Ecology is the study of relationships between organisms and their habitats and one hundred years ago it was in its infancy as a modern science. Starting with studies focused on plant and animal communities, it has since grown in scope to include research at scales from the molecular to the global…
…and has become more interdisciplinary, for example combining chemistry, geology and biology into Biogeosciences,
or combining social sciences and ecology into a focus on Human Ecology.
The implications of new research findings are huge, informing our understanding of and search for solutions to a myriad of the most important issues globally, including spread of disease, food production, water supply issues, sustainable urbanization and climate change1, 2.
However, the field of ecology was not always so prominent. At the 1914 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a small group of around 20 plant and animal biologists discussed the need for an ecological society that would allow scientists in the burgeoning field to meet regularly in order to advance the science. A year later, in 1915, 50 scientists formally created the Ecological Society of America (ESA), a group that grew to nearly 300 charter members within the first two years3. If you are interested in more ESA history see click here.
Now one hundred years later, I (and my colleagues including fellow bloggers Megan Litwhiler and Tony Cullen) spent the last week in Baltimore with many of our colleagues at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting (see this editorial in Science by David Inouye). This meeting marked the 100th birthday of ESA (#ESA100), an anniversary noted even by President Obama in this video!
So what is the Ecological Society of America? To quote from the ESA website,
The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of scientists founded in 1915 to:
- promote ecological science by improving communication among ecologists;
- raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of ecological science;
- increase the resources available for the conduct of ecological science; and
- ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communication between the ecological community and policy-makers
Essentially, ESA is “the world’s largest organization for professional ecologists” with over 10,000 members, many international. Of course it is not the only professional society for ecologists, there is the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL) and many others serving other nations (e.g.the Ecological Society of Australia, the British Ecological Society -which has the distinction of being the oldest ecological society in the world, and the Ecological Society of Japan (ESJ) ).
And one of the big roles of ESA and other scientific professional organizations is to organize annual meetings where scientists from around the world and across the field come together to exchange research results and collaborate.
For those of you who have never gone to a scientific meeting before, the general idea is sessions of research talks organized into general themes,it ends up being lots and lots of talks.
Here is an example of how one of my days might have gone, in reality there is usually a lot more jumping around between talks (see below for acronym explanation) as sessions often run concurrently making you have to choose between talks.
Tuesday Aug 11, 2015
8:00 am – 11:30 am: COS 31 – Invasion 1
10:10 am: COS 31-7*: Invasive mason bees are not limited by floral resources but may be limited by nest site availability – *I present this talk
11:30 am – 12:00 pm – meet colleagues for lunch
12:00 pm – 1:15 pm – CELS: Joshua Tewsbury
1:30 pm – 3:00 pm – IGN 5 – Image processing and computer vision for ecology
1:30 pm – 5:00pm – SYMP 9 – Fostering transdisciplinary science to meet 21st century challenges: How can ecology learn from the science of ‘team science’?
**Arrive during the 2nd half only
4:30 pm – 6:00 pm – Poster Session
6:30 pm – 8:00 pm – ESA Sections Joint Mixer (see Networking below)
8:00 pm – 10:00 pm – SS 17 – Expanding diversity in the next generation of ecology
OR 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm – WK 45 – Killing the powerpoint: exploring teaching moments via impromptu chalk talks
COS = Contributed Oral Sessions – These sessions are made up of talks that are given by the scientists who performed the research and are usually short (10-15 min) with time for questions. Contributed talks are submitted by scientists and approved by a selection committee. There are also Organized Oral Sessions (OOS) that are organized in advance with more specialized topics, for example one I attended was titled, “Bees Across Urban Environments: Social and Ecological Forces.” Scientists giving these talks are invited to join the session.
CELS* = Centennial Ecology Lecture Series – invited lecture on broad topic given by an expert in the field
IGN = Ignite Sessions – These session have super short talks that just introduce an idea, often on a controversial or new topic
SYMP* = Symposium – These are longer talks within a session with a broad theme that should provide some synthesis or new context to the field. Accompanied by discussion or question and answer sessions.
Poster Session = Bulletin boards are lined up in an exhibition hall and poster displaying research projects are posted there. During the session, the scientist stands by their poster and speaks to other scientists one-on-one. See images below.
SS = Special Sessions – These can be panel discussions, lectures, film screenings, etc. Field trips are a separate category that takes people off-site to another place.
WK = Workshop – These are to learn new skills rather than share research results.
*The plenary talks and symposia are often by eminent or up and coming scientists. As described by one of my friends, “I got to meet or hear from some of the neat ecologists I follow on Twitter. That was cool. These people are movers and shakers, and it’s neat to hear them in person.”
In my own (unscientific) survey of my colleagues attending the 2015 meeting, most mentioned one or more reasons for attending these conferences, including 1) sharing your own research, 2) finding out about other people’s research; 3) networking; 4) professional development; or 5) outreach. These reasons vary in importance depending on where you are in your career.
- Sharing your own research. Many of us attend ESA in order to present our own research as either a talk or a poster. Such an exchange of research with other scientists is essential to the scientific process and many funding sources require scientists to disseminate their results. This can be a nerve-wracking experience, as it opens the speaker up to critique or judgment from our peers and sometimes leaders in our field of study, but as my friend said, “I hate presenting but it is important to share what I’ve found with the scientific community.” By presenting our work we can gain valuable feedback or ideas from other scientists and hopefully, as another friend suggested, presenting also “raises the profile of my research, and ultimately, me as a researcher.” A professor from my department mentioned that scientific meetings are a good time to “show off what my lab is doing.” Presenting research also facilitates meeting other people working in our field and can lead to networking (see below), future collaborations and maybe even jobs!
