Two weeks ago, I went to the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon. ESA2012 was so overwhelming but incredibly fun and informative at the same time. There were many people milling around – around 4500 people attended. These were students, post-docs, faculty, research scientists, vendors, and many others.
I went in my capacity of research assistant for Steve Jackson. We’re working on a project looking at how ecologists engage in and govern large collaborative endeavors. But, there’s so much he’s interested, that phrase really doesn’t encompass all of the research directions rattling around his brain. But I digress. So, I went to ESA to go to many of the information management sessions as well as the education and outreach sessions and anything to do with large-scale collaborative work. I felt like my perspective was different from everyone else’s’ because I wasn’t going to any science talks, but in any case, I thought I’d share my three big take-aways from my conference experience.
- The face of ecology is changing. The membership of ESA is becoming more diverse as more people are getting into ecology (traditionally it was really a science available to relatively well-off whites who had backyards and access to nature growing up). So, with this burgeoning diversity, ESA is trying to figure out how best to support and encourage its membership. For example, some discussions raised issues around bringing in and retaining students at the high school and college level from diverse backgrounds that otherwise might not get interested in ecology. However, as my friend pointed out, in many of these sessions, the people in the room were either students or post-tenure faculty members. There is no incentive to be involved in these initiatives if you are actively trying to get tenure – rather, those hopefuls were in other science sessions networking. She has been told by her mentors to actively not focus on diversity efforts and initiatives because the tenure process simply doesn’t reward it: you’d end up doing two times the work for the same level of recognition.
- Citizen science is on the rise. Oh how I love this. There were many talks which used citizen science data and some that were specifically on citizen science projects – how they started, lessons learned, where they’re going, etc. Citizen science is on the rise and can help engage the public and enable you to collect and analyze complex data sets (think millions of images from the Serengeti!). Some teams have developed mobile apps for people so they can take a picture of a plant get help identifying it. Then, the research team also gets data about who is seeing what plants where and when (LeafSnap is an example of this).
- The networks are in the process of being networked. Because Steve is interested in large networks aimed at doing ecological research, I went to all the sessions on NEON and LTER I could find – two of our main study interests. One evening, there was a sleepy (at first!) little session on networks where I learned of several I had never heard of (for example, the Nutrient Network and the Zostera Experimental Network). When folks finished introducing all their networks, there was a discussion about how these networks could really tackle some of the critical environmental problems facing our Earth. One scientist, a relatively famous ecologist, let the discussion progress a bit and then raised his hand and sad something akin to “this is too incremental of a step to fix the ONE biosphere we know of in our UNIVERSE. We need the kind of program NASA has around sending robots to Mars focused here on Earth!” Well, that woke up the whole room. What a great discussion ensued. It forced those in the room to articulate why their approach was needed and would be successful (the networking the networks approach). I’ll be interested to see how a similar session goes over at the LTER All Scientists Meeting.