This September, I had the opportunity to attend the Bernstein Conference in Goettingen, Germany, through the student/scholar exchange program between the Bernstein and Sloan-Swartz centers.
As being based in the US during my graduate study and my current postdoc appointment, this turns out to be my first conference in Europe. The Bernstein Conference is sometimes referred to as an “European version” of Cosyne, one of the major conferences featuring computational and theoretical neuroscience in the US, which I have been to as well. Indeed, in many aspects, the two conferences are similar, in terms of the general scope of topics, both having a single-thread main conference with short and featured talks, energetic poster sessions, etc. The talks are grouped into sessions with a combination of relative broad (e.g. sensory coding) and focused (e.g. neuroprothetics, probably rotational in years) themes. The attendance from the US, especially students and young researchers, is less than that from across Europe, and the overall number of participants is somewhat smaller. The smaller size, on the other hand, may tend to promote more mixing and socializing, such as having a conference-wide dinner at a nice restaurant. The conference is well organized up to details; for example the food and drinks at the coffee breaks are always quite good.
The quality of the talks are impressive. A quite interesting innovation of the opening lecture features rounds of alternating brief presentations by an experimentalist and a theoretician on a study of self-generated signal cancellation in electric fish (by Larry Abbott and Nathaniel Sawtell). The attendees seem to have broad backgrounds but are also highly curious. The poster I presented studies how signal processing properties of recurrent neural networks change, when connectivity motifs, a form of biologically inspired statistical connectivity structures are incorporated. Personally, I was excited to see a poster relate very closely to one of my ongoing work. I feel like learned a lot from the conference and surely have taken home several concrete thoughts to try in research.
There are also a few satellite activities, such as a PhD student organized discussions on the issue of consciousness and a lecture for public audiences. I especially enjoyed an informal lunch discussions with previous Bernstein Award winners. The award is set to provide a boost of funding to young researchers. The stories and perspectives of these junior investigators are highly relatable, yet distinct. We came to an interesting topic of how to recruit and choose graduate students from a PI’s perspective, which I found surprisingly elucidating to think about for one on the side of being recruited.
P.S. I can’t help to mention that Goettingen is such a lovely town, besides its profound history in mathematics, physics and more.