What was the ‘big news’ at this year’s Ecological Society of America meeting? Given that this meeting is composed of so many different meetings running concurrently, this just might be an impossible question to answer fairly. But for me, this year’s meeting could be summarized as the ‘year of computational ecology’. At a great variety of talks and sessions spanning a great variety of subdisciplines, emerging computational approaches were present and powerful. Although there of course were plenty of talks using the old mode of ‘big theory’ ecological modeling (differential equations and matrix algebra), I see our field shifting towards computational approaches. These computational approaches include simulations on a variety of emerging user-friendly platforms (as evidenced by the number of talks involving NetLogo, StarLogo, and HexSim) that have the power to encourage more ecologists to model their systems and standardize the manner in which computationally-based inquiry is performed. Accompanying this shift in modeling paradigms is a shift in the goal of modeling: no longer obsessed with creating a ‘theory of everything’, modern modeling is both more humble and more adept at tackling real, local problems. I should admit that my bias towards computational approaches certainly biased what sessions I attended, but there were far more options in this area than there have been at previous meetings.
I was proud to once again contribute my own work to the meeting. There were two major ‘firsts’ for me at this meeting: my first time presenting a poster and my first time presenting my pedagogical work at ESA. Both were learning experiences. My hope with the poster was that presenting my work in this format would allow me to have more meaningful impact on more attendees. Although my talks have often enjoyed strong attendance at past meetings, I have always felt that it was very difficult to get traction on their impact. For all I know, every single person in the room was wishing to be somewhere else the moment I began presenting. At least with a poster one does not possess a semi-captive audience. What I discovered was that poster sessions do not really bring too many committed visitors. Most people drift by, and only a very small handful stop to learn more. Those that do stop by are clearly interested, and the poster format allows for custom presentation of information to each visitor. But judged on the sheer volume of visitors I received, the poster was less than successful. With so many posters and the ‘around dinnertime’ timing of the poster sessions, a lot of people (myself sometimes included) do not even make the poster sessions. For my particular presentation this year, which was basically aimed at promoting use of a free teaching tool, the poster was an ‘okay’ means of disseminating information. But at future meetings and whenever I am presenting my research work, I am definitely going to do a talk. Talks — for all their isolation — seem to be more effective and garner more attention.
One of the nice things about this year’s meeting for me was the opportunity to present my work in multiple forums. As one of four people presenting at this year’s Resources for Ecology Education: Fair and Share (REEFS) special session, I got the chance to present my Evolution of Sustainable Use teaching tool to a pretty large audience. The way that the session was run was really smart: during three twelve-minute sessions, visitors could rotate between the four available presenters. This gave me the chance to introduce my teaching tool to three separate groups of 8-10 people, which is far more exposure than I received at the poster session. Having done the REEFS presentation beforehand, it is hard to know whether my poster garnered less attention in part because those interested had already heard my spiel, but it was nice to have this redundant opportunity built into the meeting. Many thanks to Julie Reynolds and Andrea McMillen, who organized the REEFS session in a very effective manner.
In addition to presenting, I also served as a mentor at this year’s meeting. In a new initiative, ESA asked each section to nominate several volunteer mentors to discuss their work at a social following the opening plenary and at an early-morning networking event for graduate students and post-docs. I volunteered and was selected for the Education section, the only area in which I feel accomplished enough to mentor anyone. Like the poster sessions, the impact of this program was hampered by minimal interest from the target audience. At the Sunday night social I stood around a table for two hours talking to other Education section meetings and waiting for potential mentees to arrive. Only two showed up: one undergraduate with a vague interest in education and a graduate student with the goal of teaching in a predominantly undergraduate institution. Only for the latter visitor did I feel that I had much to offer. While the networking breakfast was really successful in terms of its attendance, the way in which it was organized hampered its effectiveness. Crammed into a small room with not even enough tables to fit everyone, there was no chance for any real mingling and finding an appropriate mentor. I wonder if anyone at the meeting is looking for the kind of job I have, but only luck would have found that person talking to me. In the future such mentorship programs need to be less free-form in order to be effective. Every mentor should be profiled so that potential mentees can seek out the person most valuable to their interests. We also need to have more mentees signed up ahead of time so that we do not rely on the vagaries of passing social events to snag interested students. And perhaps, I must admit, we need to be more rigorous about what earns one the right to be a mentor: if very few are interested in ecology education, we do not need an army of Education section mentors.
I am still trying to figure out how to make my experience at the ESA meeting full. The scholarly part is about as much as I can handle at this point: there are so many talks and I pull in so much information that I cannot really imagine doing any better in this area. But being at the meeting is also supposed to be about getting your work out there and making contacts, two closely-related activities that I am still struggling with. Being at the ESA meeting reminds me of my time in a very active underground music scene where so many people were starting bands that it sometimes seemed impossible to get anyone to listen to your own band. Analogously, I am simultaneously a fan and a participant in this scientific community, and so is pretty much everyone else at the meeting. I know full well that until my work becomes more interesting, it will not generate all that much interest.
That leaves the social piece. Here I feel that ESA should be more fulfilling than it turns out to be. Not knowing all that many people at the meeting, I find that I leave not knowing that many more. I definitely get to know a few new people during each year that I attend, mostly through the sections to which I belong. But the general social experience is — to put it frankly — awkward. Attempts to strike up conversations with random people generally do not result in much (if any!) response, and even joking fails to penetrate what seems like an almost-universal closing off in meeting attendees. I am struggling to understand why this might be. Is this an ecology thing? Are we too fractured as a field to do much more than cling to our little subdisciplinary groups? Or is this a science thing? Are most people attracted to science less endowed with social skills (at least until the beers start flowing)? Or is the aloof social tone driven by the major group to attend the conference, graduate students and early career postgraduates (a group to which I still belong)? Are the pressures to succeed in this field and the very limited avenues for a sustainable career making meeting attendees more uptight? I have no idea which of all these factors can be attributed to what I experience, but I wish that the meeting felt more friendly.
Portland is a wonderful city in which to hold the meeting, so wonderful that I hesitate to point out how problematic its conference center is. Running between the A-B-C meeting rooms and the D-E/ballroom section is pretty much impossible in the five minutes provided between talks (even when moderators actually do their job and cut off speakers after 15 minutes). But I am willing to deal with this problem in order to keep ESA on its ‘Portland every eight years’ program. Portland is the perfect city for a meeting: there are plenty of options for lodging, the best mix of food I have ever experienced, and many great possibilities for field trips and before-meeting activities. If ESA could happen in just one segment of the conference hall that would be an improvement, but I will attend every Portland meeting regardless.