Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to give a Plenary at the ASAB easter meeting. It was great fun to talk about colourful moths and our new work looking at the impact of urbanisation on predator-prey signalling.
Just before the latest lock down the Netherlands Society for Behavioural Biology managed to sneak in it’s annual meeting. I was happy to represent insects with my keynote talk on Chemicals and colours: uncovering the chemical signals maintaining a colour polymorphism, and to get a lovely walk on the beach!
I’ve finally recovered from conference flu so just a quick post about ESEB 2017.
The conference was awesome, and very well organised given the size. The main program was on an app that my old phone sadly cannot handle, but they also gave out smaller program booklets so I was able to organise my time well enough.
As usual for ESEB the standard of the talks was pretty high. My lack of access to the abstracts did mean I ended up in a fair few theoretical talks, but honestly one of the reasons I prefer large conferences is getting outside my narrow sphere of study for a while. I found the whole experience very useful for helping me generate new ideas, not to mention finding new collaborators! I also quite enjoy the challenge to trying to follow talks on subjects or techniques I am not familiar with. As someone who got into academia, at least partly, because they just enjoyed learning new things, conference season is the highlight of my year.
The conference dinner was also very fun. Rather than the usual drill of sitting in a large room, on a table of people you don’t know, eating dry roast ham, we instead had a “food fair” in a nearby park with vans serving pizza, chips, ice cream, wraps and various other foods.
A few weeks ago to returned from Behavior 2015 in Cairns and now I have finally gotten around to writing about how it went.
I was there both to give a talk on my post-doc work with the moths, and to present a poster on some of the ideas that have come out of my PhD. A bit cheeky I know but if you’re going to fly halfway around the world you may as well make the most of it!
I usually struggle to attract attention to my posters so when I saw that poster presenters at Behavior also had the option of giving a one minute speed talk I signed up right away! What I didn’t realise at the time is that this talk had to be given straight after the first plenary, to the entire conference. So it was with some concern that I started preparing my speed talk. Once I had put together something sensible-sounding I practiced it on my lab. That version was considered far too boring to stand out on a Monday morning and so my final version consisted mostly of asking the audience if unanswered questions about the recent seal on penguin sex story kept them awake at night. The answer was clearly yes as I had more people come to my poster than ever before! If you are wondering what on earth my work could possibly have to do with seals sexually harassing penguins then take a look at my poster below.
My talk also went well. I was speaking in the chemical communication session. Perhaps one of the take-home messages of this was that birds sense of smell is clearly hugely important in a variety of contexts. Not least for my work, it seems that the smell of the wood tiger moth’s chemical defenses may be just as important, if not more so, than the taste.
Other than the chemical communication session I particularly enjoyed the sessions on Costs and Conflict in Reproduction and Polyandry “beyond the individual”. One of my favorite talks was by Simon Griffith on the factors that influence the levels of extra-pair paternity in birds. He showed evidence that the presence of sub, or sister, species may drive extra-pair paternity due to selection for compatible genotypes.
I also wish I could have seen more of the session on animal contests as they were some awesome talks going on in there. As always with these big conferences it’s impossible to see every talk you wanted. The overall quality was very high though so at least I didn’t leave feeling like I had missed more good talks than I saw! I should mention here my appreciation for the active twitter hashtag, as it can easily alert you to interesting-looking talks going on in other rooms so, if nothing else, you can look up the abstract afterwards.
By far the most memorable talk was the ASSAB Public Lecture by Professor Rick Shine. His work on the can toad invasion over that past decade is fascinating. Not least because we got a brief introduction to “toads on tour”, the convoluted rout the cane toad has taken across the globe as it has been introduced to one country after another. His work also has some hopeful findings, despite the rapid spread of the cane toad many native Australian species seem to be adapting to their presence, and his labs work on chemical signalling in the tadpoles is already finding new ways to control their numbers.
Of course I should also mention that all my lab mates also gave excellent talks on everything from the moths, to snake conservation, to the ever-present risk of colorblind chickens.
I was initially going to try and cover my extra-curricular adventures in oz here was well but given the length of this I think I shall instead save that for another post…
We all have our favorite conferences. Mine is a little strange as technically it’s not even my field. Back when I was doing my masters I had planned on being a geneticist, and PopGroup (The Population Genetics Group) was the first conference I ever attended. Since then, while I certainly haven’t attended every year, I always try and find some excuse to go. My success this year was partly due to my being in the UK around that time anyway (saves on transport costs) and partly because I made a point of helping out the geneticists in my labgroup with some of their more repetitive work. This has the added benefit of making sure I don’t totally forget all the skills I learnt in my masters. Its always good to remind yourself how to build a haplotype network, even if you’re a chemical ecologist.
This year’s journey was thankfully free of bomb scares and, despite my initial doubts, the students union in Sheffield was a lovely venue (I really liked the food as well). As usual the quality of the talks was very high, although there seemed to be fewer method talks this year, or perhaps I just missed them. One benefit I find of attending PopGroup is I learn about the latest shiny new technique for sequencing, but this year the emphasis seems to be less on the techniques themselves and more on how to interpret the data they produce.
