Guest post by Hiromasa Takemura
International diversity is essential for organizations like OHBM. Through my experiences attending recent OHBM Annual Meetings, I have found myself asking why so few researchers from Japan have visible roles. To find out whether this was indeed the case, and possibly why, I worked with the OHBM Executive Staff, Diversity & Inclusivity Committee, and Communications Committee to analyse membership and attendance data from the annual meetings. By collecting and analysing this demographic data we can gain insight into why some countries (in this case Japan given my background, but the findings may extend to others) may be underrepresented at OHBM.
Japan is the 11th most populous country in the world, with an estimated population of 126 million (m) people in 2020. For comparison, Mexico has the most similar population with 128m people and Germany, Europe’s most populous country, has 83m. Japan has, over the years, substantially contributed to the OHBM community: for instance, the 2002 Annual Meeting was held at Sendai, Japan and Dr. Kang Cheng, a pioneer of high-resolution fMRI studies at a founding lab for RIKEN's Brain Science Institute, is heavily involved in organization of OHBM meetings.
To get a picture of recent involvement of researchers from Japan, we examined data summarizing attendance and presentations at the OHBM Annual Meeting between 2017-2019 (Table 1). We defined Japanese members as those affiliated with Japanese institutions. Using this definition we found that Japanese members comprised 3.6%, 5.4% and 3.9% of all attendees for 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively, with the fluctuation reflecting the location of the annual meeting (OHBM 2018 was held in Singapore). We found a lower proportion of abstracts submitted by Japanese members: 2.6%, 3.6%, and 3.6% of the total number of abstracts for each of these years.
We then examined the proportion of Japanese members giving oral presentations. These numbers included both regular oral sessions and symposia. The proportion was 1.7%, 3.0%, and 0.9% for 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively. The low number at the 2019 Annual Meeting was striking, given the proportion of attendees and abstract submissions.
To determine potential contributors to these statistics, we examined the number of Japanese members who selected “talk preferred” at abstract submission, but were not accepted for talk presentations. Surprisingly, these numbers were very small: 3, 1, and 2 for 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. A major reason for underrepresentation of Japanese members at the OHBM meeting appeared to be a reluctance to present data in the form of a talk. It is true that certain types of presentations work better as posters than talks, but we wanted to find out why so few researchers from Japan opted for oral presentations. We wanted to find out why the community would miss opportunities to highlight and benefit from their work.
Why do Japanese members hesitate to give talks at the OHBM annual meeting?
To find out, we surveyed 86 Japanese scientists working in human brain mapping (Figure 1). First, we asked whether they would choose oral or poster presentations at domestic conferences: 58% answered “oral”. Then we asked whether they prefer oral or poster presentations at international conferences. In this case, only 35% answered “oral”. The trend to favor posters in international conferences was common across both junior and senior scientists.
Next, we asked why they would opt for a poster presentation (Figure 2). For domestic conferences, researchers chose poster presentations when the topics were specialized, or the data wasn’t ready to present to a broad audience. For international conferences, 32.6% of respondents were dissuaded due to the challenge of presenting in English. Indeed, for Japanese researchers the most common deterrent for oral presentations at international conferences like OHBM was the language barrier.
Figure 2. Survey on the reason for choosing a poster presentation for a domestic (left) and an international conference (right). Multiple choices were allowed for this question. While there are common reasons between a domestic and an international conference, people raised a difficulty in English presentation as a reason to prefer poster presentation in international conferences.
The challenge of presenting in English is not unique to Japanese members of OHBM. Instead, this case study serves to demonstrate the extent to which language barriers can limit scientific communication. It is, therefore, worth considering ways to organize an international conference that help enable non-native English speakers.
There are several actions we can take as a community. First, we could promote and encourage junior Japanese members (and other non-native English speakers) to apply for oral presentations, symposia proposals and educational courses. My own experience speaking at the 2019 Annual Meeting greatly increased my enthusiasm and experience of the conference (see photo below).
Second, as an international community, we can promote a friendly, open-minded environment for scientific presentations and debates across members, irrespective of their English proficiency. I appreciate that OHBM has made a clear Code of Conduct prohibiting harassment based on the accent of speakers. Since I believe that OHBM members are mutually respectful, I hope that non-native English speakers feel able to discuss their scientific work and ask questions during annual meetings.
