EGG heads talk ecological genetics in Dublin

Using genetics to understand ecology is fascinating. The data reveal things that often cannot be found by observation alone, such as patterns of cryptic diversity, migration pathways and the source of colonising populations.

But life in ecological genetics research is peculiar because we sit on a border between two fairly different fields of science. In an ecological crowd we’re called the ‘genetics person’ while among geneticists we’re seen to have only a rudimentary knowledge of ‘real’ genetics and our comments on ecological theory are sometimes met with funny looks. So spending time in an ecological genetics crowd is refreshing and, last week, about 30 members of the British Ecological Society did exactly that.


The BES Ecological Genetics Special Interest Group (affectionately known as EGG) meet every year and 2017 was their first meeting in Ireland. It was a strategic move from the organising team headed by Dr Gemma Beatty (Aberystwyth University) to expand their Irish membership. The conference took place in the picturesque National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. Continue reading “EGG heads talk ecological genetics in Dublin”

Seizing the new collaborator at scientific conferences

Approaching established scientists is nerve wracking when you are just starting out in your own scientific career. It terrified me, but having done so successfully, it is now not so such an intimidating prospect.

When I first went to science conferences as a new PhD student, my fellow early stage researchers and I used to award each other mingling points for having the confidence to break out of our trusted established circle and speak to people we had not met before. Knowing networking was a vital part of attending scientific meetings, we needed motivation to do more than catch up and share free wine. I am glad we pushed each other to do so. I have just returned from a 3 week research visit to Southern France, which would not have taken place, had I not plucked up the courage to approach a now collaborator after her keynote talk a few years ago. Now back in a chilly post-Christmas Dublin it seems like a good time to time to reflect on how my path to approaching new scientists has changed:

Having a question I want answered

After giving a talk it is great to hear somebody enjoyed it and finds your research interesting, but this may not lead to much further conversation than ‘thanks very much’. If you have a research question you would like to explore with someone they are far more likely to be interested. Scientists become leaders in their field in areas that excite them. Approaching scientists with a hypothesis that needs testing and an innovative way of doing should lead to a stimulating conversation.

Creating a new collaboration at a conference recently lead me to get to travel to Montpelier and play with new molecular toys.
Creating a new collaboration at a conference recently lead me to get to travel to Montpelier and play with new molecular toys.

Continue reading “Seizing the new collaborator at scientific conferences”

Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association


In the years to come, 140 ecologists working in Ireland will look back with fond memories of being part of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association (24th-26th November). We will remember hard-hitting plenaries, compelling oral presentations, data-rich posters, influential workshops and the formation of the IEA’s first committee. The lively social events might be harder for some of us to remember…

There could not have been a more fitting way to open the conference than the plenary seminar from Professor Ian Montgomery (QUB) on Thursday night. Within the hour, he managed to given an incredibly detailed summary of the natural history of Ireland, showing how Ireland had been an island for 16,000 years and presenting evidence that human occupation dated back 13,000 years. Ian stepped us through successive mammal invasions, classifying them as true ‘natives’ and more recent ‘invasives’. His seminar was open to the public and the audience included local farmers with strong concerns about the impacts of invasive mammals on their stock.

We were welcomed the following morning with an energetic plenary from Professor Jane Memmott (U Bristol), covering her strikingly diverse career. She took us on a journey from life as a medical entomologist, to tropical ecologist living in a Costa Rican jungle tent, to invasion biologist in the land of invasives – New Zealand, to her more recent work on biodiversity in urban and farmland systems. Quantitative food webs were the central theme. Using both simple and complex food webs, based on enormous data sets, Jane clearly showed that we only see the full story about ecosystem dynamics by examining links between trophic levels. Continue reading “Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association”

Formally informal conferences



One of my favourite parts of working as a researcher during the summer (aside from quiet campuses with less students around) definitely has to be the “conference season”. Indeed, I don’t need to convince many people that conferences are one of the lively and exciting parts of doing science that rightly mix traveling, networking (and sometimes drinking) and learning about so many new things (and sometimes hangovers).

One of the problems though is that they can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s hard to find a balance between the right amount of networking (how many friends/collaborators do I want to meet and how many new ones do I want to make) and the right amount of learning (which talks do I want to attend and how much can I get from them). Although everyone has their own technique to deal with these questions, it seems to me that it boils down to the number of people attending the conference and the objectives of the conference organisers. One solution is to aim conferences towards a more manageable size with a clear emphasis on networking and learning.

One such conference is the annual BES Macro conference! As has became a happy ritual over the last 4 years, I was awaiting July with impatience for this year’s one organised in Oxford by Natalie Cooper and Rich Grenyer. As a disclaimer though, I do not consider myself as a macroecologist at all (most of my work is on macroevolution methods). So why do I go every year? I don’t even know what macroecology is! Well one of the first points is that this conference covers a vast array of topics, this year reaching far beyond the classic bird species richness heat maps with presentations on microbe populations in tree holes and sampling biases in the fossil record! The second point is because I think this conference contains all the ingredients that I think make a good conference:

First, mix different career levels:
For early career scientists like myself it can sometimes be a bit intimidating to mainly hear talks by “veteran” scientists. In fact I often think to myself just before giving a talk, how lame mine will be in comparison to the other people. Not that mixing different career levels makes my talk less lame (!), it has at least the benefit of making me feel better. It also has the undeniable benefit of making it easier to network with the big wigs if you spoke in the same session as them. At BES Macro 2016, each session was a good mix of every career level making it much more casual. Even the plenary speakers ranged from Professor Tim Blackburn to About-to-be-doctor Hannah White!

