Showing posts with label conferences. Show all posts
Showing posts with label conferences. Show all posts

Friday, May 29, 2020

Re-imagining the purpose of conferences in a time of isolation

It is now trite to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many aspects of routine life, from our personal to our professional realities. Every part of academic life has been touched by the pandemic, reducing all aspects of our research endeavours to virtual platforms, from coursework and student mentoring to faculty meetings and conferences.  Zooming in and out of meetings has become the norm for all of us. While there are obvious restrictions to life on an e-platform, I see an opportunity for us to use it to our advantage, to increase the impact and extent of how we communicate our science.  
The obligatory Zoom lab meeting screen capture.

I’ve been involved with a number of e-activities including giving departmental seminars, giving a conference talk and helping to organize a weekly on-line seminar series (Ecology Live). These experiences have led me to think quite a bit about new opportunities for giving talks and sharing ideas and findings.

One obvious casualty of COVID-19 restrictions has been conferences -large gatherings are simply untenable even if some regions are starting to reopen some activities. Some conferences were simply canceled outright early on while others have switched to online formats. These e-conferences seem like the best-case scenario allowing for scientists to share their findings while observing gathering and travel restrictions. I gave a talk in an organized oral session in an e-conference and have been contemplating signing up for another.  But I have mixed feelings. Let me be clear, the decision to move to e-format is the best decision for these conferences that have had to respond to these unprecedented changes, but moving forward are there other ways to facilitate interaction and communication? To me, the answer is yes.

The cons of the e-conference:

1. Spontaneous conversations

I don’t think fitting a traditional conference into an e-format works all that well. The point of a conference, to me, is more about the random meetings and discussions with friends and collaborators, rather than the extensive back-to-back talks, for which I have a rather low limit that I can actively listen to.  These sporadic encounters, which often amount to valuable research outputs and collaborations, are lost in the e-conference.

A mock debate at the last conference I attended before the pandemic

2. Child-care

Physical conferences have become better about providing childcare options for attendees. But, with e-conferences, the parents stuck at home with children might not have childcare options, making it difficult to attend whole sessions, and remain fully focused on the science. Added to this, is that the e-conference format with multiple concurrent sessions over the whole day is not that convenient for people at home, even without children.

3. Fees and funding

In my experience thus far, e-conferences appear to still be limiting attendance with still rather steep paywalls. The one I spoke in still had substantial fees to attend even though they were using what appeared to be university Zoom accounts. I totally understand that there are expenses, but the hefty fees limit an amazing opportunity to reach a broader audience.

Related to this, conferences traditionally are quite exclusive. Fees, travel, housing, visas and immigration all exclude people from different parts of the world, especially those who don’t have access to the same level of funding as researchers in North America and Europe. E-conferences can change this, but they have yet to. More than this, many of us are accustomed to being at institutions that bring in weekly seminar speakers, and again, people in other parts of the world have no opportunity to access these.

A route forward?

1. Seminars open for all

Working with the British Ecological Society to bring the weekly Ecology Live seminar series has been an incredible experience. Firstly, the BES has been amazingly supportive of this idea and helping to make it work. More than 3000 people have registered for this series, and from all over the world. The response from people has been phenomenal.

The lesson I take from this experience is that there is a demand for high-quality talks and that there are numerous colleagues from the global south who jump at the opportunity to hear from cutting-edge researchers. Many of these people are excluded from traditional, and likely online, conferences. If we are moving to an online format, accessibility and inclusion should be a motivating factor.

Obviously, there are expenses with delivering online content, but costs can be covered in other ways. Traditional conferences have sponsors and companies advertising their products in the main halls. These groups can still be engaged and in fact access to online audiences around the world and in permanent on-demand formats could be quite attractive to sponsors. We’ve now started including advertisements on the opening and closing slides of Ecology Live to keep the webinars free to watch.

2. Freed from time restrictions to conference length

Traditionally conferences are restricted to 3-5 days but switching to an online format means that societies are no longer subject to a conference structure. Without time limitations, e-conferences do not have to conform to sessions occurring simultaneously. By spreading talks over time, perhaps grouping by thematic topic areas, researchers would be able to attend far more talks than they would normally be able to in a traditional conference setting. I’d watch four 15-min talks on a specific area every couple of weeks.

