FENS 2018: an early career researcher’s perspective

Written by Lauriane Nallet-Khosrofian (ETH Zurich, Switzerland)

Last month, the 11th FENS Forum of Neuroscience Conference (7–11 July) took place in Berlin (Germany), which coincided with their 20th anniversary. It was also my first international conference and my first poster presentation.
Like most first-time attendees, I was pretty anxious. I wanted to present a good poster, go to all the interesting talks and meet the other scientists. When the program of the conference was announced, I was overwhelmed. There were so many poster sessions, talks (all occurring at the same time), as well as networking and side events.

My poster session was on the first morning of the conference. I arrived at the opening hour to find my spot and mount my poster. Then, I waited for attendees to arrive. It was really pleasant to be able to present and explain my project to peers and receive their feedback!

Then I was free to explore and attend the different talks and side events. A wide variety of themes were presented, including:

  1. Development
  2. Excitability, synaptic transmission, network function
  3. Disorders of the nervous system
  4. Sensory and motor systems
  5. Sleep, autonomic and neuroendocrine systems
  6. Cognition and behavior
  7. Computational neuroscience
  8. Novel methods and technology development

If you wanted to learn more about a different aspect of neurology, you could easily find something.

As soon as I was free to explore the conference, I attended all the poster sessions. I pushed myself, as an introvert, to talk to the poster presenters, as I know how great it is to be able to talk about your research to others.

Me presenting my poster and wearing my blue neuron scarf from Artologica.

In addition to the scientific posters, an art and a history section was also present. In the art section, there were different artists showcasing scientific-oriented art and wearables. My favorite was from Michele Banks (an artist and neuroscientist from Artologica, WA, USA), who was selling neuronal silk scarves, inked brain paints and colorful neuronal drawings. The history corner would regroup posters about specific events in the history of science, highlighting discoveries and the lives of important scientists.

During lunch and dinner time, ‘special interest’ and networking events provided the most interesting topics. I want to present to you the ones that stood out for me the most:

Dealing with gender bias in neuroscience

On the second day (8 July), a ‘special interest’ event took place on dealing with gender bias in neuroscience. This event was part of the commitment of FENS regarding the advancement of gender equality in science.

The first speaker, Belinda Pletzer (Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Salzburg, Austria), spoke to us about gender roles across evolution. She explained that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who used a separation in sex and labor, which was demonstrated by the different use of their teeth for different types of crafting, is often used to explain sex differences in cognition. However, she explained this dichotomy wasn’t a fixed rule. Hunter-gatherer Neanderthal societies, where everybody would participate in all tasks, were more egalitarian as women needed ‘masculine’ traits and men needed ‘feminine’ traits to participate effectively in all tasks.

Theodore Papazoglou (European Research Council Executive Agency, Brussels, Belgium), discussed the raw numbers and facts of gender bias in higher education. He explained that we observe a gender balance at undergraduate and PhD levels, and then this ratio starts to shift in the higher roles to end with only 20% of women as principal investigators. The numbers are still scary but it is improving, thanks to the different actions for gender balance which are in place at some higher institutions (you might think to look in your university to see if such action is in place).

We should include typical ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits in our work and way of networking.

Corinne Houart (King’s College London, UK), provided advice on mentoring and networking “to get the best out of differences”. She suggested that mentoring programs shouldn’t only be for women to get ‘better’, but for everyone. We should include typical ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits in our work and way of networking. Key questions addressed included: shouldn’t women ask for a promotion more often? Shouldn’t men evaluate and question the path to take before engaging in a stable academic career?

Finally, a discussion panel was organized to discuss the chances and problems linked to a scientific career as a parent, from the perspective of a woman, man and child. The panel comprised Guillermina Lopez-Bendito (FENS Kavli Network of Excellence [FKNE], Instituto de Neurosciencias, Alicante, Spain), Panayiota Poirazi (FKNE, IMBB Heraklion, Greece), Johannes Graeff (FKNE, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) and Eva Kyriacou (UK). They discussed the problems linked to parental leave, life and work balance, how to attend conferences as a parent and the experience of a scientist’s child, the expectation for women to take care of children and the lack of expectation for men to take part in parental duty.

All the gender bias studies being conducted in men and women are not taking into consideration the non-binary, transgender and agender scientists.”

In the Q&A session, the conversation moved toward the lack of discussion about the LGBTQI+ community in academia. All the gender bias studies being conducted in men and women are not taking into consideration the non-binary, transgender and agender scientists. Most likely, the numbers are more striking than those reported. Along this sometimes-heated discussion, we all agreed that we should look only at the scientific work regardless of the gender or ethnicity of the researcher. However, this won’t help to fight the inequality in academia and we should make more effort to be as inclusive and diverse as possible, since diversity is what makes science interesting.

Alternative careers for neuroscientists

On the third day (9 July), another ‘special interest’ event took place on alternative careers. This event was one of the most attended during the conference. The speakers were PhD holders invited to present possible alternative careers.

PhDs are extremely valued in industrial companies for their technical skills and work ethic.

Knut Biber (AbbVie, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany) and Hans Reiner (NPI-Electronic, Munich, Germany) discussed the different roles occupied by PhD holders in multinational and small- and medium-sized companies. PhDs are extremely valued in industrial companies for their technical skills and work ethic. The possible career paths to take in a company are very diverse and can include roles in: sales and marketing, customer support, research and development, publications, teaching, collaboration and participation in scientific projects, etc.