There were a lot of talks I particularly enjoyed, but since I’ve talked about them in the “Not those kind of doctors” podcast (see the end of this post for the video) I’m not going to repeat myself here. Sadly I didn’t see either of the winning student talks (Simon Martin and Martina Rauscher) this year, although I did hear good things from people who did. Rodrigo Pracana won the poster prize for her poster on “Genetic variability of captive populations of a highly eusocial stingless bee.” Alas it seems the Scottish universities have lost their edge this year.
I will mention however the final plenary talk by Simon Myers. The final slot of a conference is always a mixed blessing, and having done a bit too much Cèilidh-ing the night before, I was admittedly expecting to doze through it. However, Simon’s talk on ancient admixture in human populations really woke me up. The study focused on looking at gene flow into and within the UK and Spain. As someone who was really into early human history as a kid, learning about the genetic signals of things like the Viking and Anglo-Saxon colonisations was fascinating.
I also got to see a lot of old friends and, hopefully, make a few new ones as well. The next PopGroup is going to be in Edinburgh so that is extra motivation for me to start preparing my reasons to attend for next year!
At the beginning of August I attended the international butterfly behavior conference (ICBB2014) in Turku. This was my first time at this conference as I admit I wasn’t even aware it existed until this year! In my defense, I’ve never worked on butterflies (and in fact still don’t!) but thankfully it seems standards are slipping and they now happily tolerate moth researchers in their midst. Despite the slight mismatch, it was a really good opportunity for me to catch up on what’s going on in the field, and get a better handle on the biology of my new system; butterflies being a lot closer to moths than bugs are!
I am now also better acquainted with the rockstars of the butterfly world. I was already aware of the extensive ongoing work on Heliconius thanks to various entomology and genetics conferences, but I never realised the sheer amount of cool work on Bicyclus anynana (other wise known as the squinting bush brown). The Glandvill fritillary, famous for it’s use in the study of meta populations, was also well represented. This at least was one system I was already familiar with, having visited the home of the Glanville Fritillary Project at Lammi back in April (we were there to check out their impressive butterfly-rearing facilities). From the perspective of my current work on the maintenance of polymorphism in aposematic systems there were a lot of very relevant talks, but Erica Westerman’s talk, in particular, on biased mate-preference learning got me thinking more on the role of learning in reproductive interference as well.
So overall it was a very useful and enjoyable experience for me. That said there were moments when I felt very much like an outsider. I’m sure this is hardly an uncommon experience when attending a meeting for the first time, or moving into a slightly different system. For me this feeling tends to surface more at small meetings and in this case was probably made stronger by the references to the meeting’s long history and tight-knit community. To be clear, this is not a criticism. I’m certain the only intent behind these was to highlight both the success of the meeting, and the benefits it has, and will continue to bring, to the field. I wonder if I’m alone however in feeling subtlety excluded and, more importantly, how I can stop feeling that way. I think not having anything to present (either as a talk or a poster) certainly contributed. With a bit of luck I will soon have enough data to ensure I don’t find myself in that position again for quite some time. Still it seems my impostor syndrome hasn’t retreated quite as much as I thought. Bother.
I don’t want to end this post on a down note though, so I will take this opportunity to mention the awesome Marimekko bags we got with our registration packs! As well as making fellow conference-goers easily recognisable, even from considerable distances, they have made those of us who went the envy of our whole lab group. 🙂 I’m still sad that the different colours were not, in fact, an experiment on density dependent selection (several people expressed a desire for the rarest colours). Maybe next time?
My trip to PopGroup got off to a shaky start this year when a “potentially suspicious” package shut down Edinburgh Airport hours before we were due to fly to Bristol. Thus, while everyone else was drinking wine in the roman baths, we were stuck in a hotel lobby waiting for updates via twitter. Eventually we were allowed back in the airport and made it to Bath around 1am.
Despite this, the conference was very enjoyable. The venue (the Assembly rooms) was beautiful and conveniently placed a short walk from the centre of Bath and the long lunch breaks gave us ample time to get out into the city. We even had a bit of sunshine!
The quality of the talks was very high (I feel like everyone always says this about conferences, but it is true!) My favourite was the plenary given by Dr Lilach Hadany on stress-induced variation. She talked about the ways in which stress-induced recombination, dispersal and mutation can all spread through populations. The idea being that individuals of low fitness (that are therefore stressed) have more to gain from changing their phenotype than successful individuals. Thus, “the living dead can take any risk”. I also liked Krzysztof Kozak’s talk on the non-hybrid origin of the butterfly Heliconius hermathena. The talk pretty much does what it says on the tin, despite its hybrid phenotype, genotypic evidence suggests that the species is not the result of hybridisation at all. Instead its characteristic zebra pattern may be ancestral, or have evolved multiple times.