Second, make most of the talks short:
People have mixed feelings about lightning talks: from the speaker’s point of view, when you have exciting results it can be frustrating to convey your message in 5 minutes. Also these talks are sometimes more difficult to write than a classic 10-15 minutes one! However, from a listener’s point of view, think about how much more you absorb, on average, from these extra 5-10 minutes that make a classic talk? On a couple of talks: probably much more; on 2 days or more of conference: probably not that much! Besides, if 5 minutes was not enough and just peaked your curiosity, it makes an excellent opportunity to network (“Hi, I really enjoyed your talk. About that, [insert your burning question here]?”).

Third, add a nice dose of transferable skills:
Another point of conferences that can be negative is that you chain-listen to many many talks all day long. That has the benefit of giving a good overview of your field of research but can also make you slightly sleepy! One solution to break this continuous rhythm of talks is to do it with discussion sessions that can either be about transferable skills or about big questions in the field. For example, at BES Macro 2016 we had an excellent discussion session on reproducibility and another on the classic “What is Macroecology?” question.

And finally, don’t forget to add some rants:
What makes a good conference lies also in how much you feel part of the field of research covered by the conference. One way to convey that is to be part of or at least listen to the “hot” debates shaking the field. In this conference for example, we had two “official rants” by Shai Meiri and Adam Algar on what is going wrong in macroecology (but still how much cool work is done).

And of course, the main ingredient is the attitude of the people towards the conference. As Rich Grenyer put it in his welcoming introduction: “this conference is formally informal.”

Hope to see you at the next conference!

Photo credit: Thomas Guillerme

Original post

Summer in the city

summer-cityThe blog is going to take a well earned summer holiday and will start back again in September when hopefully we’ll have a slew of papers and conferences to report on! See you all soon.


Adam Kane, kanead[at]

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Everything’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter: Benthic Ecology Meeting 2015


Conference attendance can really impact your development as a Ph.D. student and give you great ideas for future collaboration and research. In March, I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 Benthic Ecology Meeting (or Benthics) in Quebec City, Canada.  The Benthics meeting focuses on the ecology of the bottom layer of water systems, and this conference is mainly marine in focus. There were lots of great talks, one epic toboggan race, and nearly unlimited opportunities for networking and discussion. A quick overview of my three favourite talks is below. Check out what you missed and hope to see you in Maine next year!

1. “Measuring non-additive selection from multiple species interactions” by Dr. Casey terHorst. Dr. terHorst’s non-marine talk focused on a method for determining whether selection is occurring by examining traits present when multiple species interact. His talk highlighted the relative ease of using the analysis he developed, as well as the exciting outcomes of one particular study. If you have trait response data from a study with multiple species interactions, you may be able to utilize his analysis as well to see if non-additive selection is occurring. The analysis is detailed here and you can check out his website on ecology and evolution here.

2. “Is a warmer world a sicker world? Temperature effects on host-parasite dynamics” by Jennafer C. Malek. Jennafer’s presentation was easily my favorite of the parasitology-themed talks at this year’s conference. She utilized a very straightforward study design to examine whether oysters or their parasites would die off first at elevated temperature. The oysters are often exposed to the air at low tide, and at temperatures consistent with climate change predictions it seems that parasites die off before the oysters do. The dynamics of this relationship have interesting consequences and may provide a level of resilience for oysters in a changing world. Her study is a prime example of the use of a simple experimental design to answer big ecological questions.

3. “Potential larval connectivity of deep-sea methane seep invertebrates in the Intra-American Sea” by Doreen McVeigh. Sometimes a talk blows your mind and shifts your worldview and this was one of those talks. Based on modelling work on larval transport in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, Doreen demonstrated that frequently assumed transport routes may not be the actual transport pathways many species travel. Her models were fascinating and potentially revolutionary, plus she explained them in a way that almost everyone could understand. You can check her out on twitter here.

A huge thanks to the Voss, O’Connor, Burkepile, URI, Fish lab, and UNC groups for making the conference such a blast and live-tweeting the sessions. You can check out the official twitter for some discussion on the conference and some fun photos below.

Author: Maureen Williams, william2[at]

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DOs and DO NOTs of moderation

making baby smileModeration is the art of “avoidance of extremes in one’s actions, beliefs, or habits”, according to dictionaries.  In academic meetings chances are to find a colorful mix of extremes ranging from big mouths to shy introverts, and making everyone’s voice heard can be quite challenging. In worst-case scenarios, even hearing one’s own voice can become problematic.

