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Wrap-up of fNIRS 2022, Boston: Celebrating the return of the live conference

By Ippeita Dan, Chuo University, Japan

After two rounds of extensions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fNIRS2022, the Biennial Meeting of the Society for functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (SfNIRS) was FINALLY held in Boston from October 9-12, 2022. It was preceded by five-day virtual sessions starting on October 3, and two-day educational courses October 8-9. Although traveling overseas was still limited for people from many countries, the conference was a great success, attracting 519 participants, with 407 attending onsite and 112 online. These numbers represent the largest participation pool in the history of SfNIRS. Imagine how big it would have been if the pandemic were completely over. Actually, that might have caused over-capacity issues… In any event, total attendance was a large enough number to make it clear that the fNIRS community is getting bigger.

But the pandemic wasn’t over. Because of that, we still experienced differential influence by geographical regions: 65% of the onsite participants were coming from North America, while attendance by European and Asia-Oceanian researchers was limited to 22% and 11%, respectively. Participants from other regions amounted to only 2%. (But we’re grateful for that 2%!) Thus, from the perspective of regional diversity in conference participation, we are still on our way to recovery. I hope pandemic-related impacts will be completely nullified by the time of our next conference, fNIRS2024, to take place in Birmingham, UK.

In contrast to regional representation, fNIRS2022 succeeded in maintaining gender and generation balance. The male-to-female ratio of attendants was almost 48% to 46%, with the other 6% chosing not to identify, or identifying as nonbinary. Such biologically-based natural sampling is rarely achieved in any scientific community, and SfNIRS is very proud that our community maintains gender equality as a cultural norm. Finally, the student ratio of participants was 40%, showing that younger generations are playing active roles in the Society. This is another tradition successfully maintained in the SfNIRS culture. Let’s keep it that way!

Overall success of the conference can be largely attributed to the super-hardworking conference chair, Mari Angela Franceschini, of Massachusetts General Hospital. Mari provided superb hospitality and versatile administrative management. Her multi-functionality is embodied in the schematic figure shown below.

Mari the Lobster embodying super multi-functionality in fNIRS 2022, Boston

Many of her hands were further supported by co-chairs. Of particular note, Sabrina Brigadoi at University of Padova, acted as a Virtual Session Chair. Indeed, the virtual part of the conference was well-organized, offering five days of virtual-only material. This included three poster blitz sessions on Zoom with selected presenters performing three-minute oral presentations. Another session, Virtual Posters in the Spotlight, featured ten-minute oral presentations selected virtual-only presenters. Following these virtual presentations, we even had interactive sessions in GatherTown, where participants enjoyed virtual discussions with poster presenters.

Virtual poster presentation in Gather Town

Another of Mari’s hands was further supported by the Educational Course Chair, Meryem Yücel, of Boston University. Meryem organized the pre-conference educational courses, with valuable contributions from the Education Committee chair, Judit Gervain, of University of Padova, Italy. Expanding on the single day introductory courses offered in the meeting in Tokyo, the Educational Courses for fNIRS 2022 were two days, with 26 parallel sessions. These dealt with diverse technical topics such as time-domain fNIRS, EEG-NIRS corregistration, statistical programming using R, and much more. Moreover, there was no need to be perplexed by heavy technical topics because Rob Cooper, University College London, UK, provided an excellent opening introductory lecture. Taken together, the Educational Courses provided valuable overviews on updates in fNIRS methodological development.

Left. Opening lecture by Rob Cooper. Right. Meryem Yücel chairing the educational course.

Yet another of Mari’s hands supported ME acting as the Program Chair. I was very excited to experience a live conference after the long dark ages of the pandemic. It was particularly wonderful to hear the Keynote Address by Joy Hirsch of Yale University, which focused on social interaction as measured in her recent hyper-scanning studies. The audience could appreciate the importance of social interaction based on her enthusiastic talk alone, and we were very proud to have her confirm for us that fNIRS is the best neuroimaging modality to study social interaction.

Keynote talk by Joy Hirsch focusing on hyperscanning fNIRS on social interaction.

