BY NILS MUHLERT
What makes a successful international conference? Getting field-leading researchers to describe their work is of course key, but setting the stage (including hiring the venue, organising transport and arranging evening events) is equally important. As part of our OHBM 2016 insight series, we’ve provided views and highlights from those at the front of the stage - its keynote speakers (including Tim Behrens, Daniel Wolpert, Anissa Abi-Dargham and Nora Volkow) and special interest groups. Here, we look behind the curtain at the local organising team, those whose hard work fools you into thinking that organising an event on this scale is simple. No mean feat when you’re hosting 3,168 participants in one of the world’s most expensive countries!
The local organising committee (LOC) in Geneva was chaired by Christoph Michel, Professor of Neuroscience in the University of Geneva and a longtime attendee of OHBM. The LOC was greatly enhanced by the endeavours of a small group of local post-docs who, concerned that Geneva’s high costs might discourage those with tighter travel budgets, formed their own local organizing team, named BrainMeOut, to mitigate that problem. Their efforts provided students, postdocs and early career researchers with easy access to tasty, well-priced food and a chance to enjoy events hosted by this local BrainMeOut team: a varied mix of city tours, swing concerts, networking evenings and open air ping-pong contests (where – to my misfortune - my quiet German colleague revealed her former life as a Tischtennis-Bundesliga player). We speak to Christoph Michel and to Raphaël Thézé, co-director of the BrainMeOut events:
OHBM: I’m here with Dr. Christoph Michel, professor at the University of Geneva, and also chair of the OHBM local organising committee. Christoph, tell us about your experiences with OHBM.
Christoph Michel: I’ve been coming to OHBM since the beginning, its first meeting in Paris. I haven’t made it to all of them, but to most of them. And I’ve always wanted to host it here in Geneva, because I think it is a great opportunity to mark Geneva on the map of the neuroimaging community.
OHBM: What are your impressions from the meeting?
CM: It was fantastic – a real success. Most things ran smoothly. The executive office of OHBM has a lot of experience, which made hosting it easy to do. There were of course some challenges, mainly relating to hosting the conference slightly outside the city but, overall, I’d say it went OK. And we’ve had a lot of highlights, both scientifically and socially. I think the local neuroimaging community, particularly the younger generation, benefitted greatly from the meeting - be it through presenting their work, making contacts, showing the available research opportunities in Geneva, presenting the Masters and PhD programs, and so on.
OHBM: Anything you’re particularly proud of?
CM: We helped set up a symposium and meeting between the OHBM and the World Health Organisation. Making this contact possible was one of my main goals, since they’re based in Geneva. We organized a workshop at WHO after the meeting - it was extremely interesting and led to many ideas for future collaborations between the two organizations. It was great to see that the leaders of all international human brain projects participated and shared their ideas of how human brain research and the OHBM can contribute to public global health.
OHBM: And one last question – where would you like the next OHBM meeting to be held? We have a couple lined up but what would be your dream location?
CM: I think that it should dare to go once to South America, to increase the involvement of the South American neuroimagers.
OHBM: I second that! Thank you Christoph for joining us.
OHBM: How did BrainMeOut come about – who were the organisers, and how did they get in contact with the OHBM committee?
Brain Me Out: The name BrainMeOut – BMO for the insider – is actually inspired from the song “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand, and the intention behind it is conspicuous. The concept itself is the work of three neuroimaging-focussed graduate students from the University Of Geneva. At first Christoph Michel reached out for us to join the local organizing committee. He knew we had some experience with event organization in Geneva and that we had participated in multiple national and international meetings. He gave us the mission to make this OHBM meeting great. We knew from experience that the key to a successful meeting was the human contact and the networking opportunities, and we knew that Geneva was not an easy city to get around for the occasional visitor. So we devised a plan, BrainMeOut, where we would do most of the work upstream, and create several opportunities for participants to get together. We asked ourselves what kind of social experience we would want and expect from an international conference; mostly it was about getting to know the city without getting lost, connecting easily with fellow researchers from around the world, having a good time at night with labmates and making new acquaintances without having to think about it.
OHBM: Part of BrainMeOut’s success was the variety of events hosted throughout the OHBM meeting – which were your favourite events from this, and why?
BMO: The HeadQuarter (HQ) was definitely a hit. It acted as a node connecting the various activities and offering a regular, welcoming yet very lively meeting point through the week. It did most of the work to connect people. I was particularly fond of the photobooth on Tuesday night, which really broke the ice and allowed participants to go home with a memory of the evening.
OHBM: How did you find the experience of organising and hosting BrainMeOut? Did you get to meet any useful contacts through this?
BMO: Organizing BMO was thrilling. We had a lot of planning to do, we sought funding on our own, we managed big budgets, gathered a team and designed a communication strategy. We certainly learned a lot from that experience. Contact-wise, we met with the OHBM central committee, worked alongside the OHBM communication team and certainly developed a strong network in Geneva. One downside is that during the meeting itself we were generally too busy to actually make contact with other participants. Fortunately, we had a great team of volunteers to help us! It was like throwing a party with our friends, and we had a lot of fun doing it.
OHBM: What advice would you give someone who wanted to organise a similar event at future meetings?
BMO: Not long after the conference, one of the participants emailed us to say “it was like having a personal travel agency…” and that’s what future committees should keep in mind while organizing BMO. From the start, it has to be managed by local brain imagers, familiar with the host city and able to deal with the planning and booking. An extended funding campaign is also critical to offer a greater diversity of activities, and to keep the expenses (i.e. drinks and food) as low as possible for OHBM attendees. In terms of activities, we are convinced that the key to success is, on the one hand, having a clear and informative website and an information booth at the conference venue, and, on the other hand, to hold a central HQ connecting the activities through the week. With more time, or more resources, we would probably have focused on offering more and even crazier group activities to encourage total strangers to bond and maybe later share their science around a drink at the HQ.
OHBM: Thanks Raphaël for your insight, the BMO team’s hard work, and a great set of events!
Please remember that the abstract deadline for OHBM 2017 is slightly earlier this year, on Thursday the 15th of December. See you in Vancouver for more science, socialising and BrainMeOut activities!