Bon Voyage – Neuroconscience goes to Cambridge! A Retrospective and Thank You.

Today is a big day – I’m moving to Cambridge! After nearly five years of living in London, it’s finally time for me to move on to green pastures. It’s hard to believe really. I first came to London nearly fifteen years ago on a high school trip. It was love at first sight. I knew that somehow, someday, I would live here. As a Bermudian immigrant living in Florida, to me London was the centre of the world. The bustling big city, but unlike many in the US, one rich in a thousand years of history and culture. And although I didn’t know it then, my eventual career in neuroscience would draw me towards this great city like a moth to the flame.

I still remember like it was yesterday; my first internship in a neuroimaging lab at the University of Central Florida. Graduate students pouring over some strange software called “SPM” to produce colorful brain maps, accompanied by an arcane tome of the same name. Although I knew already then that I wanted to do cognitive neuroimaging, SPM and the eponymously named Functional Imaging Laboratory (FIL) were just names on a book at the time. Later however, when I joined the Interacting Minds Group at Aarhus University, SPM and the FIL were everywhere. Most of our PIs had undertook their formative training in the centre; we even had our own Friday project presentations modelled exactly on the original item. Every single desk had a copy of the SPM textbook. To me London, the FIL, and the brilliant people working there represented an unchallenged mecca of neuroimaging methods. I set my sights on a postdoc in Queen Square.

Yet, even halfway through my PhD, I wasn’t sure how or even if I’d manage to realize my dream. During my PhD I visited the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN) and applied to several labs unsuccessfully. All the excitement and energy of the London Neuroscience scene seemed only there to tease me; as if to say an upstart boy from Alabama vis-à-vis Bermuda could only taste what was on offer, but never possess it. Finally, something broke; Geraint Rees, then ICN director, took an interest in my work on embodiment and perception, and invited me to apply for jaw-dropping 4-years of postdoc, based between the FIL and ICN. I was elated to apply, and even more so to get it. Breathlessly I told my friends and family back home – this was it, my big break in the big city. And I wasn’t just headed to London, but to that seemingly mythic centre from which so much of my interests – brain imaging, predictive processing, and clever experimental design– seemed to stem. As far as I was concerned, this was my big chance on Broadway, and I told anyone who would listen.

Of course, in the end reality is never quite the same as expectation. I’ll never quite forget my shock at my first day on the job. During my induction, I was giddy as Marcia Bennett led me around and the centre, explaining various protocol and introducing me to other fellows. But then she took me down to the basement office; a sterile, open plan room with more than twenty desks, no real windows, and at least 10 or more active researchers all working in close proximity. As she left me at my desk, I worried that perhaps I’d made a mistake. My offices in Denmark had been luxurious, often empty, and with a stunning view of the city. Now I was to sit in a basement, crammed besides what seemed then like a factory line of postdocs, every day for four years? On top of that, I quickly learned that commuting one hour every day on the tube is far from fun, once the novelty wears off. Nevertheless, I set to my work. And in time, as I adjusted to living in a big city and working in a big centre, I came to find that London, UCL, and Queen Square would capture my mind and my heart in ways I could have never imagined.

Now as I look back, it’s difficult to believe so much has come to pass. I’ve lived in my dream city for the past five years; I’ve gone to bohemian art shows, sipped with brewers at hipster beer festivals, visited ornate science societies, and grew a massive beard. I’ve ended up at crazy nightclubs at early hours; I’ve witnessed major developments in cognitive neuroscience, and I started a neuroscience sport climbing club. Like an extremophile sucking off some nutrient rich deep-sea volcanic vent, I’ve inhaled every bit of exciting new methods, ideas, and energy that comes through the amazing and overwhelming world that is London Neuroscience. I’ve made friends, and I’ve made mistakes. I’ve had major victories, and also major losses. And through it all, I’ve been supported by some of the most brilliant and helpful friends, colleagues, and mentors anyone could ever possibly ask for.

Of course, London is many things to many people, but perhaps it is home to the fewest of all. So many times I asked myself; am I a Londoner? Will this city ever be my home, or is it just one great side-show on the great journey of life. In the end, I still don’t know the answer. I’m a nomad, and I’ve lived in London for as long as I’ve lived anywhere else in the world. It will always be a part of me, and I will always be grateful for the gifts she has given me. I leave London a better person, and a better neuroscientist. And who knows… maybe someday I’ll return (… although hopefully at a higher pay-grade!).

Where do you go after living in your dream city and working at your dream job? To Cambridge! I’m on my way today to a new flat, a new job, a new mentor, and a new centre. If my mother could see me now, i’m sure she’d never believe her baby boy made it so far away from sweet home Alabama. And London won’t be far away; indeed, for some months I’ll be returning each week to carry on collaborations as I transition between jobs. And as Karl says; once you’ve been at the FIL, you never really leave. The FIL is many things, but most of all it is a family of people bonded by a desire to do really kick-ass cognitive neuroscience. So as I go on to Cambridge and whatever lies beyond, I know I will always carry with me my training, my friends, and my amazing colleagues.

And the future is bright indeed! This post is already too long; but let it suffice as a teaser when I say that my upcoming projects will be some of the most exciting work I have ever done. I’m leaving the FIL armed with a shiny new model of my own make and a suite of experimental questions that I am eager to answer. Together with Professor Paul Fletcher and the amazing colleagues of the new MRC/Wellcome Translational Research Facility and Cambridge Psychiatry Department, I will have access to unique patient groups not found anywhere else in the world, the latest methods in pharmacological neuroimaging, and a team of amazing collaborators accelerating our research. By applying the methods and models I’ve developed in London in this setting, I will have the chance to push our understanding of interoception, metacognition, and embodied self-inference to newfound heights. If London was my Broadway, then Cambridge shall be the launchpad for my world tour.

