Taxonomy vs research theme based conferences: which do you attend?


These two weeks are allowing me to contrast two very different kinds of meetings. As a member of the Linnean Centre of Plant Biology in Uppsala, I attended our yearly meeting last week*. The centre aims to bring together the plant biologists working in Uppsala and I was lucky that it started up in the year I began my position. Uppsala has two universities, Uppsala University (where I work) and SLU. Both have plant biologists working in multiple departments and of course on a wide range of questions. Physically, UU and SLU are not close. Although I usually enjoy the bike ride to SLU when I have a meeting, we don’t causally meet people working across at the different institutions. Joining the virtual Linnean centre and meeting people through it has given me an appreciation of the breadth of people working in Uppsala and allowed me to know my plant colleagues better. There is some discussion in the centre about what future meetings will look like but thus far I’ve benefited from my contact via these meetings and have collaborations with SLU folks I likely would not have without it.

Coming up is the annual Scandinavian Association of Pollination Ecologist’s meeting.** Here the focus spans two kingdoms (and sometimes a third) with people working on pollination questions from both the plant and animal perspectives. The kinds of questions we all ask are similar or at least understandable to everyone in the room. The discussions tend towards lively and it is a really good place to test out ideas (and rope your colleagues into writing reviews with you). Even though not everyone works directly on the same taxonomic group, the common tread of studying interactions means.

Although the meetings I’m attending are unique in their own ways, the general organisation is not uncommon. You have societies and their meetings based around an organismal divide versus those with a theme like ecology or evolution or some more specific topics. When we all need to make choices about our time and money, it can be tough to know the best kind of conference to invest yours in.

These are somewhat random musings but I think every meeting you attend is an opportunity to meet new people and learn about new or new-to-you research. Guaranteed that regardless of whether you choose to go to a conference focused on your favourite taxa or topic you will sit in on a talk that you don’t know much about. And in the same vein, you could find common ground with people who your works relates to in either setting. So I’m not sure there is a clear answer to what kind of conference is better per se and it likely depends a bit on the culture of your field as well. But that said, I have benefited from attending different kinds of conferences and I think it is good to mix up the conferences you attend. Sometimes you hit on the just right kind of meeting, but it can always be good to get outside your comfort zone too.

I think these are also general themes that are struggled with in different contexts in the fields of ecology and evolution. For example, there are the Ecology/Evolution Departments vs Botany and Zoology departments (and similar). There can be pluses and minuses to the different organisations. Shared greenhouse space might be a common concern for plant biologists working on very different questions. While once you are working with DNA perhaps organismal divides are of less importance. I have heard passionate arguments for opposite ends of the spectrum, while others are much less opinionated.

I think the important feature is that generally our individual research programs can be classified in a variety of ways. Personally, I don’t want to be painted into any particular corner and meeting with groups organised around different aspects of my work probably help me from doing that. Thinking back to conferences I’ve attended they have been ranged in theme (pollination, ecology, evolution, plant-insect interactions, plant volatiles) but many fewer have been taxonomy based (botany, entomology, etc). I think I’ve been good at attending a range of meetings in the past but it occurs to me that I might benefit from being more purposeful about that in the future.



*I wrote about my first somewhat embarrassing adventure at these meetings here.

**seems I’ve also written about this conference previously here and here, maybe I need some new material

3 thoughts on “Taxonomy vs research theme based conferences: which do you attend?

  1. I try to mix it up as well. I think, in terms of useful take-home information that will help me do science better, I get more from the taxon-specific conference. It pulls in things from other fields that can be really useful for my system. In contrast, the conceptual meeting (I’m thinking Ecology) has talks of big concepts that I’m already familiar with, though it is nice to see new approaches and how things work in other systems, though this isn’t usually as much of a pressing need.

  2. With regard to the issue of departmental divisions, I think it’s interesting how UC Davis has addressed this issue. I’m not I exactly understand how the divisions work, but it seems like they have broken up biology on two dimensions.

    There are different departments(eg entomology, plant biology, biology(broken into four subsections), several ag departments etc). Graduate degrees are not given based on departments though, and are organized along the lines of graduate groups which span multiple departments.

    I don’t know if it works well, but I would be curious to know if researchers there feel it benefits collaboration.

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