In its 50 years, the Society for Neuroscience has become an international society representing the interests of scientists from diverse backgrounds across the globe.
In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Mickey Goldberg, David Mahoney Professor of Brain and Behavior at Columbia University, and a past president of the Society for Neuroscience, describes how the Society and meeting have evolved, including through the digitization of abstract submissions.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
Alongside his scientific background and time as SfN president, Goldberg also offers a look at his involvement with science outreach and the importance of outreach to building public trust in science.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
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SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode we speak with Dr. Mickey Goldberg, David Mahoney Professor of Brain and Behavior at Columbia University, and past president of the Society for Neuroscience. In addition to being past president, Dr. Goldberg is also a member of the Committee on Committees and the Nominating Committee as well as chair of the Next Generation Award and Science Education Award Selection Committees.
Taylor Johnson, SfN's multimedia manager, talks with Dr. Goldberg over phone about the digitization of abstract submissions, his time as SfN president, and his involvement with science outreach.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E dot org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Swanson. Hi, my name's Taylor Johnson, and today we will be discussing annual meeting and the developments and the accomplishments of the Society for Neuroscience specifically for animals in research, outreach and advocacy, and abstract digitization. Joining me today is Dr. Michael E. Goldberg. He's a professor and director of the Mahoney Center for the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Goldberg, welcome.
GOLDBERG: Thank you.
JOHNSON: It's really great to have you here today. Before we get into the topics of the Society and what I described, I was wondering if you could give us a bit of a primer of your academic background and the subsequent core research that you focused on.
GOLDBERG: Sure. I went to Harvard College, graduated in 1963, and in that time, there was nothing about the brain at Harvard College. Psychology was all Skinner, the brain being the black box, and the most exciting thing was molecular biology. It was great. Marshall Nirenberg had put polyuridylic acid into a protein synthesis cell-free system and come out with polyphenylalanine. There really was a genetic code. It was unbelievably exciting.
So I went to graduate school, and I was interested in seeing if the mammalian cells behaved like bacteria in those particular exciting ways. I was a graduate student at Rockefeller, and it was a total disaster. I discovered two things. One was that I could pipette with a piston distribution, and the other was I could kill cultures from an adjacent room.
I decided to go to medical school because doctors make critical decisions on inadequate data. I was never going to go near a lab again as long as I lived. The first year at Harvard Medical School, the last six weeks were all neuroscience all the time. The course was organized by Stephen Kuchler, and among the instructors were David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, both of whom are going to become presidents of the Society for Neuroscience, but that was actually before the existence of the Society for Neuroscience. So I was just entranced. I asked David if he would organize some tutorial the following year and he said yes, so he did. Then I hung around his lab a bit, and tried to see if there were Pfeiffer detection in cats and out of sensory neurons and found one. It was very exciting.
There was a war in Vietnam, and every physician with a Y chromosome owed the government two years, unless you were 6'6" or taller, so Michael Crichton who was the year behind us in medical school was too big to be drafted. My side of the Gaussian distribution, however, was not. A few lucky ones of us were able not to go into the armed forces, but to go into the public health service and work at places like the NIH.
So I asked David if he would write a letter to Ed Evarts, who had figured out how to record the activity of single neurons in awake, behaving monkeys on my behalf. I got a letter back from Ed saying he didn't have any space in his lab, but he passed my letter on to Bob Wertz. Now, Bob Wertz at that time too was going to become a president of the Society for Neuroscience. He had discovered that he could record the activity of usual neurons in awake, behaving monkeys by training them to hold their eyes to them. He also realized that you could ask cognitive questions with a microelectrode, and he invited me to be his first postdoc as a staff associate. So instead of going to Vietnam, I went to Bethesda as a yellow beret and spent three years with Bob. We published four papers on the superior colliculus, discovered neurons had discharged before eye movements, discovered that visual neurons are the superficial layers, had an intentional signal as well as a visual signal. It was really exciting.
But I always liked being the doctor, and so I went back to Boston and did a neurology residency at the Harvard Longwood Program, and then went back down to Bethesda, where I spent the next 27 years of my life. I moved to Columbia in 2001, and I've been here ever since. The things that I've worked on have been attention and spatial perception, and now a whole new barrier, which is visual-motor association in the cerebellum. Life is good.