3. A permanent record accessible by all, always

Many ecologists are quite overcome by a deluge of webinars, zoom meetings, etc. Taking the time to spend days in an e-conference is a daunting choice. Even if they are unable to watch talks live, conference organizers could make them permanent, searchable, and linkable. We post the Ecology Live talks to YouTube afterward and some of our earlier seminars have been viewed thousands of times. There is a general move towards open and transparent science, and free online talks that are permanently available is another step towards this. 

We live in a world where access to new ideas and hearing about cutting edge research is divided between the have and have-nots. Despite the limitations of COVID-19, given some planning, e-conferences can provide a powerful means to connecting the ecologists across the world, but there might be better ways forward to use these recent moves to on-line formats to better engage diverse audiences in a much more inclusive way.


Have you attended an e-conference recently, or plan on attending one soon? Let me know your thoughts and opinions down below.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

INTECOL 2017: Building the eco-civilisation

The International Association for Ecology holds their global INTECOL conference every 4 years, and it was recently held in Beijing, China. Given the location of this meeting, the theme was exceptionally appropriate: Ecology and Civilisation in a Changing World. I say that it was appropriate because no place embodies change more than China’s recent history, and I would argue that China is a prime candidate to benefit from ecological science.
One thing that was clear from the outset of the meeting was that China (both the scientists attending the meeting and the policy apparatus writ large) was serious about the notion of producing an ecological civilisation, or eco-civilisation. In 2007, the Communist Party of China adopted the idea of turning China into an eco-civilisation by incorporating ecological well-being into its constitution. In 2013, the Chinese government started implementing reforms that politically prioritised ecology and the environment. Most prominent of these was that local government officials and administrators were directed to no longer ignore the environmental consequences of development.
China is globally unique in its ability to institute change, literally with the stroke of a pen. Well documented is the ability for the major cities in China to implement drastic change in transportation policy by restricting who can drive when, and building public transit infrastructure at a torrid pace (see a commentary about this). The latest examples of cities’ power over transportation include the fact that electric cars are eligible to receive license plates immediate, while owners of conventional cars are required to wait years or spend tens of thousands of dollars to get their plates. The other example is the flooding of the market with public bicycles that can be parked anywhere and that require a phone app to unlock, and they literally cost cents to use.

A market flooded with a public bike-sharing program in China. These are all shared bikes, available everywhere, and they tend to congregate around bus stops (Photo by M. Cadotte).

I found it to be an interesting juxtaposition to see the multitude of bikes everywhere with the polluted sky that was apparent for the first two days of the conference. This was the very appropriate context for our conference. From the get go the theme of using the science of ecology to improve environmental management and policy seemed to underlie most of the talks and organised sessions. For most Chinese scientists, this is the context in which they work. To them, there is no real separation between human activities and nature, and the two have been intimately linked for millennia. The opening address was by HRH Charles Prince of Wales. Prince Charles eloquently commented on the importance of ecology in the coming decades, as humanity is testing the ecological bounds of the planet, and he encouraged attendees to use their research to affect change.

HRH Charles, Prince of Wales giving the opening address (Photo by M. Cadotte).

Representing the hosting organisation, Shirong Liu outlined all the important ecological advances in Chinese ecology, especially the development of extensive ecological experiments and research networks examining issues like climate change and nutrient deposition. Echoing Prince Charles’ call, Prof. Liu commented on the importance of ecology for Chinese policy, and the many recent policy changes in China, including the establishment of national parks, habitat restoration, climate change mitigation, and the greening of cities.
Given that most of China has been modified by humans, Gretchen Daily’s keynote address seemed incredibly poignant, even though the focus was on Costa Rica. She said that we’ve pretty much protected all the places that are likely to be protected as big parks, and that adding more is increasingly infeasible (China is an outlier). Instead, we should be looking to country sides and other human-dominated landscapes as the places to implement ecological principles to better manage these systems to benefit biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. These systems are where our science needs to pay off.

Evidence of ecosystem services in the Beijing Botanical Garden (Photo by M. Cadotte).
The talks throughout the conference echoed the themes of an ecology on and for human systems. I saw numerous talks from Chinese authors on understanding and managing human impacts, in systems from grasslands to lakes to cities. I participated in a panel discussion on how ecology could be used to create an eco-civilisation, and it was clear that there was a lot of optimism that the next decades will see a renaissance of ecology in policy, I was probably the least optimistic. I am doubtful that, having seen the United States pull out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, the political will can always be relied upon and creating an eco-civilisation depends on China’s ability to increase the standard of living without taxing ecological capacity more than it has. That said, there is currently a global leadership vacuum on the environment, created by political instability in Europe and the United States, and this is the time for China to be an environmental leader. 
Regardless, I saw inspiring talks on restoring ecosystems severely modified by human activity and invasive species, from speakers like William Bond, Carla D’Antonio, and Tom Dudley. I also ran an organised session on the importance of biodiversity in human dominated landscapes which covered topics from habitat fragmentation, to the ecology of cities, to the value of sacred groves in India for biodiversity.
After listening to talks at INTECOL 2017, one cannot help but feel that this is ecology’s time. We are entering an ecological era, and if ever there was a time to use our science to affect change, it is now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

