By Matt Carey
IMFAR has come and gone. Thanks to the generosity of the Autism Science Foundation, I was able to attend with a stakeholder travel grant. Since the ASF has this program, I thought it would be good to describe my experiences for future stakeholder newcomers who may go to IMFAR. The short version: it’s overwhelming. In a good way.
My own experiences may be different from many people who might go to IMFAR on a stakeholder grant. First, I am used to scientific conferences. I’ve attended and presented at many in my own field. Also, I was not only observing. I was attending press events as I was writing about IMFAR for here at ASF and the Left Brain/Right Brain blog. Lastly, I had a poster presentation to give. But I still think it’s valuable to give some idea of what to expect for future stakeholder attendees.
First, consider the structure of the conference. You can get an idea by looking through the program book. Most of the time there are three talks going on, in three different rooms, plus poster sessions. Most of the talks are 15 minutes. That’s 15 minutes for the speaker to set up, talk and answer questions. They go by fast and the researchers don’t have a lot of time to give much background. It’s impossible to see everything. It’s also very easy to saturate, to feel that you’ve just seen all the information you can handle.
So, what tips would I give someone attending IMFAR for the first time? The first answer is easy: look for the talks on subjects that really interest you. For example, if you are interested in issues related to adults or in the causes of autism, check the program for sessions and talks on those topics.
Given how busy the daily schedule is, it’s great that IMFAR starts out each day with a single session. This is held in a room big enough for all 2,000 attendees. These include introductory talks, special speakers and the keynote talks. This year Tom Insel, director of NIMH and chair of the IACC, Autism Speaks and the Simons Foundation gave morning talks. Keynote speakers were Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., Ricardo Dolmetsch, Ph.D. and Professor Annette Dionne Karmiloff-Smith. These morning sessions are great since the speakers have the goal of speaking out to the general audience, and they have the time to do it. Instead of 15 minutes for a regular talk, keynote speakers have 1 full hour to speak.
Another set of talks to look out for are the Invited Educational Symposia. These are talks on subjects and by speakers the conference organizers specifically wanted to emphasize. These talks are 30 minutes long, giving the speakers the chance to give much more background and go more in depth. I attended one on Characterizing Cognition In Nonverbal Individuals with Autism: Innovative Assessment and Treatment, which was excellent. My only regret is that I left before the last talk, CCNIA Intervention: Spoken and Augmented Means of Communication, so I could watch some speakers in another session. And that’s the frustration of such a conference: you can’t see everything. If you are an optimizer like me, that makes it tough as you want to make sure to maximize every opportunity. The flip side of this is that you are likely to find something good at any time, in a poster, talk or talking to people in the halls.
I really like poster sessions. Where the oral presentations are fast paced, poster sessions give you the chance to go over the research 1:1 with the researcher. If you haven’t been to a conference like this, here is a picture of ASF Post Doctoral Fellow Dr. Jill Locke from the University of Pennsylvania presenting her poster to give you an idea of what this is like:
Poster sessions are scheduled for up to 4 1/2 hours, but each speaker is only required to be in front of his/her poster for an hour. So if you come outside the scheduled time you will be able to read the poster but you may not be able to speak with the researcher. But the upside for posters is that they can be more interactive than a talk. The people from TeachTown had a computer demonstration available, for example. The big advantage to posters is the chance to speak directly with the researcher about the work. One particular interest of mine is research outside of the U.S. and Europe. As an example of this, I spent a good time speaking with a researcher from Tsukuba. Since his work was a poster, I had the chance to ask more general questions about research in Japan than would have been possible in an oral presentation.
There is a saying that most of the important exchange of information at a scientific conference happens in the hallways. Outside of the lecture rooms people can talk more at length and about differing subjects. Where I had planned on arranging formal interviews with researchers, I instead found myself walking the halls with people and asking questions. I found the researchers at IMFAR to be very open to talking. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is as friendly in person as he appears from videos of IACC meetings. Eric Courchesne is self described as “genetically predisposed to have a good disposition” and seemed to always have a smile on his face and an enthusiasm for research his team and the others were doing. One warning, if you want to walk the halls with Dr. Courchesne, be ready to walk fast. He’s a guy on the go. Antonio Hardan of Stanford and David Mandell of U. Penn were also very open and friendly people. Sometimes people are busy networking or getting somewhere they need to be, but I found so pretty much anyone I approached was willing to talk. I don’t know if it helps, but I told a lot of people, “thank you” for the work they are doing.
IMFAR held a “Stakeholder Network Luncheon” on Friday. This was a great chance to meet other stakeholders as well as to hear more about the conference. We were treated to short talks from speakers including John Robison, Peter Bell, and Ricardo Dolmetsch. I met fellow ASF stakeholder grantees M.C. McGrath, Mark Fornefeld and Max Rolison.
It’s important to take some time to enjoy one’s self at a conference. It helps to counter the overwhelming feeling of the flood of information. IMFAR had coffee and bagels every morning before sessions started. A great chance to chat, or collect your thoughts before the day starts. One day, in the press room, I heard that some of the people from Autism the Musical were at the hotel. Somehow I didn’t put it together that they were the surprise entertainment at that night’s reception. It was a very cool event. I hope to see video of it on Wrong Planet’s YouTube channel sometime soon.
Sometimes the best things happen serendipitously. After the press conference, a group formed in the press room and eventually spent a long time talking in the bar. This group included John Robison (author of Look me in the eye), Alex Plank (of WrongPlanet.net) and the team he had filming the conference, fellow writer and ASF stakeholder travel grantee Shannon Des Roches Rosa, science writer Steve Silberman and Stephen Shore (professor at Aldephi, author and IACC member). The conversation was lively. At one point I wish it were more quiet so I could have heard more of Stephen jamming away on Shannon’s iPad’s piano app.
Some of my best times at the conference was spent Saturday, outside of the talks, just sitting down talking to Mark Fornefeld and later having lunch with M.C. McGrath, both ASF stakeholder travel grantees.
Of course, it was great to meet the ASF team who were there: Alison Singer, Jonathan Carter, Dawn Crawford and Max Rolison. Alison has put together a good team.
I planned to write more about the conference as it was going on. As with many battle plans, this one didn’t survive first contact. I will write more about the science at IMFAR in the next article. For now, though, I thought getting the impressions of IMFAR would be good. It wan’t just amazing science, it was an amazing experience.