Third, we can devise conference formats that reduce language barriers. OHBM 2020 was a virtual event. This allowed members to communicate using live chat features that will be much less affected by spoken language proficiency. OHBM 2021 will now also be virtual, so we have time to consider further digital features to aid communication. Looking forward to the return of physical conferences, we can use features like mobile apps to ask questions, as we did at OHBM 2019. There may be no single solution, but we can benefit from technologies tested in virtual formats in future physical conferences to encourage broader active participation in OHBM meetings. We could ensure that new scientific advances are communicated widely, and not hindered by the lingua franca.
Finally, it is worth restating that these issues are likely not specific to Japanese members. We hope that by shining a light on the challenges faced by my local community, we can increase accessibility for OHBM members from a variety of non-English speaking countries around the world.
Addendum (from the Diversity & Inclusivity Committee)
To examine the breadth of underrepresentation, the Diversity & Inclusivity Committee examined the geographical distribution of speakers at OHBM 2020. We calculated the number of speakers (at regular oral sessions and symposia) as a proportion of current OHBM members (see figure below).
Our findings paint a complex picture: most Asian countries are certainly underrepresented but researchers from central European countries, including non-native English speakers, are well represented. However, the Romance or West Germanic languages of these latter countries share typology with English, and so are considered by the Foreign Service Institute to be easier for an English speaker to learn. In contrast, Japanese, Arabic, Cantonese and Mandarin are considered to be ‘exceptionally difficult’ for English speakers to learn, and vice versa.
Other factors likely influence whether researchers submit abstracts as oral presentations. For example, Spain and Mexico, despite their Romance language, had relatively few speakers. Historical ties to OHBM from individual labs and other economic, local, and macro-cultural factors are likely at play. By considering what causes barriers - language or otherwise - and exploring how we can break them down, we can promote a culture of greater diversity and inclusivity at OHBM.
By Elizabeth DuPre
The OHBM 2020 Annual Meeting was a year of many firsts. The move to an all-online event reflected the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, with work, travel and schooling routines already in disarray for researchers across the globe. As many of us had been out-of-office or away from our university campuses for months before the Annual Meeting, the chance to connect with the broader human brain mapping community became especially important.
Traditionally, the Annual Meeting offers a chance to interact formally and informally with other researchers to make both scientific as well as interpersonal connections. Replicating these spontaneous conversations was perhaps the biggest challenge for this year’s meeting. First, there were the issues of timing. With OHBM members participating from their home countries, one member’s afternoon in North America would be the middle of the night for another member in Asia. The meeting was therefore set on a rotating schedule, with day-blocks favoring Asia-Pacific, European and African, or North and South American working hours.
Once the timing was set, the second hurdle was developing a virtual space for interactions. Large online platforms—like those necessary to run a conference for thousands of members—often lean towards structured, lecture-style environments rather than organic interactions and impromptu discussions. From the available infrastructure options, OHBM Council decided in April to adopt the 6connex platform. Council’s intention was to allow time for all presenters, committees, and special interest groups (SIG) members to adapt their content; however, the time pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many were still unclear how this new platform would work in practice in June.
Expectations were thus high for the 6connex platform—possibly higher than could be reasonably met. The platform did well in delivering pre-recorded content, such as the excellent selection of keynotes lectures, symposia and oral sessions, but the space for spontaneous interaction was woefully lacking. As one example, many members noted the challenges of using the chat feature, such as when 1000+ attendees simultaneously participated in a single-threaded chat room. This lack of functionality created particular frustration in poster presentations and interactions, where presenters and attendees were unclear how to contact one another or how to provide on-the-spot poster walk-throughs.
OHBM members enjoying one of the poster sessions on the GallOP platform.
Although the official platform did not provide an outlet for interaction, it did create a galvanizing effect for the community to create such a space. Attendees, such as Yaroslav Halchenko, Soichi Hayashi, and many others, came together to openly develop the OHBM 2020 GallOP (Gallery of Open Presentations) platform. GallOP provided an easy interface to search for poster authors, titles, or keywords, creating more chances for researchers to find relevant work. But perhaps most importantly, it created individual video conferencing rooms for each poster, allowing attendees and presenters to directly interact during presentation time slots or to leave one another notes outside of official meeting times. Although GallOP was only created after the first poster presentation time, the community response was enthusiastic, and it was quickly accepted and shared by the OHBM leadership and incorporated into the official platform.
