Connecting European Neuroscience

Interview with the chair of the FENS Forum 2018 Programme Committee

The call for proposals for symposia at the FENS FORUM 2018 meeting in Berlin is open (deadline 01 March 2017), so we thought it would be useful to find out, from the chair of the programme committee (Professor Thomas Mrsic-Flogel), what makes a good meeting symposium. Interview by Jane Haley.

1) What subject areas do you feel would currently make interesting and topical symposia?

The possibility to propose symposia is open to all scientists in the world and across disciplines. The FENS Forum 2018, and in particular the collection of selected symposia, should in my mind ideally cover the breadth of current neuroscience research rather than any one or focused range of topics. The inclusion of symposia from across the spectrum of themes and techniques, organised by the leaders in each field – from basic to translational neuroscience is really what I find so special and stimulating about the FENS Forum. 

2) Is it better for a symposium to have a narrow, specialist but in depth, focus, or a broader remit?

Generally speaking, a symposium of 90 minutes with 4 speakers should not aim to cover the entire range of problems across a too large topic but rather focus on an area of particular interest. With 56 symposia across five sessions of eight parallel symposia each, I am convinced that most scientist will find several symposia with relevance to their fields and of interest at any given time and day of the FENS Forum.  My recommendation for proposers is therefore to think out of the box and try to cover a specific area of interest from a new angle. The audience – me included - will often select those symposia that are at the leading edge of their field, bringing emerging discoveries about the brain, rather than recapitulating published findings. 

3) Does FENS have a requirement for gender and geographical spread of speakers in the symposia? If so, how has this influenced the quality and/or diversity of the talks?

Since the FENS Forum in 2014, symposia should include speakers from both genders and from multiple countries and from different organisations. I have no doubt that these initiatives have contributed in a positive manner to the high quality of the science that is discussed at the Forum. I am a firm believer in the value of gender equality and diversity. This not only increases the pool of scientists that are included as speakers in the Forum but also helps our young colleagues identify with relevant role models.

4) FENS actively encourages early-career researcher involvement (as exemplified in the FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence). Are up-and-coming early years researchers encouraged to propose symposia and be selected as symposia speakers?

Let me be quite clear: the gold standard for selecting the symposia for the Forum is quality. The group of FENS-Kavli scholars, as successful early PIs, represents as a group an important segment for the proposers and speakers in a symposium. Fortunately, we see an increased representation of symposia with a mixture of established scientific leaders and upcoming stars. I think this is a wonderful and important development.

5) What other considerations do the programme committee think about when selecting a symposium?

Involving 16 experts from eight disciplines, the work of the programme committee is quite comprehensive. In advance of the PC meting in April, every member of the committee scores all symposia proposals based on their scientific merit. Whereas the scientific quality always as the most important criterion, my ambition for the selection of symposia for the Forum in Berlin is to ensure scientific diversity across topics and inclusion of innovative approaches and new, exciting topics in neuroscience.  

6) What would your ideal symposium look like and who would your dream speakers be (it could be anyone from any decade!)?

For the scientific programme of the FENS Forum in 2018 I hope we will be able to build on the tradition for highly visible, cutting-edge research. This is what attracts attendants. The ideal symposium for me is one where individual talks are more than the sum of the parts, perhaps a synthesis, where new concepts emerge in the mind of the listeners, in the span of 90 minutes. This is often the case when you succeed in planning the symposium in a way that builds in some tension or synergies in the selected topic and among the speakers. When you attend one of these symposia where experts allow themselves to enter in a spirited scientific discussion you really feel invigorated, educated and entertained.  Dream speaker… I think I will keep that to myself.