Q&A with Richard Bethlehem: What goes right into a Brainhack | Spectrum
scientific Assistant, University of Cambridge
Over the past nine years, Brainhack events have brought together hackathon-style group projects with informative lectures and hands-on tutorials in neuroscience. Several are held each year in cities in America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Before the pandemic, 25 or 30 people – both academics and non-academics – attended each event in person, with additional people coming from Slack and Zoom. On the first day of a brainhack, the participants form small teams. Over the next few days they will be working together on a neuroscience research project. Talks will take place during the events, which will also be broadcast live on YouTube. In the end, the teams write and share their results and make their tools openly available to other researchers.
A new report in Neuron explains the Brainhack model. Spectrum spoke to one of the report’s authors, Richard Bethlehem, a research fellow in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Center in the UK, about how these events differ from traditional conferences, what open source tools have emerged from them, and what possible benefits for autism researchers.
This interview has been edited.
spectrum: How do brainhacks differ from traditional conferences?
Richard Bethlehem: Brainhacks are usually small. That makes it easy to walk around and get to know each other. They are more informal. Brainhacks have a structured program, but there is also a lot of flexibility built in so people can voice their ideas and work with others to develop those ideas.
In addition, Brainhack conferences do not have a hierarchy. There is no sense of, “These are the top guys in charge and these are the younger folks who follow the rest.” Everyone is on the same level so there is more of a collaborative spirit.
Brainhacks come in handy too. Everyone spends three days working on a project or learning a new skill, such as computer programming in Python or interpreting fMRI data. So you don’t just sit passively and listen to other people talking about your research. Brainhacks are an odd mix of a hackathon and conference – although hackathons are usually competitive, while brainhacks emphasize collaboration. In many cases, people come to a brainhack just to learn a new skill and work on project ideas that they don’t have time for in their normal workflow. We regularly update a digital book in which we explain more about how Brainhacks work.
S.: What does a typical brainhack look like?
RB: It varies a little each time. On the first day, people pitch project ideas and then all of them form project groups. At every Brainhack, at least the ones we organized at Cambridge, we also ask people with certain skills to give tutorials on topics that the conference attendees want to learn about. At the beginning of the event we put up a project board. People stick post-it notes on this board explaining what skills they have. It’s basically, “Hey, if you want to know more about it, come with me about it.” Everyone brings something, and brainhacks often have mathematicians, computer scientists, musicians, and people from other disciplines.
S.: How did these conferences start?
RB: Brainhack started in 2012 with the Neuro Bureau, a neuroscientific organization that hosted the first event in Leipzig. Shortly thereafter, the creators started organizing brainhack conferences around the Organization for Human Brain Mapping’s annual conferences, which brought more people to these Brainhack events. Over time, the news spread. People started organizing their own local events.
The first Global Brainhack was in 2016. For this event, we had around 35 local events happening simultaneously around the world, and we linked each meeting through Slack and livestreamed the conversations on YouTube. It really feels like real-time collaboration with people.
S.: Do you have particularly fond memories of a Brainhack event?
S: Tell me about a tool that you developed at one of these events.
RB: At Global Brainhack in 2016, I worked with a team in Cambridge on a project that aimed to quantify brain connectivity using functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. We used what is known as gradient analysis to study how the brains of autistic people are functionally organized. We’d been discussing it for about a year before the conference, but everyone had their own projects going on, so we never really had the time to sit down and work it out.
During the three days of the Brainhack, we put together a team, built the tool, and tested it on an autism neuroimaging dataset available online. We wondered if sensory modalities in the brain related to autism might be a little closer to other cognitive domains. After three days we didn’t find any clear results, but we had indications that something might be there. We wrote our results as a short report, but neither of us had the time to develop this tool into a full research project. The project was dormant for a year.
Then a group in Montreal took up our idea and continued to work on it. They invited our Brainhack team to advise and collaborate on the project, and to this day this has been one of my closest collaborations. What began as a small niche idea developed into a meaningful long-term project.
S: What can other autism researchers gain from Brainhacks?
RB: There are two sides to this question. To some extent, I think they are an amazing platform for researchers who could themselves be represented in the spectrum as these events are free flowing. There are no rigid academic structures so I think there is more diversity within the Brainhack community for both academics and non-academics to share their ideas and work. We had artists and musicians attending Brainhacks.
The other side, I would say, are the projects that emerge from these brainhacks. From my personal experience I have many ideas that do not fit into my regular research projects because they are too risky or not translational enough. Brainhacks are great for working on these other ideas. Everything that comes out of Brainhack is open and accessible to the public too, so we’re really trying to make the research more transparent, including for any autism tools that might start at one of these events.
S: What do future brainhacks look like?
RB: It was all isolated during the pandemic, but now there are plans to organize in-person events again. Since the first Global Brainhack, we’ve had engagements from people who weren’t physically at these events because we’re trying to stream everything. We also use Mattermost, Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts and YouTube extensively. For the future, I think that this hybrid model will be continued. But personal brainhacks will stay small. A large meeting could potentially detract from the practical, collaborative element of these events.
Quote this article: https://doi.org/10.53053/GYSF4972