Interactions in the Open Science Room (OSR) Gather.Town, a virtual space where OHBM members could gather throughout the conference.
This spirit of creativity and connection swept through OHBM2020 and was perhaps the defining feature of the conference. Other important community-driven initiatives that arose included the BrainWeb poster viewer and the first-ever virtual OHBM Club Night, both of which created online spaces that mimicked many of the social features of an in-person meeting, albeit with fewer spilled drinks. All of these community-driven initiatives were linked together by emergent discussions in the Open Science Room (OSR); this central hub seemed to catalyse interaction across the conference. The OSR hosted emergent discussions on everything from software containerization, to correcting for confounding, to even the structure of the virtual conference itself. In a year in which our idea of community has been redefined by political, social, and cultural reckonings, this space to have conversation with other brain mappers about the important issues of our science—both in terms of research topics and lived experience—proved a highlight of the conference for many attendees.
Alongside these experiences, the official OHBM program also provided attendees the chance to consider the direction of our field. As always, the OHBM Talraich, Glass Brain awardee, keynote, and symposium speakers provided an inspiring vision of the future of our society and the work we can do together. The OHBM 2020 Hall of Fame celebrated individuals that uphold many of the values important to the membership (e.g. education, replication, open science, mentoring), as well as this year’s award-winning abstracts. Uniquely, the community-driven efforts of this year’s event also provided a glimpse into just how important more grassroots efforts are to the structure and functioning of our academic society. As a result of this work, the SIG chairs were invited to sit in on Council meetings and increase interaction between official and grassroots initiatives. This is an exciting next chapter for OHBM leadership, and it suggests that we will continue to see more innovation in the years to come.
Although the 2020 Annual Meeting was our first all-virtual event, it is clear that its lessons will shape the structure of OHBM moving forward. We now know that the OHBM 2021 annual meeting will also happen virtually; this decision was made in advance such that all community members have more time to prepare. These preparations include creating a dedicated ‘Technology Task Force’ to translate the lessons learned in the 2020 meeting into next year’s experience. Altogether, it’s clear from the 2020 meeting that the OHBM community is vibrant, responsive and collaborative. We look forward to seeing how these attributes can be further advanced in coming years, starting with the 2021 Annual Meeting!
By Tzipi Horowitz & Nils Muhlert
Institutions throughout the world have had to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many scanning centres shut their doors during lockdown, and have had to reopen gradually, and carefully. We surveyed several labs from around the world - to find out the challenges they’ve experienced and, in a few cases, the opportunities afforded.
UK - Matt Wall (Head of MRI applications, Invicro, Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College London)
Challenges: Everything shut down rapidly at the start of lockdown. In March, two big commercial scanning projects had to stop immediately. One had been running for some time, the other had just started. We had a lot of clinical people working with us - some very good medics. They spent a lot of time developing risk assessments and procedures. So we ended up restarting in late June. I tweeted about it at the time, and was contacted by people in other universities, asking how we managed it - so we shared our findings from the risk assessment process.
Our actions were consistent with the government guidelines: 2m social distancing and everyone wearing masks where possible, full PPE (masks, visors, gloves and disposable apron) where closer contact was necessary, particularly when getting people in and out of the scanners. As part of our risk checklist we also asked all researchers and participants to confirm that neither they nor anyone in their household had experienced flu-like symptoms and we used a heatgun to check each individual’s temperature as they entered the building. We ended up being ‘open for business’ before many parts of the university were.
We’re not back to capacity yet - particularly for PET. There we develop and use unusual PET tracers - we have a cyclotron onsite to make carbon 11 tracers which have a short half life. For this you need a large team, people involved in the chemistry, Q&A and PET technicians. There were many people on the furlough scheme so it was slow to start up again, and is only now back up and running. Overall, we’re probably at about 60% of what we used to do.
