A “Moonshot” Goal to Achieve Unprecedented Levels of Training

September 8, 2020

Throughout the world, seminars, meetings, and training programs have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, but elite computational neuroscience learning has been able to thrive thanks to the leadership of a few dedicated scientists and the collaboration of many volunteers from the neuroscience community. Max Planck Florida postdoc Madineh Sarvestani recently helped to organize and launch Neuromatch Academy, a three-week, virtual summer school that provided in-depth computational neuroscience training resources to more than 1,700 students from 59 countries. Course materials were also made available online to others who wanted to learn but couldn’t participate in the scheduled sessions, and an estimated 4,800 additional students have availed themselves of those resources to date.

Neuromatch Academy came about after several traditional in-person training programs were canceled. Rather than give up on the idea of training altogether, the organizers from several programs including various Cold Spring Harbor Summer Schools, Woodshole Computational Neuroscience summer school, and the CoSMo Summer School formed a committee to create a new program with unprecedented capacity and global reach. Madineh was one of 20 scientists on the organizing committee who oversaw 200 volunteers, 190 teaching assistants, and 245 global mentors, including two of her MPFI colleagues Joe Schumacher and Ben Scholl.

“Like many of the organizers, I played several roles. I was involved in the review and editing of tutorials for the course, in organizing and hosting weekend professional development sessions, and in helping to make sure live streamed sessions occurred smoothly. I interacted with other organizers and the large cohort of community volunteers who collectively made NMA happen,” she explained.

While Madineh has previous experience teaching and organizing events, the scale of Neuromatch Academy was far greater than traditional in-person summer schools, requiring the coordinated effort of a much larger group of scientists. But the rewarding prospect of providing open-source, computational neuroscience training to a global audience, including students from her home country of Iran, outweighed any doubts she had about joining the project. “This seemed like a crazy Quixotic goal when I first heard it because there was so little time and so much to do. It became realistic through the coordinated effort of many organizers including Konrad Kording, Megan Peters, and Carsen Stringer among others, and many volunteers who dropped other priorities to work together towards this one aim.” Madineh also credits her PI, Dr. David Fitzpatrick for his support of Neuromatch Academy despite the related temporary reduction in research productivity.

“Part of the Max Planck Society philosophy is to not only encourage exceptional research but to help scientists become incredible mentors capable of inspiring others to pursue important scientific questions,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said. “I am very proud of the work Madineh has done to share her knowledge and passion for neuroscience in such an impactful way.”

Among the many challenges was the short time frame in which the organizers had to recruit volunteers, and plan activities while getting the message out to neuroscientists around the world that Neuromatch Academy existed. Madineh called the project a “moonshot” but the results were tangible and significant. “We showed the community of neuroscientists, and hopefully funding agencies, that it is feasible to make state-of-the-art education freely accessible to students across the globe. While there will always be a need for in-person classrooms and summer schools, what we were able to achieve with NMA has changed the conversation about the feasibility of making high-quality education accessible.”

The course material for Neuromatch Academy remains online for anyone who wants to learn computational neuroscience skills. All course materials, including lecture notes and videos, code tutorials, and live-streamed Q & A sessions, can be found at http://www.neuromatchacademy.org/syllabus