As for prizes, the Scottish universities clearly came out on top. The prizes for best student and best post-doc talk went to Sam Lewis and Susan Johnston respectively. The prize for best post-doc poster also went to Edinburgh. In fact the student poster prize was the only one to go to a different university, as I won it! A clear indication of the value of summing up you findings clearly and succinctly, even if they are not what you were hoping for.
Finally, the conference dinner was delicious and the live band very impressive. I only wish I could say the same for the DJ! At least he did his bit for the local pubs of Bath by forcing us all out of the venue in search of better music.
It’s been a busy couple of months; I’ve gone from never having spoken at a conference to having talked at three. Admittedly I was also the organiser of one, but still I that still leaves two ‘real’ conferences.
Conference number one was the St Andrews School of Biology Postgraduate conference. As the president of the Postgraduate Bio-Network I was in charge of organising this one. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t exactly been the most active president in the BioNet’s history (most of the actual running of the network was done by my co-president, now sadly banished to the wilds of Glasgow) so I was determined to prove my worth and actually do a good job on this one. Despite some panic early on in the organisation, when I was having trouble securing a venue, the whole thing went off remarkably smoothly. Indeed one of the major complaints was a distressing lack of biscuits during the coffee breaks, a problem that was quickly fixed by a trip to Tesco. Attendance was somewhat sporadic, as is always the case when you demand a bunch of stressed-out PhD students leave their labs for two days to learn about each-other’s work, but the wine reception and ceilidh were both well-attended. I’m proud to report that my talk was voted 3rd best (alas there were only prizes for 1st and 2nd place but at least that way I avoided any accusations of fixing!). 1st prize went to an excellent talk on the effect of temperature on jellyfish, and second to a talk of the effects of oxytocin in seals.
The poster prizes were taken by a pair of very originally designed posters on Guppy behaviour, one of which resembled a comic strip. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found actually talking one of the least stressful parts of the conference (with the exception of the ceilidh).
The second conference took place the day after the first (and hence the morning after some considerable drinking and dancing on my part). The Scottish Conference on Animal Behaviour (somewhat unfortunately abbreviated to SCAB) is a friendly little conference held this year in Glasgow. After an early start to drive cross-country in the snow, we were relieved to find plentiful coffee and no shortage of biscuits upon arrival. The breaks and poster session where held in the Zoology Museum in Glasgow University, an awesome venue with a particularly original entomology section. The quality of all the talks and posters was very high, the only slight distraction being the lack of heat in the lecture theatre. The range of the talks was also excellent, everything from insect behaviour to fish development. My favourite talk was on sexual swellings in primates and best talk was awarded to a presentation on age-dependent behaviour in the wandering albatross. I was in the final session and so nervous I did my 15 minute talk in less than 10. Despite this I apparently made sense and did at least get our session back on time as the talk before mine had overrun. Sadly any attempts at socialising were cut short as there was only time for one glass of wine before we were back in the car to get home before dark.
The final conference of the spring was the ASAB Easter meeting. This year it was held in sunny Lincoln and, surprisingly, it was actually quite sunny. The conference started with a workshop on Sensory Ecology. While a lot of the talks were not really relevant to my work (good luck getting a seed bug to use a touch screen) it was nevertheless engaging. In particular the talk on how animals perceive and use signals got me thinking more about how the aposematic nature of my bugs might influence their communication. While going to a conference with people from your own department can sometimes end with you talking only to each other, this time it worked in my favour. My companions knew some of the other attendees from masters courses and previous conferences and so were able to introduce me to several lovely new people. This is useful for me as if left to my own devices I tend to lurk in corners consumed by social anxiety, hardly an effective networking strategy. I also had the chance to chat to a student who will be joining our lab come September and hopefully helped impress upon her the extent to which alcohol plays a role in the design of new experiments.
I could try and describe all the good student talks (of which there were many) but that may push this post over the 1000 word mark and ensure no-one ever reads it. Suffice to say the overall trends of the conference, to my mind at least, were learning (in the form of discrimination tasks) and personality (thankfully based on repeatable behaviours and not pet owner questionnaires). The winning talk was on the effects of induced sickness on bee learning, a study which while interesting did make me feel for the poor queasy little bees. Personally, the fact that has most stuck with me from the whole conference is that tortoises prefer mango jelly to apple jelly. Sadly their thoughts on strawberry jelly remain unknown to science.
The highlight of the whole thing was undoubtedly the dinner. It was held the The Deep, an aquarium in Hull. This did necessitate an hour long coach trip that felt remarkably like a school trip but it was well worth it. Upon arrival we were provided with small cones of fish and chips and let loose in the now-empty aquarium. Asking a biologist to pick their favourite animals is near impossible, but a special mention has to go to the jellyfish and the garden eels (see below).
So that concludes my conference round-up. I will now be forced to actually concentrate on my own work, at least until ESEB and ENTO 2013 later in the summer.