Blimey. Judging by the reaction to my earlier Tweet, there's something to be done here. And it makes sense because fMRI has been around for thirty years yet seems to be as ad hoc today as it was at its genesis. We're half the age of modern electronic computing, twice as old as Facebook and Twitter. FMRI predates the NCSA Mosaic web browser, for goodness sake. Let that sink in for a minute.
This is something I've been pondering for a long time. In 2010 I thought I might write a textbook to capture what I saw as the fundamental knowledge that every fMRIer would need to know to set up and run an experiment. I started writing this blog as a way to draft chapters for the textbook. The textbook idea got, uh, shelved as early as 2011, once I realized that a blog is better-suited to delivering content on a subject that is inherently dynamic. Try embedding a movie in a textbook! But then the blog, in its original guise, sorta ran out of steam a few years ago, too. And the main reason why I ran out of steam is directly relevant to this post. I was getting into areas about which I know little to nothing, in an attempt to be able to write blog posts relevant to fMRI research. Take the post series on "fMRI data modulators," my rather clunky term for "that which causes your fMRI time series to vary in ways you probably don't want." I was having to try to teach myself respiratory and vascular physiology from scratch. The last time I sat in a formal biology class I was 13. Recently, I've encountered machine learning, glucose metabolism, vascular anatomy and a slew of other areas about which I know almost nothing. Where does one start????
On the assumption that I'm not alone, it would seem there's a trade to be made. If I can teach k-space to a psychologist, surely a statistician can teach an anatomist about normal distributions, a biochemist can teach an electrical engineer about the TCA cycle, and so on. With very few exceptions, all of us could really use better foundational knowledge somewhere. We are all impostors!
No doubt your first reaction is "Sounds lovely, but nobody has the time!" I respectfully disagree. You are likely already spending the time. My suggestion is to determine whether there might be a more efficient way for you to spend your time, by joining a pool of like-minded "teachers" who will cover the things you can't or won't cover. So, here is a throwaway list of things to consider before you pass judgment:
- We are all trying to do/learn/teach the same things! There ought to be a more efficient way to do it.
- The core concepts needed to understand and run fMRI experiments change relatively slowly. The shelf life of the fundamentals should last a decade or more. Updates can be infrequent.
- Most of us have limited teaching resources. Few, if any institutions can cover all the core areas well.
- My students become your postdocs. Wouldn’t you want them to arrive with a solid base?
- Today’s students are tomorrow’s professors. If we are to improve teaching overall, we have to start at the bottom, not at the top.
- A lot of topical problems (including poor replication, double-dipping, motion sensitivity, physiologic nuisance fluctuations) could be reduced at source by people setting up and executing better experiments through deeper knowledge. Crap in, crap out.
- We are all super busy, yet the effort to contribute to a distributed syllabus could be a wash, perhaps even a net reduction, because you won't have to BS your way through stuff you don't really understand yourself.
- I want to learn, too! It’s hard to determine an efficient path through new areas! I need a guide.
That just leaves the final step: doing it. Until he regrets his offer, Pradeep Raamana has generously offered use of his Quality Conversations forum to commence organizing efforts. I envision a first meeting at which we attempt to define all the main areas that comprise a "core syllabus" for fMRI. This would include, at the very least, NMR physics, MRI physics, various flavors of physiology, some biochemistry, neuroanatomy, basic statistics, machine learning, experimental design and models, scanner design, etc. If we can identify 6-8 umbrella areas then I'd look to create teams for each who would actually determine what they consider to be core, or fundamental, to their domain. Most likely, it's the stuff with a very long shelf life. We're not trying to be topical, the goal is to give everyone practicing fMRI a basic common framework. We want to define the equivalents of the Periodic Table in chemistry, Newtonian mechanics in physics, eukaryotic cell structure in biology, etc.
Doable? Drop your thoughts below.