Lawrence DeGeest attended the 2012 Society for Neuroscience Conference for Motherboard. Read his previous dispatches here.
A rumor circulated the conference for a few days about a scientist going around in a cape. I’m not sure if it was true or not, but I stopped caring when I met NYU doctoral student Michael Caruso. Resplendent in sequin fashion and mutton chops, Caruso chatted up a pair of belles smoking shag in the Louisiana heat, and then made a sparkling entrance to the poster galley, where he presented his latest work on brain disorders. I hadn’t seen that much personality in one man since Buenos Aires, and especially not in a neuroscientist. Naturally an interview was in order, with of course there was only one way to begin.
Motherboard: Let’s start with those pants. Are they actually pants?
Caruso: Haha, no, they are not in fact “pants.” They’re sequined tights I purchased from from Joyce Leslie.
Well I imagine they must have opened a few eyes here at the conference.
I definitely got more than a few double-takes. A few people even recognized me from last year’s conference when I had shaved half of my head.
Caruso digs brains. This and above photo by Caruso
Everything about you seems to be about the merging of multiple worlds. It makes me think of the importance of true expression.
I think expression in general is all about building a character, making ourselves larger than life. When it comes to what I wear, I have a split second to give someone an impression of who I am. In that split second I like to do something unexpected, something that makes people take a second look. Being someone with my foot in several different worlds, I like to play off of that when it comes to the way I express myself visually.
Here we are in New Orleans. What do you think?
I’m in love with this city. The music, the culture, the people: it’s all so vibrant and yet relaxed. I’ve met people from all over the world, musicians, artists, activists, scientists, and all of them come together here. America in general is known as a melting pot, but it’s here in New Orleans that I really feel some truth to that. Everyone just exists together. It’s really special.
I feel like you were made for the French Quarter. Or maybe made from the French Quarter. Anyways there is definitely a flourish of Mardi Gras to your look.
I definitely tried to use the flourish and decadence of Mardi Gras as inspiration for some of my outfits. It got to the point that more than a few people mistook me for a native.
And what about the conference? Jesus Christ is it big.
SfN is huge! It’s always huge and will always be huge. It’s astounding to recognize how large the field of neuroscience is. There were over 10,000 posters alone by my estimate. Everyday has overlapping symposiums featuring hundreds of speakers from across the world. It’s literally overwhelming, which is why I come with a strategy. I approach the conference from both a scientific and a social angle.
“Socially, I use an approach I like to call scientific peacocking.”
Scientifically, I find the research that is relevant to my work and select a few key presentations to focus on. Socially, I use an approach I like to call scientific peacocking. I plan all of my SfN outfits carefully to be both quasi-professional and ostentatious. I meet a hell of a lot of people this way, many of whom I wouldn’t meet if I stayed within my corner of neuroscience.
You presented some of your research. Tell us about it.
My research attempts to answer the question of how the brain changes in developmental disorders. I work with the visual disorder amblyopia, commonly known as “lazy eye.” The brain of of a person with amblyopia actually works differently when it comes to visual processing. I take a look at the nature of some of those changes, specifically when it comes to visual motion perception.
Did you dress for the occasion?
When it came to presenting my science, my outfit was much more about understatement. I didn’t want it to detract from what I was presenting. However, that didn’t stop me from color coordinating with my poster.
What did the coordination look like?
I used a purple and green color scheme in the poster, which I mirrored in my outfit. I was wearing a fitted purple dress shirt with a black vest and light green tie, along with a pair of black riding pants and Frye boots.
I’m going to say this is a neuroscience in-joke on left brain/right brain. Photo by Leland Bobbé
If I gave you a million dollars, what science would you do?
My goal is to eventually take my research in the direction of more cognitive developmental disorders like autism or psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. I decided to study neuroscience because of an intense interest in how normal cognition can become disrupted. My current research examines these questions in the visual system, where our answers aren’t muddled so much by a limited understanding of cognition. If I had a million dollars I would probably use it to move my research in a more cognitive direction.
Sorry, I don’t have a million dollars.
Financial promises were made Mr. DeGeest. I expect compensation.
How about these sequin cuffs I found in a voodoo shop? I suspect they are haunted since they were robbed off the skeleton of Isaac Newton.
I knew Sir Isaac originated scientific peacocking! Finally I have proof.
And alongside scientist, you’re also a burlesque dancer.
That I am. I don’t get to perform as much as I did in my first year in grad school, but I do still get on stage from time to time under the performance name Dr. Flux. Burlesque first appealed to me because it is literally a limitless theatrical art form. The only rule is that you need to take something off. I’ve been able to explore a lot off different ideas and concepts creatively on stage in ways that have pushed me to look at the world differently. I think staying creatively active helps me to stay mentally active in ways that inevitably inform my science.
SfN ought to apply the law of burlesque to poster presentations next year to make grant money fly.
I don’t know about grant money, but these conferences would be decidedly more entertaining if clothing removal was required by each poster presenter.
*New York City attracts all sorts of suspect characters. How does the graduate student fit into the scene?
The thing I love about New York City is that any one of your identities doesn’t need to define you. When I go out at night I can become whoever or whatever I want. The lines blur in this city; the only limits are the ones we impose on ourselves.
Aside from neuroscience, Caruso dabbles in makeup. Photo by Rae Maxwell
The perfect day and night in NYC is:
The perfect day starts with a bike ride along the Hudson and finishes with a late lunch/early dinner in the West Village complete with people watching. The perfect night begins at 11 in a seedy East Village dive bar and ends at 6 AM in a loft in Brooklyn with torn fishnets, rhinestones in unexpected places, and makeup encrusted contact lenses.
If you could only dress one way for the rest of your life, what would you wear?
A red waistcoat, white pants, white shirt, accented by a red, orange, and fuschia paisley vest with matching red paisley cravat. It would be cut in the style of a a Mad Men power suit.
I imagine you having a side-kick dressed the same.
He goes by “The Footman.” We pull heists all over the city.