Anna Christa (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bonn, Germany) and Jan Kunze (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin, Germany) explained their roles as program officer and science management in the public sector, respectively. Both work for funding companies and are in charge of informing scientists about funding and grant requirements, supporting the grant reviewing process, finding expert reviewers, communicating the results to the applicant and keeping in contact with the grant holders. Their work also involves taking part in conferences and networking events.

You don’t have to be a native language speaker but you should be fluent in science communication.

Eric Prager (Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Neuroscience Research, John Wiley & Sons, NJ, USA), described to us his work in the publishing sector. His work requires a broad knowledge of the field in order to choose the right article that will fill a gap of knowledge (he explained during his talk that he feels like a detective in this regard). He has to work closely with scientists to provide the best reviewers for each article. You can work at different levels in the publishing sector, including Publisher, Editor, Managing Editor, Copy Editor and more. You don’t have to be a native language speaker but you should be fluent in science communication. He also gave us advice and tips he learned during his career, such as start early, establish a network and use it. Take every opportunity and learn to say yes, learn to sell yourself by developing your own brand and finally, “have faith in yourself and keep your eyes on the prize”.

…PhD holders are looking for alternative careers as they are afraid of the future and the stability of their job.

What does the presence and the popularity of this event mean? On a negative view, we know there are only small number of tenure-track positions compared with the increasing number of PhD holders, the difficulty to obtain grants for research and the ‘publish or perish’ current state of academia. These are the principal reasons for the popularity of this event, as PhD holders are looking for alternative careers as they are afraid of the future and the stability of their job. In a positive view, it was great to hear that a tenured position in academia isn’t the only thing you can do with a PhD. You can still work in, for, and with science, but not on the bench. I like this opening point of view a lot because of the stigma of “quitting academia is betraying science”. It may even be a good solution to reduce the amount of long-term postdocs waiting for a tenure position and the overall anxiety of PhD holders about their future.

Publishing workshop: what happens to your paper when submitted to a journal?

The last ‘special interest’ event I will present concerns the publication process and what publishing companies are looking for in good papers, which occurred on the fourth day (10 July).

Paul Bolam, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Neuroscience (University of Oxford, UK) provided a complete description of what happens after you submit your paper, who works on your paper, and at which step each decision is made, including the average time of each step (approximately 21–60 days in total).

Juan Lerma, Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience (Universidad Miguel Hernández de Elche, Spain), reminded us of the peer-review process and its importance in the control of scientific communication. He explained what makes a good reviewer and examples of good feedback were provided. He gave us advice on how to receive reviewer responses: “Be calm, read the questions. Be calm, re-read the questions. Make someone else read the questions, take a break, then make a table that details every comment and the changes required”. He then advised us on how to respond to reviewers: “Deal with minor comments first, then major comments. Begin drafting a response letter with the Golden Rules: be polite, be thorough and answer with evidence”.

Eric Prager, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neuroscience Research (John Wiley & Sons) pointed out the different problems and mistakes that can result in an article being rejected. For example, when ethical considerations are not respected, conflicts of interest, misleading titles, plagiarism, unclear methods and reproducibility statements, incorrect statistical analysis and manipulated results.

…the myth of the impact factor (there is no correlation between the journal impact factor and the number of citations of its published articles).

John Foxe, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Neuroscience (University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, NY, USA) made a remarkable statement on reproducibility (there are too many scientific studies that are not reproducible) and the myth of the impact factor (there is no correlation between the journal impact factor and the number of citations of its published articles). He suggested that the need for positive results, the obsession with the impact factor and the lack of open science could be the sources of the crisis of trust in scientific results. Could registered reports be a solution? Registered reports divide the review process, where experimental methods and planned analyses are reviewed before the start of the experiments. If the project passes this peer-review, the future article is accepted in principle, regardless if the outcome is ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or significant, as it will still give us precious information on the scientific question. He is fighting to automatize this practice, as well as banishing the use of impact factors, to promote full and open data-sharing.

On this last statement, I couldn’t agree more. I spoke with Foxe on this subject and how it would be even more profitable for PhD students to have a well-prepared and fixed protocol for their project. Certain stability in the procedure would help them secure their work in the time they are allowed for their PhDs. It would probably reduce the loss of time and materials often encountered when an experiment doesn’t produce a positive result and is not published.

Overall, my first international conference was a fantastic experience! I discovered so many things, chatted with so many interesting people about science, gender equality in science, as well as the editorial process and how to improve it. I was so pleasantly surprised to find such important subjects being presented and discussed. I felt that the FENS organizers wanted to see the scientific world going in a more transparent, reproducible and diverse path and I am also advocating for this.

Thank you FENS 2018, see you in 2020 in Glasgow (UK)!

My top five tips for first-time conference attendees:

  1. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes
  2. Prepare your schedule before the conference
  3. People are here to talk to you, including important speakers too, so don’t be scared to speak with them
  4. Twitter is a great tool to network and if the conference provides Twitter ambassadors, follow them!
  5. Talk to people, ask questions and don’t forget to take breaks!

More from FENS 2018:


  1. Neuro Central