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

3 years as a PhD student

I arrived in Ireland October 2012 with the purpose of undertaking a PhD supervised by Natalie Cooper on Primates evolution. Looking back, the start of the whole endeavour seemed really stressful to me (new country, new customs, new language) and the project just as frightening (what do I do?, where do I start?, will I be able to do it?)… What happened after was way below my expectations: these three years were anything but stressful and frightening!
OK, even though not everything went smoothly and it had to take the best of the personalities (that are thankfully common sights in Trinity College’s Zoology Department) for dealing with some ups and downs, here is my top 5 list of personal thoughts that always improved the two aspects of my PhD: the working aspect (the research) and the “social” aspect (feeling relaxed and enjoying it).

Be ready to change your PhD

As I mentioned in the first line, my PhD was supposed to be on Primates evolution. In the end, the world “Primates” is mentioned only once (and that is, buried in a sentence about several other mammalian orders). Of course, sometimes the PhD is a Long Quiet River if everything goes well and you keep your highest interest in the original topic. However, sometimes it changes completely! And this should never be a problem! The PhD should be allowed to evolve just as much as yourself (or more pragmatically: your field) evolves into these three or four years.

Failure happens to everyone

Another major part about the PhD (and about the scientific endeavour itself!) is that it will fail. More or less often and more or less dramatically in each case but failure should just be part of the process. As a early career researcher, you can learn a lot from the mistakes and the success of others. However, I found that there is nothing much more personally instructing than the trial and error. I already mentioned how my biggest PhD disaster led to my most positive development.

Stay open-minded and curious

Writing the thesis or even just doing the lab/computer work for the PhD can narrow your mind and highly decrease your sanity. I found that the best way to avoid that was to try as much as possible to make the PhD only priority number two and put all the other things (seminars, meeting speakers, chatting/helping colleagues, etc…) before it. It has two advantages for the PhD: (1) you don’t work on it 24/7 and (2) everything you learn outside of it will actually be super useful for the PhD. In the Zoology Derpartment, we were only a couple of people doing macroevolution surrounded by ecologists. Yet, I think my work benefited heavily from the influence from these people.

Don’t rush

One thing I found nice with the PhD is that before you even start – before day one! – you already know the final deadline. OK, at day one, the handing in date seems far away (3 or 4 years away actually!) but that leaves you plenty of time for doing awesome research, writing it down as papers/chapters (and even trying to publish them before the deadline) and going to the pub or to other non-PhD recreational events…

Chat with your colleagues

Finally, I found that I gained so much just by chatting with my colleagues. And by colleagues I mean my fellow PhD students of course but also with the post-docs and the staff. I always found a long term benefit to both PhD aspects, whether it was talking about the latests video games during working time (I’m not only looking at you @yodacomplex) or having heated debates about species selection during coffee time.
I know much of these tips worked for me but might not apply to other people. In the end their is only one ultimate tip: make your PhD a hell of a good time!

Photo Credit: Thomas Guillerme

We have a winner!


We’re delighted that one of our regular EcoEvo@TCD writers, Sarah Hearne (@SarahVHearne) has won a prize from the Association for British Science Writers. Sarah won first place in the new Good Thinking student science blog category for her piece, Sea Serpents off the Port Bow! published in November last year. These prestigious awards recognise excellence in scientific journalism and writing from both students and professionals and it’s a great achievement to have been singled out among such stiff competition.

Congratulations Sarah!

Biodiversity face off

Between the 1st and 2nd of May several members of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research got their game faces on for the inaugural Intervarsity BioBlitz Challenge. For the first time the Trinity fox and co were pitted against the best biodiversity on offer from the DCU, NUI Galway and UCC campuses.

The stakes were high but the goal was simple; identify more species on campus then any other college in a 24 hour period and become the first college biodiversity champion of Ireland!

Kicking off Trinity’s effort to win the championship the birdwatchers were up bright and early to catch the dawn course. With 19 species identified it was the Sparrow hawk that caught the eye (but evaded the camera lens) of our inner city campus birds.

While the birders were digesting their findings some early morning pond dipping was throwing up its own surprises with a three-spined stickleback found in what looked an inhospitable pool out the back of the Zoology Department.

The unlikely source of our only campus fish, the three-spined stickleback
The unlikely source of our only campus fish, the three-spined stickleback

Meanwhile in the more hospitable setting of Trinity’s own little secret garden some black ants were having a midday honeydew snack from their aphid herd during our plant identification walk.

The ant in focus can be seen feeding on the sugary secretions of the aphid, which in return for feeding the ants gains protection.
The ant in focus is feeding on sugary secretions from the aphid, which benefits from the ants’ protection in return.

Although many of the 32 species of invertebrates were found amongst the plants and pools, it was in the nooks and crannies of various building walls that Trinity’s diversity of arachnids, such as the snakes back spider, were found to reside.

Segrestria senoculata spider awaiting unsuspecting passers-by
Segrestria senoculata spider awaiting unsuspecting passers-by

While many volunteers were out rummaging in the leaf litter, Rachel Kavanagh was busy coordinating efforts at the central hub in the Science Gallery. There were also some inquisitive guests from St. Mary’s Boys school learning about pollinators with Green Bee Education.

Students from St. Mary’s Boys school building solitary bee shelters.
Students from St. Mary’s Boys school building solitary bee shelters.

As the day passed-by collecting and identifying specimens the deadline quickly approached and results were coming in. Galway won with a massive 581 species, with Cork on 451 leaving the race to avoid the wooden spoon between the Dublin Campuses. Unfortunately despite the heroic efforts of everyone, especially the botanists who identified 245 species of plants, Trinity could not avoid the dubious wooden spoon award, finishing with 346 and losing by just 27 species.

However while we didn’t win their was plenty of consolation prizes to be found as @EndangeredDAVE left some postcards and paintings of endangered Irish species in various spots around campus.

One of the many beautiful pictures distributed around campus by @EndangeredDave.
One of the many beautiful pictures distributed around campus by @EndangeredDave.

With an impressive 346 species recorded in an inner city campus and an incredible increase on previous years (16 species in 2012 and 126 species in 2013) TCD’s form is only on the up with the Trinity fox looking to be the top dog in next year’s event.

Look out for bioblitz events near you this weekend!

Author and Images: Kevin Healy, healyke[at], @healyke