Experience: There was a sense of anxiety to start but that resolved fairly quickly. Our collaborators, who are endocrinologists in Imperial University, were working on Covid-positive wards. They assured us that we were using similar procedures to those used when working with people that we know are covid-positive. That gave us a lot of confidence that we were doing the right thing. I was actually glad to get back to scanning. My research assistant, who runs the scanning, now goes in most days, and I’m in probably 2 days a week. My dog at home, who people may be familiar with on twitter, also calmed down during lockdown: no more chewed slippers.
Opportunities: We found in our studies that it was suddenly a lot easier to recruit people. Once lockdown was easing, there were still many people off work. For one study we needed to recruit a particular population and since people were essentially bored they were much more willing to participate. Also the scanner was almost completely free. We steamed through recruitment for that study in record time!
México - Eduardo Garza-Villareal (Lab Leader of the Computational and Translational Neuropsychiatry Lab, National MRI Laboratory, Institute of Neurobiology, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Querétaro)
Challenges: There cannot be more than 2 people in the lab at the same time. Hence students are struggling to finish experiments. I mainly work with animals at the moment, and again, having very few staff is problematic. We were importing a rat strain from the US and in the end they stopped exporting animals and we couldn't finish that project. One of my students has to perform animal surgeries in another lab; she couldn't access the lab for one month. Another problem is student training, which is now impossible because you cannot be directly in contact with the students. Effectively, I'll see a work setback of 1 year or so. With TMS we do have human subjects but we are closed until probably January 2021, which is a big setback.
Adaptations: We are working remotely which has helped, however we would not be able to change population or projects now. We have also started to use public datasets for new research.
Because I have children my time is now more divided than ever with less time to think about research than before.
Canada - Rick Hoge (MRI Program Director, McConnell Brain Imaging Centre, Montreal Neurological Institute) & Julien Cohen-Adad (Functional Neuroimaging Unit, Polytechnique Montreal)
Challenges: All scanning stopped in March, except for clinical trials where imaging was a critical endpoint to evaluate treatment efficacy. Phantom and animal imaging activities gradually resumed in May. Human imaging restarted gradually in August. Many groups are eager to resume their studies and start new studies this fall.
Adaptations: The core MRI staff and users have focused on remote work, including data analysis, hardware development, literature review, attending conferences etc. Zoom and other platforms are used to maintain group interaction. On-site experimental work adapted protocols used previously for infectious controls are now used in animal neuroimaging research.
Gradually, we have adapted to the new normal, although scanning volumes are considerably lower than they were prior to Feb 2020. The first groups to return to scanning were mainly those doing methods development and neuroimaging in animal models (as noted above, clinical trials work continued throughout the different phases of the pandemic).
New ways of working: The pandemic forced us to become more efficient at working remotely, using videoconferencing tools, telephone, and mobile messaging. We were already using the Slack collaboration tool, but this was even more valuable since the pandemic began.
Remote monitoring of MRI cryogenics was a particular concern during the complete shutdown, and we implemented several layers of security to make sure we could respond immediately to events like a quench or chiller failure.
Germany - Sofie Valk (Research Group Leader, Cognitive Neurogenetics, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig)
Challenges: My lab officially started March 1st. So, I guess two major changes occurred at the same time, namely that I now have to run and support a lab of my own, and get used to working following COVID-19. Recruiting has been different. For me, given that I am interested in computational neuroanatomy, genes, and evolution, it is not strictly essential to acquire my own data at the moment to answer the questions that we have and I also did not plan the timeline of my lab-start this way. My current research takes advantage of open data, so that my lab and I use Human Connectome Project data, as well as enhanced NKI, genome superstructure project (GSP), Abide, as well as data from the Primate Neuroimaging data-exchange and UK Biobank. Now I try to read up on how start-ups manage remote and home office working and how to build a team that can work that way.
Adaptations: Remote work was a bit challenging at first, as I have two kids under 5 and daycare was closed. My partner and I had a shift system of one person 7am-1pm and the other 1pm-7pm and then work in the evening again. This kind of worked, but also resulted in little time for me, for sleep, or for my relationship. Often, I worked on my phone during my times with the kids, which I felt bad about. You can hardly call it the best of both worlds. For setting up the lab, the Max Planck Society supported funding for a researcher while this person was still abroad, which was very helpful. As the lab is oriented towards using open data, this meant we could just ‘start’. In the long run, we do want to acquire a good dataset for my lab to test more specific hypotheses, but there is no rush at the moment.
