In defence of taxon-specific conferences


I have been going to entomology meetings (including those of the Entomological Societies of Canada (ESC), British Columbia (ESBC), and Ontario (ESO)) yearly since I started studying spiders in 2010 (we don’t have an arachnological society in Canada, so for these societies spiders are welcomed as honorary insects) and I went to my first International Society of Arachnology (ISA) meeting in Colorado this past summer. I’ve met a lot of ecologists and evolutionary biologists who study insects or spiders who do not attend entomology or arachnology conferences (this may also be true for other taxa but these are the communities I am familiar with). It turns out that I am unusual among my current colleagues in that I happily self-identify as an arachnologist/entomologist as well as a behavioural ecologist. I’ve been asked “why would you want to go to a taxonomy conference?” or heard comments like “I don’t think I would get anything out of an entomology conference – I’m not really interested in insects, I’m a [insert preferred prefix here]-ologist.” I’m not sure where these misconceptions come from, or how common they are, but this is my attempt to set the record straight.

Here’s why even if you do not consider yourself a [taxon]-ologist, taxon-specific conferences are wonderful and valuable (at least in my experience as a student attending entomology conferences in Canada and arachnology conferences in the United States, which is admittedly unlikely to be completely generalizable).

The communities of scientists at these meetings are exceptionally friendly and welcoming (note that the smaller the meeting, the truer this may be – the meetings I’ve attended usually have between about 40 to a few hundred attendees, which for me fall into the goldilocks zone of meeting size). Attendees in general tend to be very enthusiastic about insects/spiders and eager to talk and learn about them. It feels very much to me like all of the attendees, especially at the smaller entomology meetings, are on the same team and much more interested in supporting one another than competing. These conferences are a great way to meet genuinely kind people and make connections, which is especially important for students. I have always had a ton of fun and met wonderful people, even as a card-carrying introvert. Most of my experiences of the benefits of attending conferences are based on these entomology meetings.

You will likely have no option but to attend many talks that you otherwise might avoid because you assume the topics wouldn’t interest you. I study behaviour and chemical communication, but at these meetings I end up at talks about evolution, community ecology, physiology, genomics, pest control, taxonomy, and more. By attending these talks I learn broadly about what’s happening in these fields as they relate to the taxonomic group I am most interested in. In almost every talk I attended at the international Arachnology meeting this summer (the majority of which were, at first glance, “outside my area of interest” – i.e. not about behaviour) I learned something new that excited me and/or gave me a cool idea that could be applied to the species I study. The exceptions were talks in which I learned about the latest advances in our understanding of arachnid systematics, which, while not directly applicable to my personal research, is certainly valuable information for me as someone who studies spiders. I think at least having an awareness of the phylogenetic placement of your study organism is important and not nearly as common as it should be – I’ve met students who couldn’t even tell me the family of the species they were studying.

The variety of fields of research you get exposed to at an entomology conference, say, is also a great thing for students early in their careers, like undergraduates who haven’t yet decided what they want to focus on for their next degree. Even if they aren’t sure they want to work with insects, and entomology me meeting would be a great way to get a taste of current work in many areas of biology. I met someone at the ESO meeting last weekend who had been working for a while after undergrad who attended the meeting to get ideas of what they might want to study for a graduate degree (and meet potential supervisors). From my conversations with them, they found it to be a very worthwhile experience.

There may be field trips or workshops focused on or relevant to your broad taxonomic group of interest. For instance, at the arachnology meeting I attended, there was the opportunity to go on a general collecting trip. Going out in the field and looking for spiders (or whatever it happens to be) with people who are experts can’t be beat as far as worthwhile experiences, in my opinion. And if it’s a smaller meeting it’s more likely to be in a smaller city that’s closer to cool habitats than large conferences in city centres. I’ve also been to an entomology meeting where there was a macro-photography workshop, where attendees could gain the valuable skill of being able to take high-quality photographs of their study subjects. And I know that at meetings of the Raptor Research Society (which my partner has attended) there are workshops on raptor research-related skills like tree-climbing, necropsy, and tracking techniques.

