Neurohackademy participants watch a presentation

Participants offer insight on Neurohackademy

September 5, 2019

We asked this year’s Neurohackademy participants to reflect on their experiences after joining us for this two-week neuroscience hacking event, and a record number responded! Here are there thoughts on this unique educational opportunity, in their own words.

Hannah Coyle

A photo of Hannah CoyleNeurohackademy 2019 was an amazing experience that left me with a very full brain and heart. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from and connect with some of the best minds in neuroscience. The lectures in week one introduced me to cutting edge tools and techniques that were then put into practice during the hack sessions in week two.

Neurohackademy’s focus on practical skill development and collaboration makes the summer school really worthwhile. All the instructors were very approachable and generous with sharing their knowledge and skills with participants. Their passion and commitment to the future of open science and the next iteration of researchers really resonated with me. I returned home to my lab inspired, with my reproducible toolkit topped up and new friends from around the world.

Paul Scotti

A photo of Paul ScottiNeurohackademy was a two-week mental detox where I realized how complacent I had become conducting research for the past couple of years. I had been happily coding away in Matlab, collaborating over email with documents of ever-increasing version numbers (final_v42_revised.docx), sloppily throwing files into folders with no structure, and thinking it’s not necessary for me to go through all the effort of sharing my data and code … right?

Attending Neurohackademy was the gentle and persuasive push that I needed to realize that if I wanted to continue in science then I should be adopting the best research practices that the instructors were advocating. These “best practices” were not only to help other scientists better understand and reproduce my results but were also meant to help myself by ensuring that my results were verifiable and free from unintentional mistakes.

Neurohackademy was an incredibly welcoming and diverse community of people all working towards similar goals. The first week of lectures allowed attendees of very different backgrounds to all be on the same page such that we could work together on projects during the second week of hacking. The lectures were often a blend of theoretical and practical information, for instance, the lecture on git and GitHub included an overview of why someone would want to use git as well as step-by-step coding exercises to familiarize the audience with git. It is amazing to look back on how much valuable information was crammed into the first week, but it never felt overbearing!

I am incredibly thankful to the organizers of Neurohackademy, all the instructors, and all of the people who worked to support this event. I cannot recommend it enough!

Damion Demeter

A photo of Damion DemeterNeurohackademy was one of the most valuable collaborative experiences I’ve had as a graduate student. The mixture of discussions, tutorials, and hackathon projects created a perfect environment to learn and improve my technical skills. Being able to work closely with established researchers in the field and directly bounce ideas off them is something that reading an article or looking over publicly available code just can’t compete with.

A few hands-on sessions made me far more comfortable using technical resources that I had struggled for weeks to learn only from the documentation. This mixture of mini-lectures, paired with hands-on experience and instant access to experts in the field, advanced my technical research skills more in two weeks than months of experimenting with online documentation had previously.

In addition to the easy access to impromptu conversations with experts in our field, collaborating with my peers was an amazing experience. Everyone was so quick and eager to help their peers with subjects they were familiar with, I really felt like I was in a tight-knit community right from the start. There was a complete void of competitive interactions. Rather, if someone posted a question to the group, it would typically be met with a handful of people willing to organize a breakout session and share resources and give mini-lectures.

This is the type of interaction the scientific community needs (and is working toward). The Neurohackademy 2019 cohort was an amazing example of what I hope to see in the greater scientific community. The value of being a part of this program is immeasurable and I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to participate this year. I made some solid friendships with colleagues outside of my university/department and continue to work on some of the projects we started, even after the event. I believe this event is something all new researchers should take part in during their graduate career.

Julio Yanes

A photo of Julio YanesAs someone who’s just getting comfortable with programming, committing to a two-week data science workshop (including one week of “hacking”) was intimidating, to say the least. However, the coordinators and instructors at Neurohackademy created an excellent learning environment; one which felt appropriate for trainees from diverse backgrounds and competencies. And most importantly (for me anyway), Neurohackademy was fun!

The topics covered during Neurohackademy ranged from best practices for reproducible science, to machine learning, to data visualization, to ethics, and everything in between. Moreover, if something wasn’t on the schedule during week one, the breakout sessions during the week two provided unique opportunities to cover smaller, more specific “a la carte” topics like how to run a meta-analysis, various python package demonstrations, and more. Finally, during hack week, we took concepts, data, code, and resources from week one and implemented them in exciting team-based projects. Many projects served as hands-on learning experiences for new topics.

Alongside great lectures, tutorials, and demonstrations, you make wonderful friendships with trainees from around the world (i.e., one hackweek team made an interactive map to showcase this!). I often found myself saying “this is just like summer camp but for graduate students and postdocs!” In short, attend Neurohackademy!

Meltem Altay

A photo of Meltem AltayNeurohackademy was the most incredible and amazing experience I have ever had during my graduate studies! This may sound exaggerated but no, I believe in this wholeheartedly as a Ph.D. student based in a non-research oriented place and had little chances of having positive interaction and collaboration. At first, it was hard for me to apply, to be convinced of the fact that I was selected among all incredibly talented participants almost all over the world, I feel privileged. It has been an extremely positive experience which helped me unstuck from the recent problems of my thesis work.

