November 10, 2020
One year retrospectives - and plans for the coming year - occur at different times for different organizations. Most go by the calendar year, whereas most universities go by the academic year. As director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, my own calendar year tends to run from one of our annual scientific symposia to the next, which punctuate each year for our community with a festive and intellectually vibrant neuroscience event.
This year was no exception, albeit under conditions that we could not have imagined a year ago. One month after our virtual symposium, I am still basking in the intellectual stimulation and warm community spirit of the event, despite the challenges of the virtual medium. We had 677 unique participants in the symposium, who were rewarded with a remarkable series of talks on the theme of Pioneering NeuroHealth. The talks were far-ranging in conceptual scope and experimental approach, from research on basic disease mechanisms (our own Michelle Monje and Karen Parker) to development of engineering- and biology-inspired tools for diagnosis and treatment of disease (Amy Bastian of Johns Hopkins, and Todd Coleman of UCSD who will soon to join us at Stanford). Along the way we toured the frontiers of human memory (Michael Kahana of Penn), received a grand vista of our entire field from Walter Koroshetz, Director of NINDS, enjoyed stimulating posters with our postdocs and grad students, and celebrated our annual Sammy Kuo Awards for outstanding research papers, won this year by Sayaka Inoue (postdoc) and Jiefu Li and Shuo Han (grad students). Virtual ‘dessert’ at the end was a thoughtful conversation between President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Dr. Jim Simons, perhaps the most significant philanthropic supporter of autism research in the world, whose generosity has benefitted many neuroscientists at Stanford. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Marion Buckwalter (Neurology and Wu Tsai deputy director) who led the planning for this event, and to Dr. Tanya Raschke and her dedicated Wu Tsai staff who worked so hard to execute the symposium at the highest professional standards.
My predominant retrospective thought about the past year is obvious: it has been one hell of a year! It is difficult now to recall where our community was at this time a year ago. At our last symposium in October of 2019, we looked forward to an unprecedented year of opportunity for neuroscience at Stanford, including dedication of the new Stanford Neurosciences building, moving 18 labs into it, and creating several new community labs that would serve the entire campus as a hub of creativity and dissemination of cutting edge neuroscience technologies.
Little did we know. In March, only a month after the building dedication, the true magnitude of the COVID crisis crashed upon us like a tsunami, with shelter-in-place orders that emptied our campus! In one of the greatest ironies of my life, my first duty upon moving into the building—which I and so many others had worked on for six years—was to shut it down. Then, beginning in May, we were able to slowly and cautiously reopen at substantially reduced density, always putting health and safety first. Many of us faced—and are still facing—new complexities as we try to school children at home while juggling demanding jobs. As if the COVID challenge were not enough, we all experienced a clarion call to action on racial justice issues that emerged from tragic events in several of our cities in the spring, making it clear that we as a nation and as a local neuroscience community have unfinished business in this exceedingly important arena. Layered on top of this, our national political situation has been a source of tremendous stress and anxiety for many, to say nothing of the summer’s rampant wildfires that provided an urgent reminder of the threat that climate change poses to the entire planet.
That beautiful building dedication ceremony in February seems like three years ago now, not nine months. But as we have ridden this roller coaster together for the past nine months, there have been SO many concrete instances of fortitude and hope for which I am deeply grateful. Your gallantry and seriousness of purpose in shutting down the very scientific activity that we love most…your puckish good humor and faithful cooperation as the weeks of shutdown turned into months…your determination to make the time count by getting on with the science despite the obstacles…your care for each other during difficult times… have impressed me more than I can tell you. I admire and am deeply grateful for the grace, courage, and tenacity that all of you have shown during this trying time. Thank you all. This has been a testament to the strength of our community.
But turning the calendar page and thinking prospectively, I am certain that the best is yet to come for this scientific community. There will be additional trying times for us in the coming year, but I am confident that we can weather them and come out on the other side—perhaps a year or so from now—as stronger, more focused people, with greater clarity of purpose for our lives and careers. Other generations of citizens and scientists have faced great challenges decades and even centuries before we came along; we can rise to the great challenges of our own generation. We will make that journey together!
Vincent V.C. Woo Director, Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute
Professor of Neurobiology