JOHNSON: That's good to hear, and obviously what you talked about earlier when you started out, that will come into play in some of the discussions that we'll have regarding NIH and regarding advocacy and animals in research. Before we get there, let's switch it to your beginnings at the Society. As far as I know, that was around the same time you started at NIH, so you joined the Society in 1971 via Dr. Peter Strick. Is that correct?
GOLDBERG: It was either Peter or Mahlon DeLong. They were both working for Ed Evarts, who was heavily involved in the early years of the society. He too was one of the early presidents. He said, "Hey, do you want to join the Society for Neuroscience?" And we said, "What?" And he said, "We think that the TESS meeting with 10,000 people in Atlantic City is too big, and furthermore neuroscience is intradisciplinary, so we are forming a new society." Ed Perl … and Ed Evarts were instrumental in starting the Society.
The idea was, first of all, it would be smaller than the TESS meetings which were about 10,000 people then. And second of all, rather than having disciplinary meetings like the American Society for Physiology on the Anatomy Society, SfN would take everything that would take all of these different disciplines and get together people who were working on neuroscientific issues using those different disciplines. So the idea of forming an interdisciplinary neuroscience society was spectacular. The first meeting was in Washington, DC in, I guess it was, 1971, and Bob and I went, and it was really, really wonderful.
JOHNSON: Do you have any stories from that first meeting that you remember in particular?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, there were some people talking about superior colliculus, but not us. We were sort of wondering who had organized that, but we hadn't published our big papers then, just abstracts. It was a small meeting. It was in a hotel called the Shoreham in Washington. It was nothing like what it was going to become.
JOHNSON: Right, so when you first joined, and I guess your membership number was, I'm looking at this here, 1768. Is that correct?
GOLDBERG: That's right.
JOHNSON: So I guess it was, when you started at the meeting it was a real sort of fertile time, and a lot of potential. In terms of your then-involvement with the Society, I know that you got onto the Program Committee. When did you start getting involved with SfN as part of the Program Committee?
GOLDBERG: Well, it was actually before that. Physicians have to do continuing medical education. I was working in a research lab, and I was doing a little bit of attending in neurology at Georgetown, but I didn't have to go to both neuroscience meetings and to clinical neurology meetings to get continuing medical education. So I said to myself the Society for Neuroscience ought to give CME, continuing medical education. I went to Torsten who was president at the time and said, "Hey, Torsten, how about organizing CME for the society?" And he said, "Make it so."
So I went to Georgetown University where I had an affiliation and talked to the CME people there, and they agreed to offer to underwrite CME for the Society for Neuroscience at least as a start, so I organized that and we were able to offer continuing medical education for physicians as a part of the meeting. Then we became CME providers on our own going through the certifying board for continuing medical education. I did it through that for a couple of years.
They wanted me to be on the Education Committee, and I said okay, and when I got off the Education Committee, Bob was past president and asked me if I wanted to be on the Program Committee, and I said, "Sure," and so I got onto the Program Committee. We had to sort abstracts. Now in those days, the abstracts were paper, and so you would write a camera-ready abstract without blemishes or smudges and mail it in to the Society for Neuroscience.
Then someone in the office would distribute the abstracts according to their topics to people on the Program Committee, and then we would sort the abstracts. So a box of 500 abstracts came in the mail, or actually I guess it was FedEx, and I commandeered the Goldberg living room for two days spreading abstracts on the floor, putting them into piles to make them into program or poster sessions, and then I shipped the piles and the session summaries back to the Society.
Then the Society, to make the abstract books, would actually photograph them. This was incredibly cumbersome, but not only was it cumbersome—
JOHNSON: That sounds exhausting.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, right. The books were beginning to resemble telephone books, because there were so many abstracts. We have what, 25,000 abstracts? I think we were up to 10,000 by then. So search became a problem. And Harvey Karten and I were on the Program Committee and we said, "You know, maybe we should come into the 20th century and have electronic abstracts," so we convinced the Society to try it. We fund a vendor who had done abstracts for a 3,000-abstract meeting, but not for a 10,000-abstract meeting. We did a one-year contract with him, and we then said, okay, members had two options, that they would do it, they could send in paper abstracts or they could send in electronic abstracts, and the Society would key in the paper abstracts, or get some contractor to do that.