There are often lots of student awards to be won! At the ESC meetings, there is a President’s Prize for the best student talk in every session, so a prize for the best behaviour talk, the best physiology talk, the best pest management talk, and so on (also for posters). The same was true at the ISA meeting, in contrast to the only other international meeting I’ve attended (that of the International Society of Chemical Ecology) at which there was only one prize for the best student talk and one prize for the best student poster of the entire conference. At the ESBC meetings there is usually a prize for the best PhD student talk, the best MSc student talk, AND the best undergrad student talk. It may be worth noting that the value of these prizes tends to increase as the size of the meeting and number of awards decrease.

I must confess that I’ve never actually been to an ecology or behaviour conference (though I plan to attend the ABS meeting, which will be at my university, next year) so I’m clearly not in a position to argue than taxon-specific conferences are superior, but I do strongly recommend them, especially for students who have not been to many conferences before. Amy also wrote about taxonomy vs. research theme based conferences from the perspective of a plant-focused evolutionary ecologist a while back.

Do you have reasons for preferring or avoiding taxon-specific meetings? I’d love to hear arguments in the other direction!


Recommended reads #89


A couple truly spectacular reads have already made the rounds in social media in the last week, but in case you haven’t caught them, be sure to do so:

First, the Washington Post published a long-form piece about Derek Black, former media star of white nationalists who grew to repudiate his views. How did this happen? The free exchange of ideas and mutual respect found in higher education. If you’re looking for a defense of a liberal arts education (which can be found in potentially any university), then this might be as great as it gets.

Second, the Arizona Republic editorial staff received many death threats because they endorsed a particular presidential candidate. (Okay, a let’s all take moment to breathe, to absorb this fact.) The response from the publisher is powerful and important.

How you might change as a professor as you get older. Continue reading

Towards better titles for academic papers: a hermeneutic approach from a blogging perspective


I think a lot of academic article titles are pretty bad. What do I mean by bad? The title doesn’t really tell you what the paper is actually is about. It could be buried in jargon, or overselling an idea, or focuses on details that most of the intended audience won’t care about.

Does the title of a paper affect how it gets read and cited? Probably. In what way? That’s not so simple, based on my short browse of some scientometric findings. Continue reading


A student-centered academic conference


The national SACNAS conference came through LA again. SACNAS is an organization that fosters diversity in higher education and runs a huge national conference each year. The organization does other things, but the national conference is clearly a focal point.

SACNAS has been described as a “mentoring conference.” From what I’ve seen, that’s a good description. Continue reading

Bias in graduate admissions


Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

Continue reading


Recommended reads #88


Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep.

The terrorist inside my husband’s brain. This piece by Robin Williams’s widow, written for practicing neurologists, is an important read for all of us.

Why people wince at talk of “flipping classrooms.” This phrase has pretty much lost any specific meaning or utility, and that’s why I haven’t really used it. I’m a fan of active learning approaches but not a fan of flipping sensu stricto. Continue reading

How should the shape of your grade distribution change the way you teach?


I’ve received a number of comments about one of the recommended reads from last Friday. It was about the New York Times op-ed piece, about why people shouldn’t grade on a curve. And then, I asked, who does that anymore? The answer is: a lot of people. In addition to the comments on the post, I’ve gotten some emails and chatted with a few people (here while I’m at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, Florida).

One friend is in a department in which all faculty are rigorously required to conform their grades to a particular distribution, and they can’t submit their grades unless they follow this practice. Continue reading

Please nominate colleagues to be selected as ESA fellows


This one is for the ecologists.

There are a lot of people who have made outstanding contributions to the field of ecology — in education, research, outreach, and policy.

Do you think that any of these outstanding contributions came from ecologists in teaching-focused institutions? Continue reading

Networking from scratch


I’ve been writing regularly for Vitae, the careers section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This piece was published there a couple weeks ago. I’m reprinting it here:

Conferences are a wonderful time to see old friends and colleagues. That is, if you’re an old-timer.

If you’re not, the experience can be isolating and intimidating. And even if you do have friends at a meeting, the prospect of expanding your network can be daunting. Continue reading

Recruiting underrepresented minority students


The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading


Recommended reads #85


In 10 years, Harvey Mudd (an exclusive STEM-focused college in the LA area, one of the Claremont Colleges) went from 15% women students to having a majority of women. Here’s how they did it.

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists” Or, what happens when a trained physicist takes crackpots (and their money) seriously. Continue reading

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions


As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field. Continue reading