Twenty of the field’s most esteemed researchers spoke at the third international conference highlighting some of the most complex issues at the forefront of understanding neural circuits. The prestigious two-day event hosted by Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) was held February 13-14, 2017 at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in Downtown West Palm Beach, Florida. The biennial event that takes its name from Florida’s characteristic year-round sunshine attracted a larger crowd of the world’s brightest neuroscientists and students than ever before.
“The tremendous contributions made by our panel of speakers have led to the development of innovative research techniques in neuroscience and significant advancements in our understanding of the brain. The participation of such renowned scientists over the course of six years has put Palm Beach County on the map as a destination of choice for research-based dialogue within the global neuroscience community,” said Dr. David Fitzpatrick, Scientific Director and CEO of MPFI.
This year’s main event featured 20 notable speakers including two Nobel laureates, Dr. Thomas Südhof from Stanford School of Medicine and Dr. Susumu Tonegawa from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also presenting were Vice President of the Max Planck Society, Dr. Bill Hansson and Max Planck Director Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, a 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences winner and one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the American World.”
A combined total of approximately 600 scientists and students have traveled to South Florida over the last four years for the two prior MPFI-hosted SunposiumsTM. The inaugural 2012 two-day scientific exchange took place at the Breakers and featured 3 Nobel laureates (and three scientists who were later awarded the prestigious prize) from Germany’s Max Planck Society and from research institutes and universities throughout the United States and Europe. Two years later, the 2015 event was held at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and featured 24 national and international leaders in neuroscience research including 2014 Nobel laureate, Eric Betzig. To accommodate the larger 2017 crowd, the more expansive site of the Palm Beach County Convention Center was selected.
The scholarly impact of this year’s symposium was evident in the nearly doubled amount of scientific posters presented as compared to the 2015 event. Over 120 scientists and students presented their research at Monday evening’s Poster Session. This impressive group was representative of 35 institutions from 13 states and seven different countries.
Over the course of the last six years, all three SunposiumsTM have successfully highlighted the challenges, latest findings, and advances in neuroscience. Comprehending the functional organization of neural circuits and specifically how the activity of neural circuits mediates behaviors provides the knowledge base that is critical for advances in treating neurological and psychiatric disorders. Educational forums like SunposiumTM encourage a collaborative, problem-solving approach to multiple aspects of brain function, processes that include the neural basis of sensory processing, motor control, learning and memory.
During this year’s conference, the inaugural Peter Gruss Young Investigator Award was presented to Dr. Viviana Gradinaru who then delivered a plenary lecture. Paying homage to Dr. Peter Gruss, former Max Planck Society president, the biennial accolade recognizes young neuroscience investigators for significant contributions to the scientific community. Dr. Gradinaru is Assistant Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering and Heritage Principal Investigator at the California Institute of Technology; her work focuses on developing and using optogenetics and tissue clearing to better understand brain circuitry underlying neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Earlier this year, Dr. Gradinaru was honored by President Obama as one of the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Dr. Gradinaru, who received complimentary SunposiumTM tuition and lodging, also received a monetary award, underwritten by a long-time supporter of MPFI and the life science industry, Ms. Raquel Rodriguez.
With an eye to the next generation, MPFI also sponsored over 20 undergraduate neuroscience students to attend from four Florida universities: University of Florida, University of Miami, Palm Beach State College and NOVA. Along with five university faculty members, the students enjoyed all of the educational sessions and had opportunities to directly engage with the speakers at a private lunch. This Max Planck Florida Scientific Fellowship program is made possible by a generous Florida state appropriation.
As part of the Max Planck Society’s dedication to scientific exchange and engagement both within the scientific community and across all public audiences, Max Planck Neuroscience, a network representing all neuroscience-focused research within the Society, sponsored three Scientific Communications Fellows to take part in the event: Meeri Kim (freelance science/health writer; Washington Post, Philly Voice contributor), Luis Quevedo (filmmaker/podcaster/TV producer and host; NTN24; El Mundo contributor) and Kayleen Schreiber (content editor and visual designer; Knowing Neurons).
Reflecting on the event’s success, Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO for Discover The Palm Beaches, the official tourism-marketing corporation for Palm Beach County was pleased that the arrival the international audience coincided with the ongoing development of downtown’s new Convention, Arts and Entertainment District. “Showcasing the world-class scientific research and educational assets available in The Palm Beaches along with our increasing capabilities as a convention and international congress destination highlights the dual benefits of hosting SunposiumTM in this location,” he said.
“Along with our presenters, attendees and guests, we were very pleased with the new location this year, particularly in terms of its proximity to Palm Beach International Airport for those who were traveling from longer distances. We’re already deep in our MPFI strategic planning sessions for attracting an even larger crowd to SunposiumTM2019,” said Dr. David Fitzpatrick.