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!