150 years of 'ecology'

The word ‘ecology’ was coined 150 years ago by Ernst Haeckel in his book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen published in 1866. Mike Begon gave a fascinating talk at the British Ecological Society meeting in Liverpool on what ecology as meant over these past 150 years and what it should mean in the future. The description of ecology that follows, is largely taken from Begon’s remarks.

Ernst Haeckel, 1860
Haeckel defined ecology as ‘the science of the relations of organism to its surrounding outside world (environment)’, which is in obvious contrast to the then burgeoning science of physiology, which was concerned with the world inside of an organism. Interestingly, the first 50 years of this new field of ecology was dominated by the study of plants. In America, Clements, while in the UK, Tansley, both saw ecology as the description of patterns of plant in relation to the outside world. In many ways, this conception of ecology was what Haeckel had envisioned.

Frederic Clements

However, by the 1960s, the domain of ecology began to grow rapidly. Ecologists like Odum used ‘ecology’ to mean the structure and function of ecosystems, while others focussed on the abundance and distribution of species. By this time ecology had grown to encapsulate all aspects of organismal patterns and functions in nature.

The post-60s period saw another expansion -namely the value of ecology. While Begon points out that text books, including his, focussed on the science of ecology in its pure form, many were ignoring the fact that ecology had/has important repercussions for how humanity will need to deal with the massive environmental impacts we’ve had on Earth’s natural systems. That is, the science of ecology can provide the foundation by which applied management solutions can be built. I personally believe that applied ecology has only just begun its ascension to being the most important element of ecological science (but I’m biassed -being the Executive Editor of the Journal of Applied Ecology). Just like how human physiology has become problem oriented, often focussed on human disease, ecology will too become more problem oriented and focus on our sick patients.

Begon went on to say what ecology should be in the near future. He juxtaposed the fact and truth based necessity of science to the post-truth Brexit/Trump era we now find ourselves in. If ecologists and scientists are to engage the public, and alter self-destructive behaviours, it cannot be with logic and evidence alone. He argued that we need to message like those post-truthers. Use metaphors, simple messages that are repeated, repeated, and repeated.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

#EcoSummit2016 The internationalism of ecology –variety is the spice of science

To look around at the faces, or to hear the languages at any science conference is to see the world in a single place at a single time. Science is one of the truly global enterprises, involving people from all regions. Of course this is not to say that science isn’t disproportionately dominated by some countries and regions, but geography does not have a monopoly on ideas. In my lab over the past seven years I have had 15 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers come through my lab from 9 different countries. The question is: does this internationalism influence science? Or does science happen in the same way regardless of who is doing it?

Caroline and I have had a couple of conversations on this topic, and we have both noticed that there seem to be cultural differences in various aspects of how science is done. Of course there is substantial variation among people regardless of their geographical origin, but there are important and maybe subtle differences. From how many hours a day people work, to how professors interact with students and junior researchers, to how quickly new ideas and tools are adopted, there are noticeable differences among geographical regions.

This geographical variation results in different priorities and emphases, and different rates of scientific production, but there is no ideal way. As students move around, international collaborations grow, and people meet and talk at conferences, the best parts of these cultural differences are transferred. I can say that from my year in China, how I view certain elements of my science has changed, and I suspect my Chinese students would say the same about their interactions with me.

The Ecosummit conference we are at is a very international meeting with 88 countries represented. This makes for fertile ground for the sharing of not only scientific ideas and methods, but also learning and sharing notions of what it means to be a successful scientist. This variety is the spice of good science.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

#EcoSummit2016: Conferences –the piñata of ideas.

One of the greatest benefits of attending conferences is that they represent learning opportunities. I don’t necessarily mean learning about new techniques or analyses, though you can undoubtedly find out about these at conferences, but rather conferences are opportunities to hear about new concepts, ideas and paradigms. In some ways conferences are like a piñata of ideas –they are chalk full of new ideas but you never know which you’ll pick up.