So the first year, we had about half and half, there were members of the Society for Neuroscience who preferred dead trees to iron oxide, and soon people realized that... then we had this CD that would replace, if you wanted it, the two telephone books. Now, the thing that I was most worried about was that everybody submit their abstracts at 4:55 p.m. on the due date and that would swamp the system.
The vendor said, "Oh, absolutely not. We have unbelievable bandwidth. It's not going to be a problem." And the system crashed.
JOHNSON: Famous last words.
GOLDBERG: Right. Famous last words. So the system crashed. But it came back up, and people were marginally happy, and it got better and better and better. Then the Society decided to do away with CDs and have online abstracts, and ultimately an iPhone or Android app for the abstracts. So now, the Society for Neuroscience is absolutely electronic.
Now, even before that, Bernice Grafstein, when she was president said, "You know, it would be really nice to have an itinerary planner so you could decide where you were going to go, and what you were going to do," and so that occurred a couple of years before the first CD volume. So they would enter this program, but without abstracts, just titles. You could go and mark out the times if you wanted to go, or the talks you wanted to hear, and then have your phone or on your computer that you could subsequently print out an itinerary. So the abstract volume always incorporated the itinerary planner, Bernice Grafstein's itinerary planner, into the abstract volume. So it was both an itinerary planner and an abstract volume with abstracts. You could print out your itinerary. You could attach abstracts to it. It was very convenient. You would make your own program book.
JOHNSON: This was around the mid-'80s when Dr. Grafstein was president?
GOLDBERG: That's when the itinerary planners started, but I would suspect that the CDs started after that.
GOLDBERG: And electronic submissions started after that.
JOHNSON: Really all the digitization of the abstracts, that really started with you, so you're responsible for saving quite a few trees, I guess.
GOLDBERG: Yes, absolutely. Well, Harvey Karten and I sort of got the idea simultaneously, and I carried the ball. The early years were horrendous working with vendors who didn't know what they were doing, and there were heroes on my committee, Rick Huganir and Bernice were just invaluable.
JOHNSON: I'd read that this was part of an ad hoc committee called Electronic Initiatives. Did that kind of come out of the Program Committee specifically for this project?
GOLDBERG: Yes, yes, and I was chair of that committee.
JOHNSON: Now, do you feel that the Society was with the times, ahead, or behind the times when it came to digitizing abstracts, or kind of going to an electronic database?
GOLDBERG: I think we were a bit ahead. I mean, there were some societies that were doing it, but not the huge societies. There was no vendor when we started who knew how to do a Society as big as ours.
JOHNSON: So besides saving trees, you were creating jobs too. How kind of you.
GOLDBERG: Well, you know, there are also all those ax men out of jobs.
JOHNSON: This is true.
GOLDBERG: And the people who made the telephone books. I suspect that in terms of human labor, we significantly lessened it.
JOHNSON: Well they all went and started learning computers. They switched.
JOHNSON: So all of this work, I guess, with the Program Committee and Electronic Initiatives, so following that you became treasurer. Is that correct?
JOHNSON: And through all this committee work that eventually led to your being president, president-elect in 2008, president during 2009 to 2010, how did all that committee work prepare you for that, and what was it like leading up to that point?
GOLDBERG: Well, it helped me understand the Byzantine ways of the Society for Neuroscience. You know, first of all the Society for Neuroscience is successful for several reasons. The most important reason for its success is the staff. The staff does all the work, and they do it well, spectacularly well. So when some member of the voluntarily leadership council or officers get some bright idea and Council decides to actually do that, the work is done by the staff. And it works. Even when we were groping our way to do the first year of electronic submissions, the staff was absolutely invaluable. I can't emphasize too much how important the staff is of the Society.