In order to make a group discussion productive, smooth and -why not? – fun, participants designate or invite a moderator to fill in the conductor’s role. He or she will have excellent people skills and professional knowledge, will know how to puck the right strings and will seek to achieve group consensus in the most timely and efficient manner. One step ahead of everyone in the group, the moderator will be able to lead the discussion to fertile grounds where every participant is given the opportunity to produce its best.

But there is something more about moderation. A group discussion also resembles a cogwheel: each piece, big and small, make the big machine move. The interesting part however is never the individual piece, no matter how big or small (mouth he or she is), but the whole machine: the final, shiny product ready to roll. These are group synergies produced by the group’s dynamic, which are the most important outcomes of an academic gathering. The essence of moderation therefore revolves around catching and following the group dynamic.

Importantly, just like a good conductor, the moderator should never try playing and conducting in the same time. Even saying it sounds confusing. The moderator has a far more important active job to do than playing. At the end of the meeting, there are one, two or three work objectives that have to be successfully, and thoroughly, met.

Scary as it may sound at first, you might have already pictured yourself in the moderator’s shoes. Question is: are you a natural born moderator? Maybe you already know the answer is yes. Alternatively, perhaps you just need a little more practice, like I do. You don’t know the moderator hiding in yourself until you haven’t tried it.

My supervisor asked me to moderate an Ignite Session discussion at the Ecology Society of America 2014 meeting in California.  Cautiously, she also suggested I should practice before, by moderating a group discussion about … moderation at a NERD club meeting at TCD. We gathered our ideas about what lies behind a successful moderation and what defines a successful moderator. I listed our thoughts in a cheat sheet below, where I contrast do’s and do not’s of moderation. Having it at hand can help you a great deal preparing for your first, second… however many moderation sessions you will lead.

At the Ignite Session in California, we had a houseful of people, and I only had to use about 5% of my moderator skills. We had questions flowing in for 45 minutes, after which we had to free the room and we moved the discussion closer to a couple of beers. Success! Phew, what an experience! I’m looking forward to the next one.



State the topic, scope, objectives, expectations, rules at the very beginning

Speak up!

Make sure you repeat the audience’s questions so that everyone can hear.

Dig out your best communication skills

Be organized (have introduction, have end summary)

Be rigorous (keep people on track)

Keep it Simple! (simplify, reformulate, translate if necessary)


Ask long questions

Make confusing statements

Get confused and loose track

Get intimidated


Have “conversation starters”, a list of questions

Have a global vision of the topic under discussion

Know your audience in advance

Get a hold of the logistics (microphone? assistants? co-moderator? recorder?)

But always be prepared for surprises, good and bad

Practice! Moderate a work group about … moderation! 


Be superficial, unprofessional

Not have a clue about your audience


Build on previous questions

Ask clarifying questions

Get out of the “rabbit holes” (self-explanatory topics)

Yes, do interrupt “silverbacks” and “prima donnas” (speakers who like hearing themselves)

Have supportive attitude

Calm down spirits

Maneuver spotlights wisely

Make conscious effort to involve each participant to make individual decisions and take independent actions.

Be inspiring

Employ strategies such as group work, “Think, Pair, Share” or “Speed Dating” to engage audience

Redirect people to e.g. Twitter to ask additional clarifying questions


Ask closed questions (e.g., to which the answer is obvious)

Shut down speakers

Be cynical

Ask controversial questions that may take days to solve

Have judgmental attitude

Embarrass & Humiliate

Put people on the spot

Force consensus


Be neutral, make others debate

Treat everyone equally, make voices be heard

Be respectful

Pay attention to the gender balance

Keep the arguments balanced


Take sides

Engage in debates

Answer to provocative questions, argue

Express opinions

Participate in discussions

Share own views


Be exact & short

Ask the right questions

Focus on the process no matter what

Have an excellent time management

Tackle not more than 3 broad topics


Keep discussion alive

Use beeper if necessary to stop a speaker or close a topic and get to the next



Ask meaningless questions

Make the discussion an endless story or soap opera

Ask “pressure mine” questions (put discussion on sidetrack)

Overstuff schedule


Pay the highest level of attention

Practice the ability to think two things at the same time (current discussion & next questions)

Be quick witted

Hear everything

Keep track of the discussion


Get distracted, loose track

Get lost in details

Get lost in “rabbit holes” (shallow discussions)


To be able to synthesize, take notes along

Summarize periodically (at least provide a mid-summary)

Provide end summary


Let the discussion flow endlessly

Loose audience

Loose end and scope


Be dynamic (follow the group dynamic)

Be flexible (do not stick to your pre-prepared questions)

Be creative!

Use your sense of humor

Be confident!

Be engaging!


Be melancholic and sad

Be tired and depressed

Be bored

Be narrow-minded

Be rigid


  • Moderation is an art, you need to use both people skills and professional knowledge.
  • The success of a discussion depends on how well prepared and competent you as a moderator are.
  • It is a very good idea to follow the group dynamic and obtain group synergies.


Author: Ana Maria Csergo, csergoa[at]

Photo credit: Safe Baby Handling Tips