Thoughts on ESA2019: Inclusion, Biodiversity Data, and Twitter

It was easy to feel inspired about ecology with this view from the conference hotel.

It’s been two weeks since the 2019 Ecological Society of America conference and I’m still collecting all my thoughts about the meeting. My experience at ESA was, as they say, a little like drinking from a firehose: there was an enormous number of exciting talks, sessions, workshops, and networking opportunities, and I inevitably had time to experience only a fraction of them.

I planned my week to catch several talks that I picked out ahead of time, while still leaving time open for more serendipitous talks and conversations. (The PLOS Ecology Community has a nice blog post by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie that touches on the joys of spontaneous connections at conferences; check it out here.)

This strategy worked well for me: I saw some great talks and met lots of new people, both at the conference and by chance while doing a little exploring in Louisville, Kentucky, where the conference was held.

Here, I’ll do my best to share some of my conference highlights and direct you to some of the research, initiatives, and people that stood out to me at the conference.

The Importance of Inclusivity

The 2019 conference theme was “Bridging Communities & Ecosystems: Inclusion as an Ecological Imperative.” Increasing the inclusivity of ecology is of critical importance, not just this year but every year, and it was good to see ESA center the conference on this issue. From the opening plenary “All the Variations Matter” by Dr. Karen Warkentin (available here!), to seminars focused on building inclusivity at all career stages, to discussions about linking ecological research with communities, I appreciated the focus on inclusivity. I hope to see ESA continue this focus in the future, even when it is not the explicit conference theme.

So Much Science!

I spent most of the week bouncing between concurrent sessions, taking in a lot of excellent science. Some personal highlights included:

  1. The Biodiversity Data Dialogues Symposium, organized by GBIF, NEON, and iDigBio. Fun fact: did you know that two papers per day are published using GBIF data? (h/t to GBIF’s Kyle Copas for that information!)
  2. A really nice set of contributed talks in the Distributions and Range Limits session, which I volunteered to moderate (you can view the list of talks here). 
  3. Work by the Global Change Conservation Lab at the Missouri Botanical Garden about methods for incorporating species occurrence data of variable quality in biogeographical research.

There was a strong showing of talks related to biodiversity data, and this is likely just a small taste of things to come at next year’s ESA 2020 (theme: “Harnessing the Ecological Data Revolution”). I had the chance to join this conversation by giving a talk on an ongoing review of presence-only data analysis methods that is in the works with some of my NTNU Transforming Citizen Science for Biodiviersity team members.

A tweet from the official @ESA_org Twitter account welcoming attendees to ESA 2019.

Twitter and the Academic Conference

ESA was my first conference that I’ve attended as a somewhat-active Twitter-er (tweeter?), and I appreciated the very active #ESA2019 hashtag for connecting with other conference-goers, hearing a bit about sessions I couldn’t make it to, and crowd-sourcing tips on everything from directions around the (quite large) conference center to the best local spots to sample a Kentucky bourbon or two.

The conference hashtag also facilitated some real-time conversations about issues relevant to the ESA community. For example, ESA recently announced several changes to the format of next year’s conference. Most were well-received (I, for one, am excited about a slightly shortened talk format, longer breaks for coffee and networking, and no Friday morning talks). But one change, the introduction of a $60 abstract submission fee for contributed talks, quickly built up a negative response on and off Twitter. A conversation developed online as ESA members, both at the meeting and elsewhere, discussed the exclusionary impact of a submission fee and brainstormed alternative actions that ESA could take to achieve its stated goals of funding remote conference attendance and increasing the ratio of posters to talks. By the end of the conference, ESA had announced that the submission fee will have an opt-out mechanism. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether that response is sufficient, I was impressed with the way that Twitter allowed the ESA community to quickly engage in discussion between members at all levels of the organization.

Beyond the conference: posters and presentation slides are available

All in all, ESA was a lovely, productive week of meeting up with old and new colleagues, filling my mind with ecological ideas, and soaking up some inspiration for the new academic year. Everyone involved in organizing the conference deserves a huge thank you for putting together a well-planned, successful meeting. If you couldn’t make it to the conference, you can still access a lot of the science that was presented at the meeting: many posters and presentation slides from the conference are available for viewing here.


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