Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Evolution 2010 (Overall Impressions)

Posted 30 Jun 2010 / 0
The verdant base of the Multnomah Falls

I really enjoyed Evolution 2010. It was a very well-organized conference that came off without any hitches. Having been involved in the execution of Evolution 2006 at Stony Brook University, I understand how much work goes into making these meetings happen. Portland State University deserves much credit for the effort of their faculty and students.

A couple of technical details about the meeting bear some reevaluation. The first is the use of twelve-minute talks. Many years ago the Ecological Society of America went to a fifteen-minute talk format at their annual meeting. Although it sounds like this difference is trivial (only three minutes), it is not. Squeezing four talks into each hour creates a very different dynamic than the alternative of three talks. In theory the three minutes in between talks is supposed to allow for questions and transit between rooms, but in practice most people take this extra time to finish their presentation; twelve minutes is simply too little time to develop a decent narrative. Sometimes poorly-moderated sessions are allowed to go over, which throws off people who are coming from other sessions.

I can imagine why the 12-minute talks are the norm: it allows for a meeting that is 25% smaller, either in extent (fewer concurrent sessions) or duration (fewer total days). But whatever the costs associated with adopting ESA’s 20-minute model, I think that they would be worth it for future Evolution meetings to adopt this talk duration. Fifteen minutes is a reasonable amount of time in which to present substantial research and/or ideas, and five minutes of questioning allow for valuable discussion, reasonable non-disruptive movement between sessions, and even a little insurance against slightly-too-long presentations. In planning these meetings, I think that we need to acknowledge that many speakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to get to the meeting and ought to be afforded enough time to present substantial work.

A second practice that bears reconsideration is the use of Window-based machines in each presentation room. The overwhelming majority of evolutionary biologists seem to be Mac users, and although there is a version of Powerpoint for Mac, presentations rarely run clean when translated to a Windows version of Powerpoint. Of particular concern are movies, as Windows does not support Quicktime videos. Because of this poor translation, presentations either don’t run right (if the presenter does not bother to use the rehearsal room to discover all translation problems) or have to be neutered to work on Windows (after all the poor translations are found and excised in the rehearsal room). It’s my impression that the opposite translation (Windows to Mac Powerpoint) presents fewer problems. I imagine that getting Mac’s might be more expensive and I am guessing that most of the companies that provide these computers for conferences are mired in the Windows world, but it would be worth it to try to find a vendor that supports Mac’s for future Evolution meetings.

I have not been able to make it to a meeting every summer, but I have been to many. If given the opportunity I would certainly go to Evolution and ESA every year. But in the the meantime, I need to pick and choose my meetings, and if you are going to wait to make it to a meeting, you could not pick a better city than Portland. Portland, Oregon and Montreal, Quebec, Canada are now tied in my book for best conference cities (and I have been to two conferences in each city!). Both have a great overall vibe, abundant fun that is only a short bike or transit ride away, and fabulous food.

Recycling is standard within Portland city limits, including at the Oregon Convention Center

Sustainability has become a pretty big buzz word and sometimes it is hard to tease substance from public relations when it comes to environmental impact, but Portland seems to be a city poised to deal with the challenges of de-globalization necessary to establishing a sustainable city. Most notably, bicycling is prevalent and well-supported throughout the city. This is key as Portland’s biggest sustainability challenge has to be its sprawled footprint. Walking will only get you so far in Portland, and bicycling has the potential to get you anywhere in the city. One thing that makes it clear how integrated cycling is into Portland life is the deference afforded to cyclists by drivers. There is still a lot of car ownership and use in Portland, but when and if the expense of driving goes up, Portland will at least have a viable means of transportation. Buses and trains are as bike friendly as the roads, although the light rail could be expanded to reach more neighborhoods. In addition to a pretty green transport potential, Portland has already realized a wonderfully sustainable food culture. Vegan and local foods are everywhere. There’s also a very strong ethic of reuse and recycling that is standard in many places. I am sure for those who live in Portland there are imagined ways of making the city more sustainable, but to the visitor staying a week the place looks pretty green: especially compared to the rest of country.

Bike parking made out of car parking

Conferences are exhausting, but Portland made me want to get sleep-deprived and rely on the coffee breaks to carry me through each day. There is amazing, affordable food in Portland, and you could not find a more vegan-friendly town. Portland has this wonderful food cart culture, and you can find almost every kind of food — including some pretty unique recombinations of different ethnic food — from one of Portland’s many food cart areas. There’s also a fabulous music scene, with bands playing too late seemingly every night in the summer. I think that having such a lively background to an academic meeting is critical: it allows for balance in the face of a lot of intellectual stimulation and provides an environment that is conducive to socializing with other conference participants. Finally, outside of Portland there is abundant opportunity for outdoor adventuring. For my part I visited three food carts, ate at two restaurants, climbed to the top of one waterfall, saw bands play on two different nights, skated at two different skateparks, and visited Voodoo donuts no less than three times. Dear Portland, I will see you again for the Ecological Society of America meeting in 2012!

Below are a few pictures of places I visited and things I saw while in Portland:

I visited this “urban farm”, a regular-looking house with goats, ducks, a turkey and a beehive
Music is abundant late at night in Portland

Weird and exotic Voodoo Donuts

Voodoo on display: donuts on the top row are vegan

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