Ecosummit is not the typical conference I go to, it is much more diverse in topics of talks and disciplines of the attendees. This diversity –from policy makers, to social scientists, to ecologists, means that I am exposed to a plethora of new concepts. Here are a few nuggets that got me thinking:

  • Knowledge-values-rules decision making context. Policy decisions are made at the interface of scientific knowledge, human values (what is important to people –e.g., jobs), and rules (e.g., economic laws). This seems like a nice context to think about policy, though it is not clear about how we prioritize new knowledge or alter values.


  • Adaptation services. I work on ecosystem services (e.g., carbon storage, pollination support, water filtration, etc.), but I learned that ecosystems also provide adaptation services. These are aspects of ecosystems that will help human societies adapt to climate change (e.g., new products).

  • Trees and air pollution. The naive assumption most of us make about trees in urban areas are that they improve local air quality. However, I saw a couple of talks where this may not necessarily be the case. Some species in North American (red oak, sweet gum, etc.) release volatile organic compounds. Spruce plantations may not take up nitrogen oxides, and in fact might release it. Thus we need to be careful on how we sell the benefits of urban trees.

  • Transformative. This is a term I have certainly heard and used before, but in listening to a wide variety of talks, I realize it is used in different contexts to mean different things. I think it best to avoid this term.

  • a-disciplinary.  I heard a guy say in a talk that he was a-disciplinary and so was not bound to the dogmas and paradigms of any discipline (I already have a hard time wrapping my head around interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, etc.). He then presented a new paradigm and a number of prescribed well-formulated tools used to move from idea, communication, to action. I think the irony was lost on him.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Scientific Presentations: the Dos and Don'ts

With the ESA submission deadline just passing, the Cadotte Lab decided that it would be helpful to dish out a few tips on how to make a presentation that is both enjoyable for your audience and fun for you to give. Presenting in front of people is never easy; giving a presentation about your own study can be even harder since you have to condense months (or even years) worth of information into a 15 minute time period. So with this in mind here are a few tips for each of the main sections of a presentation:

Note, the percentage by each section heading indicates the relative amount of time you should spend on that section.

Title Slide (5%)

This is the first chance you’ll get to catch your audience’s attention, so be interesting!

The title of your presentation depends on the type of audience you’ll be presenting to, so gauge it accordingly. If your audience is a bunch of people with only general biology backgrounds or people that are from completely different fields then don’t complicate things using heavy jargon.

Generally for the title, you want to:
  • Be witty and interesting
  • Convey the main message or main result from your study

If you’re speaking to a broad audience it could be helpful to have a broad title and then separate it from a more specific title.

Besides the title you’ll also want to include your name and affiliation. Depending on the type of talk, for instance an honors thesis, you should also include your supervisor’s name. If you are collaborating with many people on a study you should also include their names. However, make sure that your name is on the first slide, since you are the presenter, and then on a second slide include a special acknowledgement of the other people involved. It’s also recommended that you acknowledge these people throughout the talk, such as in the methods. 

Introduction (10-15%)

Don’t make this section too long. Give just enough background that the audience can understand the concepts that you’ll be discussing and how it relates to the question you are trying to answer.
Generally for the introduction, you want to:
  • Have the background information displayed in a simple to understand way
    • You could use info-graphs here to reinforce an idea
  • By the 2nd or 3rd slide you’ll want to state your study objectives or hypotheses
    • You could create ‘toy’ graphs to describe your hypotheses / predictions

Methods (10-15%)

Be very concise with this section. Everyone understands that a lot of work went into performing your study; however, you don’t want to overwhelm your audience with all the nitty-gritty things you had to do. Give enough detail that people understand what you did and if possible try and summarize your methods in a simple figure.

Generally for the methods, you want to talk about:
  • The treatments used, sample size, the measurements taken and how they were done, and the statistics that you performed

A note on statistics: try to steer clear of very complicated statistics. Most likely your audience will have a basic understanding of stats, but you may lose people if you get too complicated. When talking about your stats, make sure that you can give an easy to understand explanation of how they work.

Results (50%)

This is the biggest and best section; it’s where you get to show people all the cool and exciting things you’ve done! However, the only way you can convey how awesome your results are is by clearly explaining them.

