Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Preview of the 2012 Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Portland, Oregon

Posted 02 Aug 2012 / 0

I am off to another Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting, my sixth and the society’s ninety-seventh. As I already covered in a previous post, I will be presenting a poster entitled “The Evolution of Sustainable Use, a flash-based classroom tool for teaching population biology and sustainable resource management” during the Tuesday afternoon poster session. And while it is exciting to present my own work, doing so is really just a rationale for getting to the meeting, where the real fun is hearing about other people’s work.

This year’s meeting theme is “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining our Ecosystems“. I have found that many of the themes imposed on these meetings end up being pretty similar from year-to-year, with a prevailing push to apply ecology to real-world problems and make connections to policy motivating most themes. Very few ecologists attending the meeting have the ability to provide presentations that fit perfectly with the theme (generally we are presenting work that was years in the making), but the themes serve to motivate particular organized sessions and symposia that give the meeting a more coherent feel.

If there is one big breakout topic at this year’s ESA meeting, it has to be ecosystem services. Clearly this is in line with the theme, so perhaps I am underselling the importance of these yearly impositions. Along with a small poster session on Monday afternoon and contributed oral sessions on Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning, and Thursday afternoon, there are five sessions dedicated to various facets of ecosystem services. On Tuesday afternoon Symposium 7 explores Pollination Services In a Changing World: Ecological and Evolutionary Implications. Thursday morning features Symposium 18, dedicated to Grappling with Intangibles: Bringing Cultural Ecosystem Services Into Decision-Making as well as Organized Oral Session 41, Ecosystem Services Valuation: Its Evolution, Innovative Approaches, and the Current State of the Science. Thursday morning is just packed with presentations on ecosystem services! Thursday afternoon includes Organized Oral Session 49, Why Do Birds Matter? Birds’ Ecological Functions and Ecosystem Services, and Friday morning brings the culminating Symposium 23, Commodifying Nature: The Scientific Basis for Ecosystem Services Valuation In Environmental Decision Making.

There are also some interesting dedicated sessions on biofuels and bioenergy. Monday Morning’s Special Session 4 fosters A Debate on the Sustainability of Biomass Production for Energy. On Wednesday morning, Symposium 10 considers the Growing Risk: Assessing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy while Organized Oral Session 22 considers The Ecological Intersection of Biofuels and Food Production. Wednesday afternoon’s Symposium 13 tackles the question Bioenergy and Biodiversity: Oxymoron or Opportunity?. A brief review of these sessions suggests that they might even be labeled ‘dueling’; this should make for some fun discussion sessions!

There is usually not a lot on evolution in general or more specifically the evolution of cooperation at ESA meetings, but I am looking forward to a few presentations in this favorite area. Tuesday’s poster session features Competition and cooperation in three species of sympatric corvids (crows and cooperation, what could be more enticing?) which I will have to check out at lunch time (the one bad thing about posters is that they prevent you from checking out concurrent posters). On Wednesday afternoon there are two cooperation talks, one entitled How cooperation and colony size affect prey size use among sympatric social spider species and the other Competition between species can drive public-goods cooperation within a species. There are also an abundance of talks and posters exploring various kinds of mutualisms, and I will attend as many of these as possible in order to bone up on my inter-species cooperation.

I really enjoy the networking opportunities offered by ESA meetings, especially given my relative isolation as an ecologist at my home institution. I belong to a number of interest sections, all of which have mixers and/or meetings throughout the conference. On tap for me will be the Theoretical Ecology Section Mixer on Monday night, the Education section and joint Environmental Justice/Urban Ecosystem Ecology section mixers on Tuesday evening, Environmental Justice Section Meeting and Discussion at Wednesday lunchtime, and the Researchers at Undergraduate Institutions Business Meeting on Wednesday evening. So many great opportunities to meet new people and catch up with old friends.

The ESA meetings always offer a great variety of invaluable workshops. Because they can last for up to an entire day, these workshops allow experts in a particular field to provide focused, detailed guidance on a particular topic. I love the skill-sharing spirit of these workshops. Although it is all day and on Sunday, I am going to make the time for Steven Railsback and Volker Grimm’s Workshop 8, Getting off the Ground with Individual-Based Modeling: A Primer for Instructors and Researchers. I have been reading their new textbook on the topic (which will not surprisingly be the basis for this workshop), and have been impressed by their work to bring agent-based modeling into wider use and acceptance in the field of ecology. I will also be participating in Monday morning’s Special Session 12, Resources for Ecology Education: Fair and Share (REEFS), where I will be looking for tips on finally getting my Evolution of Sustainable Use activity published in EcoEd Digital Library.

Finally, I am proud to be participating in a new mentoring program offered to graduate students and postdocs by ESA this year. The program centers around two events, the Sunday night Networking for Students and Early Career Professionals event, and the Graduate Student and Post Doc Roundtable with ESA Leadership breakfast on Tuesday morning. As an early-career scientist with very modest academic achievements I was not sure that I should be mentoring anyone, but I am one of several section members representing the Education section and I feel very qualified and excited to mentor aspiring teachers. Coming from a predominantly-undergraduate, non-majors-serving institution, I hope to provide a breath of fresh air for those graduate students and post-docs who are looking to break out of the Research-One portion of academia. It does not hurt that my department will also be searching for at least one new full-time faculty member this year: Brooklyn, anyone?

One of my conflicts in choosing what sessions to attend at ESA meetings is defined by my dual roles as researcher and educator. As a researcher, it is critical that I see as many talks and look at as many posters in my field as possible. Given that most of my research has been oriented towards modeling, an attendance strategy based solely on my research interests would place me at a lot of theoretical talks. I enjoy these, but try to be selective about which I attend as many simply provide a new application of techniques I already know and understand. There are diminishing returns associated with staying within the narrower boundaries of scholarly discipline. The alternative approach — one that supports my role as teacher — is to attend a broad diversity of talks, particularly those that relate to courses that I teach. At the ESA meeting, this mostly comes down to attending more applied talks, in particular those related to sustainability. As about a third of my yearly teaching load is dedicated to a sustainability-themed non-majors ecology course, there are a lot of topics covered at this meeting that I need to know more about.

I am excited and ready for the diversity and the overload of another ESA meeting!

A Major Post, Anthropogenic Change, Behavior, Conferences, Cooperation, Ecological Modeling, Ecological Society of America, Ecology, Ecosystem Services, Interactions, Sustainability, Talks & Seminars, Teaching

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