Lived and learned: #BES2016 in review

I returned last night from the 2016 Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society, held in Liverpool. Going to ‘the BES’ is fast becoming an annual tradition for me, as it is for hundreds of ecologists. As always, I had a great time, and learned a lot – not just fascinating snippets from the coalface of ecological science, but also a lot of more general lessons about how to get the most out of big conferences like this one, and a scientific career more generally. For my own sake as much as anybody’s, I thought I’d coalesce some of those thoughts here.

1. Engage with the public (don’t preach at them)

The conference was book-ended by talks that addressed the difficulty of turning your science into practice. Much of what ecologists do has a real-world application – whether we work in conservation, monitoring, or environmental change, I think we all want to see our research getting used, but it isn’t always as simple as ‘publish the paper, wait for people to read it’. Opening the conference, Mike Begon tackled Michael Gove’s comments that “people have had enough of experts”. Mike pointed out that people are more likely to respond to emotionally attractive messages than plain facts, no matter how persuasive those facts may be – but importantly, there is no reason why we can’t use facts as the moral justification to underpin those messages.

Later, in the final plenary, Hugh Possingham distilled his own experiences of trying to get his research into policy in his native Australia into the three simple messages in the tweet above. Hugh also highlighted the importance of ‘environmental heroes’, who can campaign on an issue over much longer timescales than is really possible for an academic. Somebody who definitely qualifies as an environmental hero retired this week after 13 years as CEO of Butterfly Conservation – best wishes for the future to the wonderful Martin Warren.

2. Step outside your comfort zone

This year’s conference marked the first time I had presented a chapter of my PhD (and hopefully soon a paper) that tackled DNA-based approaches for detecting ‘stuff in the environment’ and tested whether they could be applied to my area of interest, pollination interactions. I’m getting fairly experienced now at presenting talks at conferences – I’ve done both small conferences (where, conversely, the audience tends to be larger) and big conferences (where the audience can be much more topic-focussed and expert). But this was a methodological talk, about skills I had almost entirely learned within the last 12 months. What if I got found out?

I needn’t have worried. My talk went well and people seemed to be interested (and some of them said very nice things on Twitter!). A couple of people came up to chat afterwards who, it turned out, worked in related fields and had found elements of my talk useful – making those kinds of contacts was exactly why I’d wanted to give the talk in the first place!

On a related note, I spent Wednesday afternoon chairing a session on Global Change Ecology. Again, something I had never done before, but it worked out great, serving as simultaneously a gentle and a rigorous introduction to session-chairing. Gentle – because it was a small session in a big room, so it never felt too intimidating. Rigorous – because I faced all the challenges that chairing can throw up (speakers worried about their timing, stony silences when asking for audience questions, and at one point a hint of technical issues!). Next time I’m given the chance to chair a session, I’ll be much more confident.

3. Be nice

In a year of celebrity deaths, ecologists mourned the loss of Ilkka Hanski. I recently submitted a paper, based on my dissertation project, that investigated the spatial ecology of a moth species, and so I have a little familiarity with Ilkka’s work on metapopulations. Therefore, I decided to attend as much as I could of the session on Tuesday afternoon celebrating his life’s work. That such a session took place at all was remarkable – how many past attendees of the BES must pass on every year? – but I was struck by both the high turnout and the extraordinary fondness with which each speaker talked about Ilkka. Something to aspire to.

The following morning, Alison Hester – charged with the impossible task of giving the 12 Months in Ecology lecture after the year that’s been! – did a marvellous job of reminding us that it’s not all doom and gloom. There have been some fascinating discoveries this year, and great progress on the issue of microplastics. With Brexit looming and the election of President Trump, it’s easy to feel down – but it’s not certain how things will pan out, and maybe we ecologists, as a collective, can make a difference.

4. You’re not an imposter!

Imposter syndrome – almost all academic scientists will be familiar with it (as a side-note, congratulations to the BES for being proactive in organising a workshop about stress, and especially for targetting it at PIs, to help them look after their students. A great shame it had to be cancelled at the last minute, and I hope it will be back on the programme next year). After last year’s conference, I was honoured to have been named a runner-up for the Anne Keymer Prize for Best Student Talk. On Tuesday evening, I was invited to a drinks reception attended by Society prize-winners, current and past Presidents, and this year’s plenary speakers. Wow – I was terrified! Fortunately, the lovely Zoe Davies (who really did a marvellous job of putting this year’s programme together) spotted me looking nervous and swept me up, immediately introducing me to “Bill” (that’s Bill Sutherland to us mere mortals!). Within the hour I was chatting away to “Pedro” and “Jordi” – authors of this year’s Marsh Book Award winnerMutualistic Networks – about my own research on nocturnal pollination networks. Of course, I still felt like an imposter – but if anybody in the room felt in any way superior to me, they hid it well. Some of the best ecologists around – but totally grounded and humble.

5. The more you see, the more you know

This was my third BES; since starting my PhD I’ve also done two Royal Entomological Society conferences, two Butterfly Conservation/De Vlinderstichting conferences, and a host of other smaller meetings. At the first of these, I knew practically nobody and spent large chunks of the meeting standing awkwardly by my poster. This time out, it took me until Wednesday lunchtime to finally catch up with everybody I’d hoped to see at the BES, despite ‘networking’ during every single break. Along the way, I met a bunch of new people, ranging from MSc students to high-profile PIs, many of them through introductions by my existing contacts. I’m astonished by how many friends I’ve made in three short years in academia – long may it continue.