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ESA turns 100, and I turn 10: reflections on an ecological birthday

Last week I attended the 100th Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Baltimore. Happy Birthday, ESA! It also occurred to me that I’ve been going to ESA for ten years now (which means I’ve attended 10% of ESA’s!)– my very first was in Montreal in 2005, in the summer between undergrad and grad school. One thing that really struck me was how much has changed in just the ten years that I’ve been attending this conference, so I thought I’d write a little birthday reflection.

1) ESA is becoming more diverse.

I don’t have numbers on this, and I’m not sure if they exist, but I really noticed a change in demographics from the Montreal meeting to the Baltimore meeting: more people of color, lots of pregnant women and parents with babies, more folks who identify as genderqueer, rainbow-colored ally ribbons (mixed feelings about these, and a guest post on them is forthcoming!), more people with visible disabilities (e.g., service animals and mobile assistance devices).

I really credit ESA with a lot of this — it’s a sign that programs like SEEDS and offering childcare are working. ESA has full-time staff working on diversity, and this year they implemented an official conference harassment policy. A lot of this change has come from within the society, too, like the Inclusive Ecologists Section, the GLBTQ brown bag, and the new Early Career Ecologists section. There were a couple of diversity workshops, including one on supporting women in ecology and another that Josh Drew and I ran on making ecology in the field safer for everyone (more on this to come!).

There’s definitely room for improvement. It would be great to support ecologists of every gender, with things like gender neutral bathrooms or personal pronoun stickers, and it would be great to see more disability accessibility measures. The timeline of past ESA presidents was very male and 100% white (unless I missed something). But overall it’s been really great to see a trend towards greater inclusivity at the meeting.

A 1926 ESA meeting. We've come a long way since then; now ESA has more than 10,000 members!

A 1926 ESA meeting. We’ve come a long way since then; now ESA has more than 10,000 members!

2) Twitter is increasingly an important part of ESA meetings.  

ESA has a large and robust group of folks tweeting and blogging about the conference– for a couple of years in a row, we’ve gotten the meeting hashtag trending! When I first started using Twitter in 2010, there were only a small handful of folks at the meeting who were also tweeting. This year, there were so many of us that we ultimately decided not to do a tweet-up. Twitter has made my ESA’s infinitely better; I find talks I otherwise wouldn’t have, I have a built-in network of people when I arrive, I meet folks outside my discipline, and I can participate in conversations with others at the meeting (as well as share cool science with folks who don’t have access to conferences).

Society leadership has taken notice of conference tweeting, and this year they announced a new Twitter policy. It was a bit muddy, because the policy announced by the ESA Twitter account made it seem like tweeting was opt-in only with express permission from the speaker, while the official conference policy is actually much more liberal. I’m glad that ESA is thinking about live-tweeting, but I want to urge them towards an opt-out policy where live-tweeting is allowed unless expressly forbidden by a speaker. As I’ve written, getting advance permission is often impossible, and if you’re concerned about getting scooped at a conference, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk (especially given that the people most likely to scoop you are in the room with you, not people following along via Twitter).

3) Location matters, but it really shouldn’t. 

Attendance numbers at ESA fluctuate widely, depending on the location. Places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh (and next year’s Fort Lauderdale in August) can’t compete with popular towns like Portland. As a regular attendee, I’ve noticed that meeting location usually has little to do with the quality of conference amenities. Milwaukee, which was one of the lowest attended meetings in the last decade, is on a beautiful waterfront with lovely art deco architecture and great breweries. Minneapolis had access to some of the best food I’ve ever eaten at a conference and a really cool sculpture garden (if they could just get the free wifi, it would be my favorite ESA location of all). Baltimore has a great Little Italy and a world-class aquarium minutes from the convention center, with fun water taxis and tasty seafood. Portland and Albuquerque are fun locations, but were not my favorite conference venues — both were far from amenities and it was challenging to get to and from hotels and local restaurants. I hope more folks will realize this, and check out the places that aren’t as glamorous (I see we’re already headed back to Portland, and I somehow doubt we’ll ever make it back to Minneapolis).

Baltimore, 1792. I think the convention center would be just past those white houses near the ship. Thanks to work by paleoecologist Grace Brush, we know a lot about how urbanization has impacted the Chesapeake Bay!

Baltimore, 1792. I think the convention center would be just past those white houses near the ship. Thanks to work by paleoecologist Grace Brush, we know a lot about how urbanization has impacted the Chesapeake Bay!

