My morning, his night, her afternoon: science across time zones with a virtual summer program

Aug. 10, 2021
Amanda Alvarez

Yukina Chiba

Nagoya University
Participated in the 2021 IBRO-RIKEN CBS Summer Program

A spark of hope

For me, 2021 continued the sense of isolation and solitary lab work brought on by COVID-19. I had high hopes that the pandemic would have been over in 2020, so I was naturally frustrated. I was resigned to social distancing, wearing masks, and limited outings, but my lab PI, Professor Azusa Kamikouchi, gave me a spark of hope when she introduced me to the IBRO-RIKEN CBS Summer Program. I felt a wave of excitement as I looked at the program poster, which described the theme of this year’s program: Reconstructing Emotions. Untangling what we are, what regulates our internal states, and how our personality arises have been long-standing topics of fascination for me, and so I applied for the program without hesitation.

The IBRO-RIKEN CBS Summer Program is known for its competitive application process and lecturers invited from all over the world who are leading figures in their fields. Before the pandemic, as an in-person summer school, there were usually fewer than 20 students accepted. However, when the program moved online the number of participants doubled, and so I had a chance to have conversations with people from all over the world, including Italy, Argentina, China, Singapore, Australia and Canada.

Inspiration through a screen

The Summer Program began with online platforms, such as Slack and a dedicated web portal, for participants of the program including postdocs, undergraduate students and graduate students like myself to introduce and interact with each other. As soon as I got the list of participants, I contacted those working with the principal investigators whose work I follow closely. I had a chance to talk with some before the start of the program and got to deepen my understanding of their work.

Finally, the busy Summer Program started, with live lectures from the US, Germany, China, France, the UK, Canada and Japan. Unlike a conference that focuses on a specific brain region like the amygdala or experiments with a single species like Drosophila, the Summer Program welcomed lecturers and participants working on diverse organisms from humans to spiders, and different topics from learning mechanisms to fear responses. In each lecture, both the lecturer and participants turned on their cameras, which I think is so important to maximize virtual interaction. As is customary in Japan, I nodded a lot, to express that I am actively listening, which I noticed was different to others, who looked almost frozen and only nodded infrequently. The cultural differences in how we show attention to the speaker were interesting.

After Professor Vanessa Ruta’s talk, I was very excited and nervous to communicate with her directly, because she is someone I have looked up to. However, another barrier to virtual interaction is eye contact through the screen. When I looked into my camera, I couldn’t see the person I was addressing, and when I look at my screen, the other person perceived that I am looking away. In short, mutual gaze was impossible, which can give a feeling of discomfort.

As a young neuroscientist, this phenomenon made a lot of sense, because studies have shown that mutual gaze affects our cognition, allowing faster and better recognition of faces and emotion, for example identification of facial expressions (Schilbach, 2015). With the Summer Program theme of emotions, I learned that non-verbal communications, for example physical presence and posture, play an indispensable role in conversations with non-mutual gaze.

At the poster session, many participants came over to hear my talk in SpatialChat. The active questions and discussions completely replaced the emptiness I had been feeling about science. After the poster session, a PhD student from South Korea contacted me to hear my research talk. Her enthusiasm to reach out to learn inspired me. We held a mini poster session together the next day. Although we had our cameras on, I was sensitive to the small delays in the audio. I study the significance of temporal differences in courtship songs in fruit flies, and I have found that the tempo of auditory cues is important for humans too. In fact, according to research, a very brief gap of just 700 milliseconds could lead someone to anticipate that negative feedback is forthcoming (Kendrick and Torreira, 2015). A fraction of a second delay in online lectures or discussions can cause discomfort. It was so interesting to learn that the temporality of acoustic information is so essential both in invertebrates like the fruit fly and in vertebrates like us humans (Roberts and Francis, 2013).

We closed the Summer Program with a virtual party and a toast. ‘Kan-pai' means ‘empty glass’ in Japanese, and is equivalent to ‘cheers’ in English. Students and lecturers mingled freely in our virtual space, savoring the last moments of the program and sharing opinions on the future of emotion research.

What’s next?

The program was only a week long, but it showed me that you can feel emotions like excitement and confusion, even through a screen. The emotional drive for science and interaction resonated with many of the Summer Program group, and I felt a sense of belonging in a new community despite only meeting virtually.

Although the program is over, I am looking forward to joining the alumni network, maintaining the community that we are establishing, and hopefully visiting RIKEN CBS when the pandemic is over.