So stay tuned! If I learned one thing in the past half-decade, it’s that I need to return to blogging. Now that I’ve finally recaptured my voice, and am headed forward on another amazing research adventure, it’s more important than ever to communicate to you, my beloved hive mind, what exciting new developments are on the horizon. In the near future I will outline some of the exciting new directions my research will be taking at Cambridge, where we will use a variety of methods to probe brain-body interaction and it’s disruption in psychiatric and health-harming behaviours.

And now for some much needed thanks. Thanks to my beautiful and brilliant wife Francesca – whose incredible research inspires me daily – for her unwavering and unconditional love and support in all things. To my Grandmother who saved me so many times and is the inspiration for so much of my work. Thanks Mom – I wish you could see this. Thanks Dad for teaching me to work hard for my dreams and to always lead the way. Thanks to Corey and Marissa who are the best brother and sister anyone could ask for. To Jonathan and Alex, the two best men on the planet – without our Skype sessions i’d have never survived this long! To my amazing mentors – of whom I have been fortunate to have so many who have helped me so dearly; Shaun Gallagher, Andreas Roepstorff, Antoine Lutz, Uta & Chris Frith, Geraint Rees, Jonathan Smallwood, and Karl Friston. To my students Maria, Darya, Calum, and Thomas who did such an amazing job making our science a reality. To my awesome amazing friends, colleagues, & collaborators who challenge me, help me, and help make every piece of science that comes across our desks as brilliant, rigorous, and innovative as possible – thanks especially to Tobias Hauser, Peter Zeidman, Sam Schwarzkopf, and Francesco Rigoli for letting me distract you with endless questions – you guys make my research rock in so many ways. Thanks to John Greenwood, Joel Winston, Fred Dick, Martina Callaghan, John Ashburner, Gareth Barnes, Steve Fleming, Ray Dolan, Tristan Bekinschtein, Becky Lawson, Rimona Weil, and all of my amazing collaborators – here is to many future projects together! To the entire basement and first floor clan who put up with my outbursts and antics, you guys are the best and you made this time amazing. Thanks to Brianna, Sofia, Antonio, Eva, Elizabeth, Dan, Frederike, Phillip, Alex, Wen Wen, and everyone from the ICN who made Queen Square the coolest place in town, and who showed me how fun castles can be. To the amazing administration and scientific staff of the FIL, who truly make it the best place to work in neuroscience bar none. And finally – thanks to YOU, my readers and digital colleagues, for your support, your energy, and your enthusiasm, which make @Neuroconscience possible and help me push myself into ever bolder frontiers.

To Cambridge, and beyond!

Micah Galen Allen/@neuroconscience

Some post #MarchforScience thoughts.

See the bottom of this post for a collection of great #MarchForScience tweets, images, and my livestream of the London march!

Foremost, thanks to everyone who came out and stood up to show their support. I think it is hard not to look at the worldwide crowds and feel an up-welling of pride and hope. If nothing else the feeling of solidarity, and of sending a loud message that we will not accept a post-evidence society, is well worth the efforts of the organizers and marchers. I just wanted to try and write down a few thoughts I had about the marches, which I’m sure are shared by many others.

Yesterday I think many of us saw, first hand and for the first time, that Science has real people power. Like any other special interest group, we can band together and organize to amplify the reach and influence of our message. Ultimately science requires the creation of a space that is free from politics, and the creation of that space is itself a political act. It is my hope that yesterday planted the seeds of organization that can grow into a movement. We can’t except the general public to stand up for us; it is indeed time to work to ensure a society where science and evidence-based policy flourish.

That being said, I’m sure many of you are also wondering what, if anything yesterday will really achieve. I also have the worry that these marches may ultimately act as another form of ‘slacktivism’, exorcising our anxieties while ultimately achieving little. I can’t speak for the worldwide marches, but I did feel that more could have been done to try and carry the momentum forward. It is a bold first step for scientists to put aside their self-assumed neutrality and stand up for their own cause. At the London march you could feel an almost palpable unease or cautiousness in the march yesterday. It was perhaps the most quiet, calm, and reserved political march i’ve ever participated in – and of course, also a lot of fun. Ultimately if we are going to effect change, this can only be the first step. We need to begin to organize into effective political action communities that can lobby on our behalf.

This also means addressing some of the infighting that arose during the course of the organization of the march. Science cannot turn a blind eye to diversity, or our own issues therein. Effective political action requires building a broad based progressive movement that is inclusive and champions a set of values that does not exclude persons of color, LGBT, or other minorities. I recognize that there are already growing pains; many scientists feel science should inherently be apolitical. But what we’ve seen is that, our work will be politicized no matter what stance we take on it. My hope is that the marches yesterday will embolden us to reach out to community organizers, to build a strong and evidence based movement for political reform. Let yesterday be the planting of a seed, from which a thousand flowers may bloom.


Here are some fun tweets and links from the march:

Clearly DC scientists had a blast! Love this video.

Amazing turn out in Seattle:

Sine game on point:

DC:

Truth!

Amazing aerial shot:

20k marchers in Philly!

Hello, my name is Science!