Generally for the results, you want to:
  • Stick to the main results
    • You may have a lot different results but always make sure that what you are describing relates directly to the main message of your study
    • Don’t overwhelm your audience
  • Always thoroughly describe your graphs
    • Describe what variables were you examining (the axes)
    •  Why is the graph important?
      • What is the relationship that the graph is showing?
        • The title of the slide could be used to state what the result is
    • You’ve spent a lot of time making these graphs and analyzing them - so you know them very well, but your audience doesn’t yet. Take time to walk them through the graphs.
    •  If you’re showing several graphs in sequence, make sure to note if the axes are changing
      •  If the graphs are very similar it might be helpful to have a break between slides or to use an animation.
  •  Don’t show too many stats
    •  Just state the p-values and which stats were used
  • Avoid tables if possible
    •  Summarize all the information in an easy to follow figure
    •  If you can’t avoid using a table make it as appealing as possible
      •   Highlight key parts or add arrows to show trends if they exist

Discussion (20%)

Now start bringing everything back together. Your audience may have gotten lost during your results section, so now is the time to refocus them so that they can see the big picture.
Generally for the discussion, you want to:
  • Restate your hypotheses
  • Restate you main results
  • Describe how you could improve your study
  • Describe the next steps for your work and the field in general

In the end you’ll want to describe the broader implications of your work and give the audience a take home message so that they know that your work is bettering the field in some way.  

Acknowledgements (5%)

Don’t forget to thank everyone who has helped you through this whole process! This includes your supervisor, people who helped you with data analysis or revising your paper, or all the volunteers you helped you conduct your field work or lab work. You’ll also want to acknowledge your institution as well as anyone who provided funding to your project.

General tips

Here’s a quick list of tips to use throughout your presentation:
  • Use large text font
    • Don’t be flashy, make sure it’s easy to read
  • Don’t put too much text on a slide
    • This distracts the audience
  •  Don’t put any important point (text or an image) at the bottom 1/3rd of a slide
    • Depending on the room you are presenting in it may be very hard for the audience to see it
    • In general, try and keep everything within the top 2/3rd of the slide
  • Don’t put too many animations on a slide
    • This can be very distracting for the audience
  • Don’t read off your slides
    •  Use presenter view if you can’t memorize everything
  • Including outlines
    •  Not necessary in a short talk, but could be helpful in a longer talk
  • If you run out of time
    • Panic on the inside not the outside!
    • Acknowledge that you’re running out of time and start wrapping things up
      • Start talking about the broad implications of your work and maybe future directions you plan to take
      • If you have more slides, skip over them but tell the audience what you were planning on showing. If they ask questions about what you were going to show you can go back to those slides
  • Don’t talk too fast!
    • Everyone gets nervous! Take a deep breath and calm yourself down, the calmer you are the easier it is for your audience to follow you

Monday, January 27, 2014

Gender diversity begets gender diversity for invited conference speakers

There are numerous arguments for why the academic pipeline leaks - i.e. why women are increasingly less represented in higher academic ranks. Among others, the suggestion has been made there can be simple subconscious biases regarding the image that accompanies the idea of "a full professor" or "seminar speaker". A useful new paper by Arturo Casadevall and Jo Handelsman provides some support for this idea. The authors identified invited talks at academic conferences as an example of important academic career events, which provide multiple benefits and external recognition of a researcher’s work. However, a number of studies have shown that women are less represented as invited speakers, but proportionally and in absolute numbers. To explore this further, the authors asked whether the presence or absence of women as conveners for the American Microbial Society (ASM) meetings affects the number of female invited speakers. Conveners for ASM meetings are involved of selection of speakers, either directly or in consultation with program committee members. The two annual meetings run by the ASM involve 4000-6000 attendees, of which female members constitute approximately 40% (37% when only full members were considered). Despite this nearly 40% female membership, for session where all conveners were male, the percentage of invited speakers who were female was consistently near 25%. While explanations for these sorts of poor representation of females in academia are often structural, the authors show that in this case, simple changes might change this statistic. If one or more women were conveners for a session, the proportion of female invited speakers in that session rises to around 40%, or in line with women’s general representation in the ASM. The authors don’t offer precise explanations for these striking results, but note that women conveners may be more likely to be aware of gender and may make a conscious effort to invite female speakers. Implicit biases, our “search images”, may unconsciously favour males, but these results are positive in suggesting that even small changes and greater awareness can make a big difference.

The proportion of invited speakers in a session who are female from 2011-2013, for the two annual meetings (GM & ICAAC) organized by the ASM. Compare black bars - no female conveners - and grey bars - at least one female convener.