Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Neuroimaging Training Program Postmortem

Imagine cramming thirty-five intelligent, motivated, enthusiastic, good-smelling individuals into a large bottle, adding in over twenty incredible speakers, tossing in a few dozen MacBooks and several gallons of boiling hot coffee, and shaking it up using an industrial-sized can shaker. (These things must exist somewhere.)

The screaming mass of coffee-scalded and MacBook-concussed individuals would look a lot like the group that descended upon UCLA like a swarm of locusts, hungry for knowledge and even hungrier for the prestige of attending the Neuroimaging Training Program. Sure, there's all the knowledge and everything, but let's get real - it's all about the hardware: Rollerball pens, pins for the lapel of your sports jacket, and decal drinking glasses.

But the workshop was pretty good as well. One colleague asked me what the zeitgeist was like; what researchers are focusing on, concerned about, looking forward to. Here's a list that I came up with:

  1. The funding environment in this country is awful, broken, and offers perverse incentives to carry out underpowered studies that are difficult and sometimes impossible to replicate, eroding the very foundation of science and undermining humanity's pursuit of truth.
  2. We need to find a way to get more of that grant money, nahmsayin.
  3. Anybody who runs a correlation study with less than a hundred subjects is scum.

In addition, there appears to be a shift toward data-driven techniques, whereby you use your data, which everybody agrees was mostly crap to begin with, to carry out statistical learning tests. This includes classification techniques such as ICA, k-means clustering, and MVPA (pronounced "muhv-pah"). Of these, MVPA is the most popular in neuroimaging analysis, given its snappy acronym and the crackerjack idea that distributed patterns of activation can yield something interpretable after all of your other univariate approaches have failed miserably. There is also a new toolbox out, The Decoding Toolbox, that provides a remarkable visualization of how MVPA works, and may well be the subject of future tutorials; which, based on my glacial pace, may be well into Donald Trump's fourth or fifth presidential term.

Speaking of slow paces, I should probably stop being cute and come out with it - I didn't do what I said I was going to do: provide regular updates on what was going on at the workshop. I began with the best of intentions (truly, gentlemen, I did!); but I quickly realized that many of the posts forming in my head were boring, boy scout recapitulations of what was going on day to day; in short, information that any curious person could get from the website. This, coupled with an engaging group of people that I spent all my days and nights with, swapping ribald stories and interesting ideas, hacking away at projects and whiling away my evenings in downtown Westwood, sapped the motivation to write alone in my room.

But now I am back, and many of the ideas put in cold storage the past few weeks have bubbled again to the surface. For example: Many people (myself included) have an imperfect understanding of how to teach neuroimaging. I saw very good examples from some of the speakers at the workshop (as well as some bad examples), and it made me think: How to best pitch this stuff to both beginners and veterans? The same thing I've been working on, by and by, for the past three years, never to my satisfaction. A few of the students I teach privately have given me some insight into common stumbling blocks to understanding, as well as what explanations or images (often bizarre or titillating) work best.

There were many ideas, tools, approaches discussed at the workshop; all of them intriguing, many of them dazzling, none of them immediately accessible. To build that bridge between those ideas and the researchers who need them - a six-lane bridge, both ways, with the elevator thingy that lifts up to let ships go underneath - is my goal. Talk is cheap, and not everyone keeps their promises; but to attempt it, to refuse to simply fade away in a pathetic morendo, and instead dare to fail spectacularly - I'm talking Hammerklavier first chord daredevil-leap-of-faith here - is a worthy pursuit. Let us all hope, especially for my sake, that it is a profitable one as well.