Repost: More on Neurotree

Oct 20 2009 Published by under Careerism, Society for Neuroscience

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I'm attending the SfN meeting and was reminded of this post because of renewed interactions with my academic family tree members. Also by the usual observation that trainees are often ignorant of the connections within their own trees and how this can help their career goals, i.e., in landing postdoc slots. Since I last talked about Neurotree, the big change seems to be the launch of several new topic-related academic trees. Also, the growth stats seem to imply Neurotree has reached a peak in the growth of inclusion of scientists and there was no fall quarter (SfN annual meeting?) bump in growth of the tree last year. This post originally appeared on Nov 30, 2007.


I had a note before on the Neurotree.org site which is databasing neuroscientists' training genealogies. The masters of Neurotree have put up a growth chart which shows that additions continue to accelerate each quarter. Some of the discussion under my prior post seemed to find this a mere interesting curiosity. I have been thinking about this as I've browsed around on the site and come to a different conclusion.


First, I think that much of the value of this effort lies in the degree to which the field is represented and it is clearly early days. The growth rate, however, suggests that the asymptote is still a distant destination, so we don't really have any way to estimate eventual representation. A related point is that there is going to be relevant and irrelevant representation in this database with a slight potential bias for irrelevant. Meaning that every undergrad who temps in a lab has the right to add him or herself to the database. Technically these are "neuroscientists" but really something with a little higher threshold is going to hold useful information. Time will tell on this.
The value I see in Neurotree is that it is a handy way to see how successful someone's trainees have been over time. There will be a bias for older, more established people, sure. But for a given level of tenure of a PI, a prospective trainee can get some really valuable information in a big hurry. Such as the number and percentage of a given PI's trainees who have become independent, even luminaries in their own right.
This is also handy in a couple of specific grant review situations, such as fellowships and R15s where the quality of the "training environment" is an explicit criterion and often a matter of some pointed discussion. In grant review, for example, despite the fact that one is not obligated to go beyond the information provided in the application, I often do. Quick PubMed and CRISP searches are informative, non burdensome and contribute relevant perspective. I think I will find myself employing a quick Neurotree search as well in the future.
[Grantsmanship sidebar: Practices seem to vary in terms of listing the supervising PI's name in the "Professional Experiences" section of the biosketch. This can often be derived from the senior author on the pubs, sure. I am one who likes to see this information listed. I can't imagine what would be lost, who one would offend, etc by including it so you might as well do this, eh?]
I attended a couple of social functions at the SfN07 meeting that were, in essence, based around academic genealogy. These were networking sessions of some palpable value, which further underscored the value of knowing something about these trees. For one of my functions, some poor fresh-faced student had actually visited my poster and obviously had no idea that we were about to attend one of these genealogy based sessions later in the week. (Yes, I noticed the affiliation and mentioned my prior connections at the time...) In another of my social events, the tree was relatively large and stretched over a long period of time. The current round of postdocs and grads could very easily be seen to benefit from getting to know the prior postdocs in this laboratory that are now off heading their own labs, in industry, etc.
So I close with the obvious suggestion that if you are a neuroscientist, wander over to Neurotree.org, enter yourself and link up to one of your mentors.

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