JOHNSON: That's very kind of you. In terms of leading up to your presidency, after Program Committee and Electronic Initiatives and then treasurer, so when you got to be president, what was that like for you? Was it like sort of looking back in terms of when you first joined the Society and then being the president? How did that sort of change your focus or influence your focus when you were president?
GOLDBERG: Well, so I had a number of interests. The first interest was not my idea, and it works in a number of different ways. We got emails that say, "Contact your congressman." When Arlen Specter had said, "One of the ways we can stimulate the economy" — this is in the crash of 2008 — "one of the ways that we can stimulate the economy is by getting $2 billion for the NIH added on to the budget." And the Society managed to get 10,000 letters to Congress on that issue.
So advocacy is very important. Hill Day, going down to Washington, talking to your congressman. So I actually met Carolyn Maloney. She said, "The only thing I'm interested in Parkinson's disease, in terms of medicine, is Parkinson's disease because my father has it, and breast cancer." She said, "What does the brain have to do with breast cancer?" Since I'm a neurologist I was able to answer her question, but it's that kind of interaction between scientists and politicians that's critically important. And the Society does that very well.
Okay, so Helmut Kettenmann, who was the president of FENS at that time said, "Why are we giving you guys all this money for your own politics?" And so we had a meeting in Berlin with Carol Barnes and me, and Marty Saggese from the Society for Neuroscience, and other people from FENS, and we decided that we would help them organize their own advocacy, and so we had workshops and people learned about it. Now they are successfully doing advocacy in their own countries and in Europe. So that was one major issue of mine.
JOHNSON: Now obviously you know, from what you're talking about, it's all about sort of outreach and advocacy, sort of educating politicians, educating the public and institutions, and I know that you spoke in front of the House of Representatives.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, I talked about the NIH budget. I was a member of a panel for biomedical research, most of whom were small advocacy organizations, like RIPS or like Gastric Cancer Services. There was a Hill staffer whose husband had died at a frightfully young age of gastric cancer, and there was also the Ophthalmological Society, and their president said how important ophthalmology was in the advances in curing cataracts and retinol disease, how wonderful it was and how it needed research.
I decided to take a different tact. I said, "This is a society for neuroscience. We are looking at brain mechanisms from chemistry and development to behavior. We all know that there are immense brain problems, like psychiatric disease and depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's, and I'm going to take that as a given. What I want Congress to understand is that I'm a steward of a small business. My laboratory depends on NIH money, and 85% of my money goes for salaries, so the NIH grants that I get pay for John, my machinist, and Latoya, my administrator, and Glen, my electronics guy. Money given to the NIH goes into the community and the estimate is there's more than two dollars of money generated from every dollar of NIH money, because John the machinist is going to go to the store and buy stuff. His money comes from the NIH."
JOHNSON: What other changes have you seen sort of over the past 50 years with the Society?
GOLDBERG: Well, I mean, there are a whole bunch of things that the Society is doing now that it didn't do when I joined. One critical thing is professional development, and so the Society served as a resource for professional development from the undergraduate students deciding whether or not they want to be neuroscientists when they grow up. What happened when we decide to shut down our labs? What can we do? And so there's this professional development resource that the Society has.
The other thing is that the meetings are really well organized into themes and topics, so it's in a way that originally they weren't. So you have these... The other thing is that the society has a large number of awards that it can use to honor scientists, again, at all levels, so you have young investigator awards, and senior investigator awards that sort of help to illustrate that if you do good science, people appreciate that.
There's also the journal. The Society has two journals now, the Journal of Neuroscience. It's very successful, and it's a good journal. All this stuff is sort of grown organically since the Society was 1,000 people going to the Shoreham.
JOHNSON: Well, you have a pretty good viewpoint on that because you're currently on the Committee on Committees. Is that correct?
GOLDBERG: That's correct.
JOHNSON: You get to see it all.
GOLDBERG: I was punished for being president by being chair of the Committee on Animal Research for three years. Then I was let off of that one. Now I'm on the Committee on Committees.
JOHNSON: So from that vantage point, in terms of animals in research, advocacy, outreach, or really anything, what do you think the biggest challenges are for the Society now? What are they facing, and what do they need to do more of in the future?
