Last Friday was the long-planned Cambridge-NYU McDonnell Foundation Network meeting. The chiefs of this network grant are Trevor Robbins here at Cambridge and Liz Phelps at NYU. We’ve met twice in New York, and this year we decided to meet on the other side of the Atlantic. My visit provided a suitable time window within which to do this. Still, it was hard to pin Liz down. She was jetting to Northern India for a meeting the Dalai Lama, and then to some other exotic place afterwards, but we found a tiny slot where she was free.
I can say, with no reservation at all, that this was one of the best scientific conferences I have ever been to. The size of the group was just right. The number of talks and their length were perfect. The discussion was sharp and to the point. But all of this could apply to many meetings.
What made this meeting so good, in my opinion, was the way the network has evolved and come together. When we started, we had the goal of blending the Cambridge group’s expertise in positive emotional states and instrumental behavior with our focus on simple forms of fear learning. The first meeting was an arranged marriage. We exchanged looks and words, but with some distance. The second meeting was much cozier, but still lacked coherence. You could easily tell which group a talk was from (even without the accents giving it away). This third meeting was different. People from my lab and Liz’s lab were talking about instrumental responses and positive reinforcement. People from Angela Robert’s group here in Cambridge were doing aversive conditioning in marmosets, and had designed a study of heart rate conditioning based on one of my earlier studies in rats that I told them about at the last meeting. Researchers form my lab were more attentive than usual to talks on addiction by Cambridge folks because we have come to see, partly through discussions with Barry Everitt, that our work on fear and avoidance may be relevant to addiction. Also, Barry’s team is deep into reconsolidation of fear, a topic my lab studies a lot (they probably started their reconsolidation work independent of the network, but it was still a point of major overlap and discussion). Talks by Liz, Trevor, and Barbara Sahakian’s groups fit seamlessly as well. During the breaks, students and postdocs from opposite sides of the ocean were chatting away planning experiments and scheming trips to NY or Cambridge to carry them out. Two wonderful dinners, one hosted by Trevor at a university club, and the other by Barry at Downing College, helped seal the deal. Also imporant to note is that, from start to finish, the Cambridge staff (Mercedes, Nicola, and Lorraine) ensured smooth sailing.
Foundations sometimes support these kinds of networks in the hope that something special will happen. This time it did. We achieved “synchronicity.” You may recognize this as the title of a late Police album. Sting got the term from Carl Jung, via Authur Koestler. It was the Police reference that stimulated the title for this post. But I looked into it, and the formal definition, as you might expect, is the experience of events that occur together in some meaningful way, and that would not have occurred by chance. Our synchronicity on Friday would not have happened by chance. Thanks to the foresight of Liz and Trevor in applying for support for the network, the generosity of the McDonnell Foundation, and the hard work, sincerity, and creativity of the researchers involved, we got there.