always what I find. I find that alcohol can actually disinhibit cells and this may be just as disruptive to normal brain function. Thus, I observed the opposite of what people expected (the alcohol-induced inhibition of neurons that make up the cerebellum, a brain region controlling balance, is thought to send people stumbling to the ground after a few too many. I’m now saying that this story is partially incorrect). I am close to uncovering the reason for this novel disinihibiting effect of alcohol, which will likely be a paper in itself, but I can’t tell anybody this. See, there’s a certain strategy that must be implemented for a poster session, and knowing that I had to execute this strategy was cranking up the adrenaline gain to 11. The strategy was simple: provide them with enough information so that they find your results a) interesting and b) believable, but not enough so that they can text their high powered lab army with the experiments to scoop you before the buffet at the closing ceremony.

There’s certainly a risk to providing too little information as well. As I’ve said, I’m trying to prove that my contributions are valuable. Thus, I must impress (a good scientist doesn’t necessarily have to be a good salesperson, but it certainly doesn’t hurt). Why? These people are potential collaborators, post-doc mentors, study section members, journal editors. Like the sponsors in the Hunger Games, they matter to you because they can help you get what you want. But your “performance” matters to more than just you. It can impact the way people feel towards your lab, the department, and even OHSU. Will funding committees be less likely to fund a training grant from OHSU because one of its graduate students presented a horrendous poster, thereby undermining the effective training program that OHSU offers? These thoughts run through your head. Impress, don’t disappoint. Tell a convincing story, but leave them wanting more. Be detailed, clear, and concise. Five minutes to describe two years of work (that in itself is quite depressing, but it’s another story). If my story is weak, will they think I just screwed up my experiments or applied the wrong chemicals? Will it undermine my integrity as a scientist? Solution: give them a bit more of the story; if they think I’m misinterpreting data, share more results to bolster the validity of my conclusions. But is this too much now? Am I starting to give away scoopable information? I’m feeling like a middle school boy trying to hold in a secret. It begins.

Two hours of non-stop traffic come to the poster, I suppose a sign of success. My sportcoat covered up the visual signs of fatigue, which I now realize can double as a Sham-Wow. Did I end up giving away more information that I had intended? Yes. Did I care? No. Do I really believe that I’m going to be scooped? Hard to say, it’s happened before. The current funding climate is undoubtedly frightening, but this fear shouldn’t deter the excitement of scientific progress. The intrigue that visually passes over people when they detect exciting data is memorable. Further augmenting those findings with the most recent, hot-off-the-press data that didn’t even make the poster is a great opportunity to say, “Hey, I’ve got this. Let me stay in the game and we all can benefit.” Lab work is often a solo activity and can feel isolating. Sharing data and results connects me to an expansive network of others who chose to spend long hours doing the same. Any fear of getting scooped is only more incentive to keep churning out data and quickly get that paper submitted. These conferences breed motivation and foster social interaction (e.g. alcohol-induced networking). So was it a valuable experience? Absolutely. Looking forward to next year’s conference in Orlando, where my sweating will undoubtedly be far worse.

One response to “Reflections from the Alcohol Research Conference

  1. Welcome to StudentSpeak! great story about attending a conference- I love your description of the joys and also trepidation surrounding presenting your work internationally. Congratulations on proposing a new hypothesis on disinhibition- the most exciting part of science is finding something really novel and then making certain you are right before publishing it.

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