GOLDBERG: I think that there is in this country a questioning and mistrust of science, certainly stemming from the administration and the Republican disbelief in anthropogenic climate change. So if scientists are crazy and wrong about climate change, maybe they're wrong about everything else. So what we have to do is maintain understanding into the validity of science — that science, and the idea that the way science progresses is something that the general public has to understand, in fact science tends to increase the evidence for certain viewpoints, and that the role of a scientist is to find evidence and to use that evidence to create a postulate of the way things really are.
That's very difficult for someone who isn't a scientist to understand. You know, George Washington was president of the United States. There's no way that's not true, but for many years scientists said that the sun rotated around the Earth, and it took evidence to change that point of view. The same is true of evolution. The same is true of vaccination. The general public, or much of the general public takes two points that are not in agreement with scientific consensus, because they're saying, "Well, scientific consensus is wrong," and we have to get people to understand the evidence that underlies that consensus.
JOHNSON: What can the Society specifically do in this case, or what does it need to really focus on to help out this situation?
GOLDBERG: It does by reaching out to the general public, so BrainFacts.org, for example. Want to learn about neuroscience? Go look at that website. That website will tell you the state of the art in an understandable way for questions that you might be interested in. So the idea that the Society supports things like the brain bees and supports going out into the community to educate the community, to have brain research days. There's Brain Awareness Week, where lots of members of the Society for Neuroscience and the local chapters go out into the schools to say how important science is.
We know for neuroscience, the idea that you gather evidence to find out what's true is something that the country needs, because all those people don't believe in evolution or don't want to vaccinate their kids, or think that... And so that's what I think is this outreach role that's critically important to the Society that wasn't there when the Society started. It grew organically as the Society realized what the problems were.
So the outreach is problem number one, and funding is problem number two. So if you're funding at less than 25%, you're going to miss a lot of great stuff. And worse, you're even going to discourage young scientists from doing science.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Well, I think we're at sort of a good point. Maybe to sort of wrap it up, I actually... Maybe on a lighter note, I do have a burning question for you, and I've read that you are into Burning Man, and I was curious how that happened.
GOLDBERG: Yes. Well in 2001, I was moving from the NIH to Columbia, and we sold our house on my 60th birthday, and our Columbia apartment was not to be ready for three or four weeks, and so we were homeless. My son said, "You guys really ought to come to Burning Man. You would have a great time." It's an honor to play with your children when they're grown up, so we said yes and we rented an RV and we went to Black Rock City, Nevada as medical volunteers, because my wife and I are both physicians. We can't practice medicine in Nevada. We don't have licenses, but we can act as first responders. Defining medicine as prescribing prescription drugs, and anything that involves the interaction of steel and flesh, sewing up a wound, giving injections, those things we couldn't do.
But for example, most common cause of migraine headaches at Burning Man is caffeine withdrawal. So after I learned that, I used to come with a case of Red Bull to provide—
JOHNSON: Providing wings to people.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, right. If you're addicted to caffeine as am I, you get this horrendous migraine when you're decaffeinated. So it was that sort of thing. A young woman who came up and said, "I'm on Coumadin and I take ecstasy." The first question was, "Why are you on Coumadin?" Because she had a chronic disease. Is ecstasy likely or unlikely to interfere with Coumadin, which is very sensitive? Coumadin is an anticoagulant. The answer turns out to be no, it's not, but I didn't know, so I said, "I don't know, therefore no." And my wife, the physician, said, "Maybe we ought to do a study."
Anyway, so Debbie and I went to Burning Man from 2001 to 2009, and then again in 2011. We realized that our schedule is too complicated this year during Burning Man. So it's...
JOHNSON: That's cool. That's really cool. I have yet to go, but you make me want to go and be a purveyor of caffeine. That's smart.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, it's a gift community. You don't buy anything there, except for membership, I mean, except for admission. But it is fun. The only thing is you have to be in a very good psychological space to go there. Over and over again we would see people who went there hoping to recover from a recent breakup or some other trauma, and it made everything worse.
JOHNSON: Thanks for taking your time.
GOLDBERG: You're welcome.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.