The other special talk was presented by Bruce Tromberg, Director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At NIBIB, Bruce oversees research projects on biomedical imaging totaling approximately $400 million per year. In his talk, Bruse stressed the importance of strategic research investment in newly developing areas of biomedical imaging, including fNIRS. Indeed, there was an encouraging slide showing a steady increase in the amount of research funding available for biomedical imaging studies.

Bruce Tromberg with a graph showing the increasing bio-med imaging budget.

During the conference we had oral presentations across nine sessions, each including several selected short talks and an invited speaker. The topics covered neurodevelopment, preclinical and clinical studies, neonatal clinical applications, social neuroscience, data analysis, hardware, fNIRS methodology, and cognitive neuroscience. These were presented sequentially rather than in parallel session, which enabled us all to share in learning about the state-of-the-art in fNIRS research. There were poster sessions, of course, as well as a rejuvenating lunch each day. Thanks to the administrative assistant, Ms. Stacey Ladieu, lunch and snacks were available (and delicious) throughout the conference. I would say this is almost a miracle to experience in such an expensive city as Boston. Anyhow, the good lunches made us happy and relaxed and able to enjoy subsequent poster-viewing and discussions with presenters in a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. There was a vegetarian option lunch and, coincidentally, two invited presentations featuring vegetable measurement by fNIRS. One, presented by Masami Yamaguchi of Chuo University, Japan, introduced infants’ recognition of vegetables and facial expressions (or maybe vice versa).

Masami Yamaguchi infants’ recognition of vegetables and face expression.

The other was by Gregory Fischer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York talking about neuro-monitoring of patients in critical conditions, which included the introduction of real vegetable measurement by fNIRS.

Gregory Fischer comment on fNIRS measurements on vegetables [Kahn & Anyanwu, Eur J Anaesthiol, 2018]

There was also a Special Session, “Neuroergonomics: fNIRS on the go”, organized by Hasan Ayaz at Drexel University, Philadelphia. This session focused on real-world application of fNIRS beyond conventional artificial laboratory settings. The use of unrestricted real-world tasks in everyday contexts and their relationship to action, behavior, body, and environment was introduced and discussed by panelists from a range of research domains. This was a great session, highlighting the degree to which fNIRS offers unique research opportunities to engage in real-world brain measurement. This work is cultivating new frontiers in neuroimaging studies!

The other feature of the conference was the introduction of a new award to facilitate the active growth of the Society and fNIRS research more generally. The new award, SfNIRS Community Award, was presented to Meryem Yucel, Felix Sholkmann, and ‪Noman Naseer. Recipients of the traditional awards were also announced: the Young Investigator Award was presented to Alexander von Lühmann, with runner-up going to Chiara Bulgarelli. Excellence Awards were given to ten posters and four oral presentations. In addition, to facilitate gender equality, Woman Excellence in Research Awards were presented to nine presentations. Finally, Diversity Equity and Inclusion Travel Award were presented to ten participants from countries with travel challenges.

Left: Early Investigator Awardee Alexander von Lühmann. Right: Runner-up Chiara Bulgarelli.

Last but not least, there was a wonderful social event held in a dance club at downtown Boston. This included a live performance by a local R&B band playing disco classics with an energetic groove. This let young and young-at-heart participants “freak out” on the dance floor. The excellent selection of social events seems like a good tradition to maintain at the SfNIRS Biennial Conference, and we hope this will continue at future conferences.

Social event on a dance club with a live band performance (from fNIRS official twitter).

We must not forget to acknowledge the great contributions of our sponsors of the conference, whose support helped us realize a great event in a difficult time. Now that live conferences are back on the scene in our society, we hope to see EVERYONE in person at the next conference, fNIRS2024, Birmingham, UK. The next meeting will be chaired by Felipe Orihuela-Espina, Hamid Dehghani, and Javier Andreu-Pérez at the University of Birmingham. Indeed, its success was “wish-locked” at a secret at nearby Fenway Park, Boston.

I am not sure whether I have fully conveyed the extent of “academic glamor” of fNIRS2022, Boston, but I hope this report will help get everyone interested in attending forthcoming conferences, and in participating in SfNIRS activities.

Great success being wish-locked for fNIRS 2024 in Birmingham