I try to be flexible and make the best out of the situation, and support the people that want to work with me. At the same time, home office and lab Slack make it sometimes feel work is always ongoing, whether I am in the office, playing with the kids, changing diapers, or in the sandbox. It is a novel challenge to also have ‘off’ time and to learn that, even if communication is always possible, most things can wait if needed. I am very fortunate with my team, because everybody is independent and mindful of each other.
Now in Germany, the situation has relaxed. Daycare is open, and most days I work at the institute, even though meetings are online. What has changed in me is that I now try to think of positive ways in which my lab can adapt, such as better collaboration, open science, database management.
Opportunities: I hope that the remote set-up can lead to sustainable changes. For example, collaborations and knowledge transfer with other labs not in the same building or hallway are easier now with Zoom talks. Also, it is nice to be able to give a presentation far away, without going there. Although flying to and from Montreal and Cologne with an infant (I was still breastfeeding at the time, and this seemed the best solution) made me feel like an international DJ last year, it was of course very tiring and bad for the environment. Now, I could just Zoom in from the kitchen table. Also, the lack of sleep and some challenges with work-life balance in the home-office has made me reconsider how I plan my time, and be more disciplined to take some time off, go for a run, and prioritize sleep a bit more. In the end it is a marathon and not a sprint.
USA - Fumiko Hoeft (Prof of Psychological Sciences, Mathematics, Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Brain Center Director, University of Connecticut, Storrs Connecticut)
Challenges: Since mid-March, non-COVID in-person related research operations have been shut down in the US. Only COVID-related research and remote research was allowed (like most other US institutions). Staff and students were asked to work remotely. Some behavioral-only research moved to remote platforms.
We conducted a survey beginning March to get a better understanding of the effect of COVID on our US-colleagues - we found that only 37% of imaging research centres remained open for a reduced ‘business as usual’:
Adaptations: Where possible, we moved to remote behavioral data collection but paused all imaging projects. Research, including human neuroimaging research, restarted in late May.
Behavioral testing remains remote whenever possible. For instance, we received NSF/Tremaine Foundation funding to start COVID related research. This is a project in K-Gr2 students examining the effect of an adoptive computerized reading instruction on children’s learning at home.
Israel - Yaniv Assaf (Prof of Neuroscience, Head of the Alfredo Federico Strauss Center, Department of Neurobiology, Faculty of Life Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience, Tel Aviv University)
Challenges: Israel was in a lockdown during March-April 2020, and studies in humans were shut down. At the end of lockdown (May), we were allowed to have only 5 individuals in the lab. As we have 12 team members in the group with four paid employees, only one student was allowed to attend the lab every day. Teaching remotely using zoom or similar software has some disadvantages including the lack of interaction with the students.
During lockdown, the imaging center was closed. Scanning eventually restarted in May with several restrictions dictated by the ministry of health: we had to sterilize the scanner and the suite and build in a gap of 30 minutes between each scan.
Adaption: We shifted to one-on-one and lab meetings using remote meeting applications. On a personal note, I had more quiet time to myself, which allowed me to complete some of my ongoing work.
Opportunities: I started working with a team-management software, that assists with planning my team’s assignments. On the research perspective, we had an incredible opportunity to scan individuals that were scanned prior to the pandemic (prior to February 2020) and after the lockdown release. Individuals were willing (and probably had time and availability!) to come over to get scanned. We inquired whether there are neurobiological associations to changes in behavior related to social avoidance, interaction etc following COVID. Strikingly, we found that the post-lockdown group showed an increase in amygdala volume. Obviously, the pandemic enabled an opportunity to test the brain structural correlates for the behavioral stress that everyone was experiencing.
In summary, labs across the world have been forced to adapt, to find new ways of remote working and safe ways of scanning during the covid-19 pandemic. There is clear regional variation in how imaging labs between countries have responded, reflecting local infection rates and government policies. Many have increased activities with open datasets, and there are certainly improved opportunities to present virtually at a range of locations. We’re clearly not out of the waters yet, as Europe and North America currently see a resurgence of higher covid-19 infection rates. But at least this time, we are at least somewhat prepared for whatever 2021 brings.