In defence of taxon-specific conferences

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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!

10 thoughts on “In defence of taxon-specific conferences

  1. I totally agree with you.
    I have been attending the Worldwide Dragonfly Association meetings which became International Odonatological Congress with the merger of two international dragonfly associations. The diversity of presentations and presenters is wonderful and the range of topics are huge. I study neuroethology of dragonfly foraging behavior and can present my work at large Neuroscience and Neuroethology meetings. But the small meetings are full of curious, interested and diverse people who really ask questions and help each other. The field trips are outstanding too given that the meetings are always move between host countries.

  2. Everything you say about friendliness and openness is true- and since the research portion of my job is largely to mentor students, meetings like the American Arachnological Society meetings, and the recent international Trichoptera Symposium I attended can be a huge ‘in’ for young researchers. Or for noobs like me who barely know a caddisfly from a shoelace, and want to be able to help our students who may be “just outside” the general lab expertise.

    Let me also add- these are great places to do horse trading for research material. It’s where you have your best meet up with “the (fill in geographic area or taxon here) person” who can get samples of the taxa you need, in the places you might never get to, for whatever you can get for them, or for acknowledgments and future considerations.

    I can’t afford to go to one of these meetings every year, but I’d say I get one meaningful publication or new collaboration for each one I do attend, which for me is a pretty big deal. Oh, and speaking of “afford” these meetings tend not to be terribly expensive, if you can get there, they often have dorm accomodations and other ways to save precious travel funds.

  3. In my experience, the smaller, taxon-specific conferences are almost always a better use of my time. It is way easier to get meaningful face-time with my colleagues or to meet new colleagues. Additionally, I find that the research is generally “fresher” than at our big conferences–the deadline for Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is so far in advance that a good portion of the material presented there ends up being already published by the time of the presentations. This is compounded by a developing culture of conservatism at SVP presentations, where people seem very, very hesitant to present preliminary work. I haven’t seen this as much at taxon-specific (or topic-specific) conferences, so on the balance they are a good use of time. They also tend to be cheaper, too!

  4. Totally agree especially about the size of a conference – always get much more productive interaction out of the smaller more specific conferences that I attend

  5. I confess I find some of this puzzling. Are you suggesting that many people who don’t self-identify as [name of taxon]-ologists are mistaken about what sort of conferences they would get the most out of? Or is this post aimed exclusively at students who are still figuring out what sort of science they want to do and what sort of conferences they most enjoy?

    I agree that it can be useful for students to sample various sorts of conferences. But insofar as this post is aimed at your more experienced colleagues who choose not to attend taxon-specific conferences, well, different strokes for different folks, surely? I’m sure most everyone who attends [name of taxon] conferences gets a lot out of them, which is great! Same for most everyone who attends, say, an ecology or evolution conference. What I question is whether experienced people are mistaken about what conferences they personally would enjoy or get the most out of. I mean, sure, it’s possible some of them are mistaken–but for the most part, they probably aren’t. My experience is that ecologists who rarely or never attend taxon-specific conferences are fully aware of what those conferences are like, and correctly conclude that they personally wouldn’t enjoy them or get much out of them. Which isn’t a knock on taxon-specific conferences at all. It’s just to say that different people like different things, and that ordinarily and for the most part, each of us is correct about what we like and don’t like.

    It puzzles me that people who self-identify as [name of taxon]-ologists often feel that those who don’t are somehow making a mistake. That people like me–a population and community ecologist who uses protists as a model system and who’s never been to a protist conference–don’t know what’s good for them. It puzzles me because the converse doesn’t hold. I’ve never met an ecologist or evolutionary biologist who thinks that [name of taxon]-ologists are really missing out or are making a mistake by not attending more ecology and evolution conferences. I’ve never met a philosopher or historian of science who thinks that scientists are missing out or making a mistake by not attending more philosophy or history of science conferences. Why are [name of taxon]-ologists bothered that people who don’t self-identify as [name of taxon]-ologists don’t attend [name of taxon] conferences?

  6. I think that some of this is due to the different sizes that meetings come in. Most taxon based meetings are pretty small. So there is a chance to actually talk to the person who gave a talk if you want to. Really BIG meetings are great but they tend to be tribal…you are not necessarily going to hear something out of your field. But if all the attendants are going to the same talks……you hear everyone’s research and it is not hard to talk to the person next to you at lunch or in the coffee break.

  7. Fair enough. Although for me, conference size and subject are mostly orthogonal. I’m an ecologist who uses protists as a model system. But I wouldn’t go to a protist conference no matter how big or small it was. I’m just not sufficiently interested in protists as protists. When I go to small conferences or workshops (which isn’t as often as I’d like), they tend to be on specialized topics in which I happen to be interested (e.g., “modeling population cycles”, “current topics in philosophy of ecology”). I do enjoy those small conferences for the extended interactions they make possible. But I wouldn’t expect anyone who doesn’t happen to share my interest in the specialized topics of those small conferences to consider attending just because they’re small. Even if “on paper” it’s someone who seems like they would be interested. Some people who you’d think would be interested in X just aren’t. Which is fine. (e.g., you might well think I’d be really into protists–but I’m not.)

  8. Jeremy, my post is based on my experiences as a student (which I admitted upfront are not likely to be generalizable), and I suppose it is mainly aimed at people who are at a similar career stage who have never been to taxon-specific conferences and/or really don’t know what they are like. Perhaps I should have made that more explicit. I did not mean to suggest that all people who don’t consider themselves [taxon]-ologists or do not attend taxon-specific conferences are making a mistake. I intended to suggest that many folks who have never attended a taxon-specific conference and assume that they are just for taxonomists or are otherwise of no use to ecologists and evolutionary biologists in general are potentially missing out on valuable experiences.

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