Posted by: Jeremy Fox | August 10, 2011

Blogging the ESA: Tuesday highlights

What. A. Day. Best day of talks I’ve had at the ESA in years. And lots of them were from students and postdocs. I won’t attempt much in the way of summaries (you can read the abstracts, which for the most part were accurate summaries of what was actually said). But I do want to give a shout-out to the speakers who made it a great day for me. In temporal order:

Florian Altermatt gave an interesting protist microcosm talk on effects of disturbance and directional dispersal on community structure, in which he really pushed the analogy with what happens in rivers where organisms mostly flow downstream. Results contrasted with classic results which Phil Warren published in Oikos back in the mid-90s, which I’ll have to ask Florian about if I get the chance.

Elizabeth Perry gave a really nice talk on eco-evolutionary dynamics of bacteria and phage, linking from the underlying molecular mechanisms (e.g., gain-of-function mutations are harder to come by than loss-of-function mutations) to the eco-evolutionary dynamics.

Adam Miller explained why the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is a zombie idea, though he was far too polite to use those words.

Andy Gonzalez showed off beautiful and counter-intuitive experimental results on evolutionary rescue. Turns out that adaptation to deteriorating conditions might prevent extinction at range margins rather than in range centers. Though if you’re not used to thinking about things like mutational effect size distributions you might have found the explanation of the results went by a little quickly.

Christine Parent told a great story about diversification of Galapagos land snails, backed up by new statistical methods for relating different types of data matrices (e.g., species x sites matrices with site x environment matrices with…)

Oded-Berger Tal explained why, when you’re choosing your habitat patch on the basis of limited information, it’s better to be an optimist (‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence’) than a pessimist (‘the grass is greener on my side’). Only the optimist gets to find out if the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence or not, and so over time gains more information about the true distribution of patch quality.

Brooks Miner KICKED A**. On a day of outstanding talks, this one stood out for me. I just wanted him to keep talking, he was that good. It wasn’t just what he showed (Daphnia adapt to UV light by evolving a more effective DNA photorepair enzyme), it was the way he showed it–just so clever and clean and elegant. And his presentation style is terrific too. Brooks Miner–remember that name.

Brett Melbourne used tightly-linked models and (massive amounts of) microcosm data to pick apart the dynamics of stochastic spatial spread.

Mathew Leibold was the talk equivalent of kicking back with a good beer.

Other stuff that happened today:

Man vs. building: I continue to refuse to let the strange design of the convention center keep me from seeing the talks I want to see. Which meant that for much of the day I was literally alternating between talks on different floors on opposite sides of the building. I am going to leave the meeting much more physically-fit than when I arrived.

Great moments in self-promotion: Some folks at Oxford U Press and Wiley-Blackwell have been reading the Oikos blog and liked my ESA preview posts. So they asked me to do a couple of short (2 min.) podcasts for them, one about the blog (its purpose, why I find it a good use of my time, etc.) and one about the meeting (best talk I’ve seen, talks I’m looking forward to, tips for other attendees, etc.). They should be online soon, on this blog and perhaps on YouTube or elsewhere. That is, unless I see the finished videos and decide that the lighting doesn’t flatter my Adonis-like features or something. 😉

That’s one way to toughen up your students: Met a student today who said that his/her supervisor doesn’t buy, or even subsidize, students’ food or drinks at lab dinners!

Lowlight of the day: Most of the excellent student talks I saw aren’t up for the Buell Award, because the students didn’t nominate themselves for consideration. It’s clear that this is happening because students either aren’t aware of the nomination process (which requires completing an additional form above and beyond those needed to register for the meeting and submit a talk), or can’t be bothered with nominating themselves because they see it as pointless extra work (the self-nomination requires you to write an essay in addition to filling out an extra form). But ultimately the reasons why students aren’t nominating themselves are irrelevant: the mere fact that they’re not doing so is a problem. In an ideal world I think all student talks would be considered for the Buell Award. On Friday I’ll be raising this issue with the Buell and Braun Award committee to see if there’s anything that can be done to increase participation rates.

Minor irritation of the day: Many of the rooms are too bright; all the lights are on. Tomorrow I plan to make sure the presider kills the lights for my session.

Minor irritation of the day #2: Why are some of the rooms furnished with circular tables surrounded by chairs, as if we were going to eat dinner? Tables take up space people could be sitting in.

Minor irritation of the day #3. Too many people are using over-small fonts on their slides, and packing too many figure panels onto one slide. Clearly, not enough people read the presentation tips I posted a while back, which IIRC included advice on font size (nothing smaller than 24 pt. Arial) and slide design.

Minor irritation of the day #4: The VAST majority of the posters at the meeting have WAY too much text. A poster is not supposed to be a paper in large flat form. No one wants to stand there reading for 15 minutes. Your poster should be a VERY highly digested summary of your work, which can be grasped quickly with hardly any reading. If people have any questions, they can ask you–you’re standing right there, after all! I’m old enough to remember a time before color plotters, when “posters” comprised a series of 8.5 x 11 inch sheets of paper mounted on colored cardboard. Posters were better then, quite frankly, because no one wanted to spend the time required to print and mount a whole bunch of sheets densely packed with text. And we were tougher back then too because we had to walk barefoot 10 miles through the snow to get to school and it was uphill both ways! And we only had dirt to eat for dinner, and we liked it! Hey you kids, get off my lawn! /end crotchety old guy rant

Question of the day: So where is everyone eating? I’ve eaten several meals in places close to the convention center, near the Hampton Inn (Thai, sushi, Mongolian BBQ). None were full, and there weren’t huge numbers of other ecologists. And the Mongolian BBQ place is excellent. Usually when I go to the ESA I find myself standing in line waiting to get into the same packed restaurants all the other ecologists are in. Where is everybody? Please answer in the comments.

Had a quick dinner and am now back in the hotel working on my talk. The students are setting a high bar, I feel like I’d better be on my game for my own talk tomorrow morning.


  1. I’ve been annoyed by the screen height in a lot of the rooms. As a somewhat shorter person, I can’t see the bottom 3/4 of slides if I’m further than 5 rows back. Not good for talk switching!

  2. […] Sunday-Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday […]

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