Due to different cultural influences, the notion of open data was completely new concept for me. I also had been very competitive environments, because of these reasons I was extremely anxious about meeting other participants, shy about asking a stupid question, making silly grammar mistakes, and using the wrong vocabulary. On the first day, after Kirstie’s queen-bee exercise, I understood that my worries were not meaningful at all! I was amazed by the fact that Neurohackademy organizers especially cared about diversity and inclusion concepts, I notice the higher ratio of females participated comparing the events in my country. I also appreciate the fact that organizers meticulously considered to include participants from different geographical regions or states. I should also mention that I felt included to see the various range of gender pronoun stickers for the nametags.

There are also many other concepts that opened my perspective, widened my horizons during two weeks of the course. Making tools easy to use – understandable, encouraging people to share resources, endorsing to hack projects for the motivation of learning and most importantly the enthusiastic spirit of collaboration. I should also mention that I admired all the instructors they all were reachable, humble and open, I will be keeping their approach as a role model for my future.

Even though I took basic neuroscience, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology courses, I did not have the chance to meet neuroimaging tools and had to learn the basics of making sense of neuroimaging data on my own. The first week of Neurohackademy introduced the tools, tips, and tricks that I did not have a chance to use before, and I understood that suffering for a long time should not be integrated part of being a Ph.D. program. It was so incredible for me to be able to reach and ask questions to most well-known experts who established new tools or research methodologies. The motto of this week was “No stupid questions, every question/opinion is valuable!”

Hackweek started with the project pitches, I was unsure to do a project which may be similar to my previous works but as a person who never had a truly collaborative experience, I learned more than I expected. Breakout sessions allowed participants to share in detail information about several areas that were mentioned before, and it was possible to take part in more than one group! I had a chance to make a toy data into BIDS format using heudiconv, learned all the tips and tricks of following documentation, finding solutions for errors and taking notes for future reference. The main project that I chose to take part in was to convert young brains into old brains using a generative adversarial network pipeline. As a representation of young brains we used Human Connectome Project data samples with younger than 30 years old brains, and for old brain data, we used an already in BIDS formatted dataset, OASIS. This week I realized the fact that “great people encourage others to be great not schools/pedigrees!”

As a team, we even had a chance to do statistical analysis on generated fake old brains and we all shared the joy of using all the open-source tools that we recently learned. This was the week that I realized how positive reinforcement from peers and instructors help someone to flourish! As I shared my knowledge with my teammates I learned every minute, I changed more than I expected and gained friendship. At the presentation day, it was incredible to see what my friends have achieved I felt very proud for them! I will be keeping what Neurohackademy taught me within my pull requests. It is impossible to thank enough but I should thank organizing committee Ariel, Tal for the generous hospitality. This may sound like a cliché concerning the previous but Neurohackademy was an enriching and enlightening experience that I truly recommend all of my peers, students interested in neuroscience, especially those whom they are lacking the resources and feedback to learn or based in different continents.

Johnny King Lau

A photo of Johnny King Lau‘I have learned a lot. I really mean a lot.’ This was my immediate response when my friends asked me about my trip in Seattle. From Neurohackademy, I knew more about data visualization, advanced programming, code sharing, machine learning, deep learning, data pipelining and computing platform, as well as having actual hands-on experience working on some of these techniques.

Now, after the event, I have started the practice of using Github to share and update my codes and research resources more actively. I also make plans to incorporate the skills I have learned into future projects and analysis pipeline. The two-week program was very empowering. I left with sufficient knowledge and perhaps, more importantly, the confidence for further exploration in the topics beyond the event.

It was an encouraging, inclusive and supportive environment. The instructors were very approachable and keen to help. Everyone who participated has different background and expertise yet shares a mutual view on trying to make science better and more open. The community is diverse, and you constantly learn from each other. Also, the social aspect of the program is one of the reasons I find it remarkable. If you prefer, there were always social events and stuffs to do after a long day of ‘hacking’.

Just be honest, not so many summer schools or workshops are useful and hard to forget, but Neurohackademy is one of the rare ones. It was a mix of fun and opportunity for skill development.

Stephanie N. DeCross

A photo of Stephanie N. DeCrossNeurohackademy was an incredible experience that opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for me. Coming in, I was able to recognize phrases like “open science” and “GitHub,” but didn’t fully understand what they meant or how they worked. This program introduced me to a whole world of tools and communities that I had no idea even existed before, as well as connected me with others who are well-integrated with such resources.

Now, I feel empowered through not only understanding ways that I can contribute to the culture of open science myself but also by my new ability to teach and share what I’ve learned with others. Learning about the cutting-edge tools in the field enables me to consider my research questions from different, novel angles, and as a rising second-year graduate student, I’m excited to delve into new approaches and see where it takes me throughout my graduate work.

Above all, I am so grateful to everyone involved in organizing Neurohackademy for creating such a supportive, inclusive community. I was inspired by the warmth, sincerity, and generosity of those around me as we learned from each other. People with drastically more experience and expertise than me were so willing and eager to help scaffold my growth, and I deeply value the conversations we’ve shared – from unpacking the nitty-gritty details of a line of code to discussing the overarching culture of academia.

At first, I was a little intimidated to participate in my first hackathon, but quickly felt at home in an environment that valued and celebrated each person for the contributions they were able to make. I admire the new friends I’ve made on both an intellectual and personal level and feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to connect with so many people from around the world with talents and skills in such a wide variety of areas. Neurohackademy was an unforgettable experience, and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity for this to be my first (of hopefully many!) neurohackathons.