- Finding out about other people’s research. It is also valuable to see what other people in our field are doing. I often find meetings inspiring, especially if I have been feeling bogged down by research or non-research related set-backs. This is true even for established scientists, as one told me “I go to meetings to get motivated to plough on, since everybody seems to be so enthusiastic about what they are doing.” Talking about ideas is exciting and can remind of us of our progress and why we do what we do! Annual meetings are a great place to, as one of my friends stated “keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on.” My other colleagues, across the career spectrum from undergraduate first time attendee to recently graduated PhDs to mid-career academics agreed. As another friend said, “I go to ESA to learn about recent research, not just the results but also to discover new methodologies and puzzle over ideas in different ways.”
This introduction to new methods and ideas is possible in part because ESA is such a large organization and so the diversity of subfields are represented in talks that run the gamut from Behavioral Ecology to Evolutionary Ecology to Conservation Ecology and include workshops in Statistical Ecology or Molecular Ecology (just to name a few).
For example, I can attend talks focused on bees (my study organisms) found in all ecosystems from polar regions to deserts.
Or I can attend talks on a variety of organisms within one ecosystem type, like in the urban ecology sessions. It is also possible to focus on ecological theories and how they are applied across ecosystems and taxa.
I love this diversity of topics but it can be overwhelming, as an undergraduate I was mentoring said, “As a first time attendee, I was a little overwhelmed the first day because the conference was so large.” But she quickly got the hang of things and in the end she said “I learned something new at each talk I attended and had a great time at the conference overall.”
Figuring out a personal strategy is a crucial part of each meeting and strategies change over time depending on what stage of your career you are in. As a good friend explained to me, “After 5 ESAs, I kind of know the drill, so it’s much easier as you know more strategy to get very targeted about what you need to hear (and when it is actually best to go away and do something local, process what you’ve heard). I feel like at my first few ESAs, I was more scattered, as was my research, so I was running all over the place. It’s cool to hear all this new stuff, but ultimately, you can only actually take away so much, so as research and goals become more focused, so does my strategy about ‘how to ESA.’.”
- Networking. Now that I have been working in the field of ecology for at least 10 years, one of my favorite parts of attending the annual ESA meeting is seeing old friends and colleagues, catching up on what they are working on now. As my friend put it,” I go to ESA to hear from and meet up with new and old colleagues. I want to see what they are up to (see their talks) and talk about ongoing collaborations.” A mid-career colleague noted the importance of ESA to set up work meetings with collaborators and fellow editors that are otherwise hard to meet with in person due to geographical and/or time constraints.
It is also a good time to make new connections. My undergraduate mentee used the meeting to make connections for applying to graduate school and despite her early-meeting jitters, in the end she found that “Everyone was very friendly and approachable.” I had a similar experience as part of the new Early Career Mentoring Program. I was mentored by Julie Reynolds, an associate professor at Duke University, who generously took me to lunch and shared her career experiences and advice with me. Through this program I also met other early career scientists with whom I can develop a support network or future collaborations.
Mixers hosted by various sections and chapters of ESA are another good way to meet new people and learn about new fields. ESA sections are often interdisciplinary and connect to other disciplines or highlight subfields of ecology (e.g. Applied Ecology, Agroecology, Urban Ecosystem Ecology). ESA chapters connect people who work and live in the same regions (e.g. Mid-Atlantic). Mixers have food and sometimes drinks or a cash bar and provide a forum for people within the same field or region to get to know one another.
- Professional development. Many professional meetings now include career development and research-related workshops and ESA is no exception. The meeting last week included workshops that covered skills in statistics, budget planning, how to get grants, mentoring next generation scientists, lesson planning, how to effectively perform outreach efforts, tips for better scientific communication, and how to get involved in policy efforts (for a full list click here). ESA this year also included a panel on early career challenges as well as events that aim to support students (Student Section), women and other under-represented groups in science.
- Outreach. Meetings can be a great way to let the broader public know more about a scientific discipline. Some of these come from unplanned opportunities, such as the overlap of the end of Bronycon, a convention for fans of My Little Pony with the beginning of ESA this year. Others are well planned out in advance and seek to connect with the local community, such as a Bioblitz at the site of the conference (and see Jill’s post). The past two ESA meetings have included a new project called the Earth Stewardship Initiative (ESI) that my friend, a former ESI fellow and current volunteer described as a project that “is designed to take ecologists and insert them into the landscape design and architecture processes. The idea is to have more ecologically-based and sustainable [urban] designs that also can incorporate experiments into the design.” ESI fellows gain real-world experience working with landscape architects and urban designers to design ecologically sound parks and greenspaces that are in the planning stages. As a part of the process they must also pitch their ideas to the citizens who live in the communities affected by the plans. This can be “a harrowing and exciting experience”, said my friend, but he added, “one that I came to appreciate and love quickly.”
Of course ESA is just one many professional scientific organizations, some ecologically related ones include the Society for Ecological Restoration, the Society for Conservation Biology, and the Society for the Study of Evolution).
And then there are the taxon specific scientific organizations including The Entomological Society of America, The Ornithological Societies of North America, The Botanical Society of America, Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians, The American Society of Mammalologists, and many others.
Please comment below about your own experiences at ESA or another scientific conference. Or if you want to compare how scientific conference compare to other professional meetings!
I’d like to thank all the people who responded my informal survey and shared their opinions. I would also like to thank the Early Career Section for their work putting together a great mentoring experience as well as my mentor, Julie Reynolds. And thanks to the Holzapfel lab for adopting me for this meeting!
1 Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES: https://www.ipbes.net/).