Monsoon Brain Meeting 2020: Talking about the brain in the rain

Annapoorna P K

The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded our need for virtual meeting platforms and pushed conference organisers to innovate to ensure that scientific networking continues to flourish in these troubled times. The Monsoon Brain Meeting 2020, held in June 2020, aimed to embrace the virtual format and use it to facilitate discussions on and around neuroscience, as reported here by Annapoorna, one of the attendees of the meeting. 

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The Monsoon Brain Meeting (MBM) 2020, an exclusively virtual neuroscience meeting, was held from 24 to 26 June 2020. It was organised by Arjun Ramakrishnan, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur and Venkatakrishnan Ramaswamy, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, Hyderabad and funded by DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance and Pratiksha Trust. The conference included 16 talks by invited speakers from India and abroad and 140 short talks, covering broad topics in neuroscience. In a special session called Career Spotlights’, 15 postdoctoral researchers presented their work in order to be considered for faculty positions in India. 

In addition to these, there were four panel discussions. A panel called An India Brain Project?’ was moderated by Upinder Bhalla, National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS), Bengaluru. The panellists discussed the possibility of a major collaboration to utilize the varied expertise of neuroscientists across the nation to better understand different aspects of brain function and dysfunction. The panel laid special emphasis on having regular meetings and presentations with greater involvement of students and young researchers to promote collaborations. Another panel, Neuroscience Careers’, moderated by Ramakrishnan and including panellists from various scientific professions, discussed some of the career paths that a neuroscientist can embark on. Apart from a research career, the panellists provided perspectives on other less traversed paths, including technology, management, education and advisory roles. 

The other two panels dealt with topics of societal relevance. One of them, Women and Trans persons in Neuroscience’, was moderated by Vidita Vaidya, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and had panellists representing different age groups and gender identities. The panellists discussed how most people with a gender identity other than cisgender male face some kind of discrimination or prejudice. The panel members shared their experiences and highlighted the fact that the onus is on each of us to call out or raise our voices against discrimination in our circles and places of work. 

A panel called Science for All and All for Science’, hosted by Bittu K Rajaraman, Ashoka University, Sonipat, discussed better inclusion and support of diverse groups in neuroscience irrespective of gender, ethnicity, economic or social background. The panellists included Angela Saini, Science Journalist and Author; Abha Sur, Scientist, Historian, Author and Lecturer in Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Sonajharia Minz, Vice-Chancellor, Sido Kanhu Murmu University, Jharkhand. The panellists talked about their respective initiatives in raising awareness and fighting discrimination against minority groups. They agreed that going ahead, Indian academia needs a radical change in thought and system to be more inclusive and supportive. 

Panels that address such topics are very important and Indian academia needs them, which made me really happy to be a part of the organising team,” said Aastha Sharma, one of the student organisers. 

The final session of the meet was a talk titled Growing up in Science’ by K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor, Government of India, in which he spoke about his journey leading up to a career in science. There were also a couple of contests for the artists and writers in the neuroscience community. The winner of the NeuroArt contest was Karthik Krishnamurthy, Thomas Jefferson University, USA. The NeuroFiction contest had two winners, Samatha Mathew, CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, Delhi and Sidra Yaqoob, Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School. 

The entire conference was open for all with no registration fee and had almost 800 participants, several of whom are young researchers and undergraduate students. Despite being online, due to the user-friendly interface of Crowdcast, there was immense interaction among the attendees over the chatbox. The hosts also ensured that the participants engaged with the speakers. The participants could ask questions by typing into a Questions’ tab on-screen and the moderators invited some of them over video so that they could interact with the speakers face to face. 

I was overjoyed by the turnout, participation, high quality of talks and panels, and the fun the attendees had interacting with one another and the speakers. Overall a win-win for neuroscience and the community!” said Ramakrishnan.

Several people contributed towards making the meeting a success. As Ramaswamy said, We received a great deal of generous help from everyone we asked, the funding agencies, the invited speakers and panellists and all the student volunteers.” The hope is that MBM will set an example for more such meets in the future, which will keep science and enthusiasm alive even in tough times. Many have volunteered to help us organise such events because they are greedy for more. It would be great to enable more such meetings,” said Ramakrishnan. 

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