For the past week, I have been residing in high altitude at the UCLA-owned resort of Lake Arrowhead, California in the San Bernardino Forest (and mountains) near LA. I was attending a scientific and professional development workshop devoted to sleep research, grantsmanship, responsible conduct of research, and networking. The theme of the workshop was “translational validity in sleep research” meaning that the focus was on appropriate animal models of sleep and disease states. The workshop has been going on for nearly 30 years organized, funded, and hosted through the efforts of Dr. Michael Chase of UCLA. Holy cow was it spectacular. I can see why my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Mary Carskadon, uses Michael’s retreat as a model for her annual retreat.

The trip began with a short trip to Manhattan Beach, its epic dining, and the Santa Monica Pier where I showed those beach boys that they really aren’t as strong as their muscles make them out to be.

When we arrived in Lake Arrowhead, we immediately began to dive into intellectual discussion. We went over and critiqued common methods to sleep deprive animals. We weighed the pros and cons of common animal models of sleep and disease, namely the fly, rat, mouse, and even cat. We even talked about the pros and cons of staying ahead of the curve. The general consensus is that it is never good to put the cart before the horse; that optogenetics and chemogenetics, two sexy approaches in neuroscience that I have discussed previously, are worthless in time and money if you do not have a sufficient hypothesis and supporting rationale. Also, using these tools is not a priori for getting funded. We also learned about some transfection techniques for activating neurons and measuring neuron activity by transfecting a rabies virus or using a recording electrode covered in a lipophilic (fat-loving) material, enabling it to be sucked up by the neuron’s membrane.

On the morning of the second day, I organized a morning boot camp. One of the workshop’s organizers, Dr. Mark Opp, had the brilliant idea to do our workouts on the zen deck. Not a bad view, eh? The zen deck was the meeting spot for our morning boot camp/bro sessions for the rest of the meeting. On the second day, I also got too cocky (and stupid) in the pool and smashed my nose on the bottom of the deep end after doing a perfect front tuck into a dive.

The Zen Deck

The scientific sessions of the workshop continued with discussions of appropriate measures of sleep homeostasis. The obvious candidates are NREM sleep saturated with slow wave activity, but Dr. Ron Szymusiak presented evidence for physiological phenomena relevant to sleep homeostasis that have been overlooked. Basically, his lab examined the firing rates of neurons in two sleep-promoting nuclei of the hypothalamus, the ventrolateral and median preoptic nuclei. Typically, these nuclei are less active during wake and even forced wakefulness, and more active during spontaneous sleep or recovery sleep after sleep deprivation. Thankfully, Ron found that this is not entirely true because a tipping point from low to high rates of firing in these nuclei can occur across an episode of forced wakefulness. I am thankful for this data set because it addresses a concern that I have had with a data set of mine that I am hoping to be publish soon.

We also had an evening discussion on ethics. Each discussion began with a short skit. Here is the skit that my group and I performed to exaggerate very inappropriate relationships between mentor and mentee.

About halfway through the conference, we were introduced to the EUREKA grant writing proposals. Basically, we were given 36 hours to write AND present an R21 (NIH system) grant that would allow for two years of work and $250,000 in allowance (excluding whatever indirect costs the university took which is normally around 50%). The committee did a fantastic job of spreading out areas of research focus, or maybe it was just a coincidence. Our group had an interesting mix of expertise and personality. However, we were able to overcome an initial mental block in proposing a hypothesis-driven research question. Our proposal aimed to investigate how sleep deprivation could further worsen brain connections and cognitive and motor learning after a stroke. At the end of the day, our grant proposal won, although all of the proposals were impressive for the short time allotted! For our winning efforts, we got a bottle of Glenvelvet.

Presenting our grant

Winners of the EUREKA grant with their prize!

Without a doubt, this workshop was one of the best smaller conferences in animal research that I have ever attended. It presented many opportunities to ask questions, respectfully refute opinions, and to remove the typically intimidating barrier between PIs and trainees.  The countdown til the next workshop is on.