4) We need to do better at integrating across disciplines. 

There was a discussion on Twitter about how as a group, ecologists tend to be isolated within our disciplines, and that we often don’t appear to be talking to one another. This is true for a lot of societies, and there’s an historical terrestrial/aquatic-marine divide that we still can’t seem to rectify. You can help fix this problem! Obviously symposia and organized oral sessions are a great way to bridge gaps (people tend to camp out there so you often see a wider range of talks), but even contributed sections can be more diverse. As a section, Paleoecology has worked hard to infiltrate other sub-groups. We’ve had explicit discussions in meetings about submitting to community ecology, fire ecology, or other themes, rather than always sticking ourselves in “paleoecology.” For the last few years, I haven’t chosen “paleoecology” has a subject when I’ve submitted my abstracts. I’ve gone with things like “herbivory” or “climate change.” As a result, paleoecology talks have been ending up all over the place, in addition to the organized session we put together and our usual contributed sessions.

Having said all that, I’ve been really impressed with the wide range of sessions that aren’t specifically research-related, but which focus on history, education, outreach, diversity, etc. The new Ignite sessions are fun (though I’m not a fan of the contributed ones– I think they’re stronger with a theme).

5) Joining sections really helps!

I’ve been going to the Paleoecology Section business meetings since my first ESA, and it’s been a great opportunity to meet other folks in my discipline and help shape the future of our field. ESA has a new policy where everyone automatically joins one section, but you always have the option to join others. I’ve noticed a drop-off in student attendance at our recent business meetings, which may be due to the fact that the Student Section is really strong so students default to that. I really encourage folks to join other sections and attend the meetings if you can. You might get elected to a position (looks great on your CV!), but it’s also a really good way to network. I’m excited about the new Early Career Ecologist Section and the SciComm Section. (Hmm…do we need a Macroecology & Biogeography Section?). Plus, your section membership makes you eligible for student travel and talk awards, which is always a plus.

I’m already looking forward to Ft. Lauderdale in 2016, which has a theme pretty relevant to my research: Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene (organized oral session and symposia proposals are due Sept. 17th). I’m excited to see what the next ten years of ESA will bring, and I remain really impressed that I feel that we as members have a real say in determining the future of our organization. What would you like to see?

Categories: Conferences

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Jacquelyn Gill

11 replies

  1. I think the repeated Portland meetings are perhaps more about conference cost than location — I’ve heard that the fees associated with using the Portland Convention Center are much lower than for other cities.


  2. Not that I see too many ESA’s in my future, but I find the somewhat random location choices annoying. While I will look back on Milwaukee as one of my favorites, Albuquerque was miserable and Sacramento was terribly hot. I like the AGU model much better, always in the same place, and it seems that it would make the planning much easier. Another alternative would be a reliable rotation of east/west locations (PDX, Austin, Montreal?). I agree that I’ve always found great things and had a great time in whatever city, but I’d be lying if I said it never impacted my attendance. Even now I have the opportunity to attend the conference but I didn’t go this year because it was in Baltimore, and I won’t next year either because of location. But 2017, I’ll be in PDX :).


    1. I’d prefer Minneapolis for a central location over Austin (which was a great town but also brutally hot). I also think it’s a bad idea to be visiting places that are chronically in droughts or have water issues. I get why we do that (cheaper) but I do think we should consider the environment to some extent.

      We need a good east coast location (Montreal is so expensive!). And I just didn’t think Portland was that great, comparatively, so I’d support trying another western hub.


    2. I really dislike the AGU model. It’s always a very long and very expensive trip away. I have young children and the fact that it takes a day to fly there and a day to fly back really matter.


  3. Been following this blog for about a year. What a happenin’ subject especially in light of general lay public confusion and musing about whether or not the planet is undergoing another extinction event comparable to that of the last megafaunic one.

    Are the ESA conferences strict about “guests” being only at the invitation of formal, qualified registrants, or do they also accept “walk-ins” so to speak?.


    1. Anyone can attend, but for nonmembers the fee is 50. You can attend as a guest for $45, and there is a reduced rate for educators, but there’s not really a fee for local or layperson attendees per se. It would be nice of ESA could come up with some sort of policy for this, or if there would be certain events that could be open to the public, but in general it’s a pretty academic focused conference. You can read more about the policies here:


  4. Minneapolis is awesome! I hope ESA goes back.

    I went to ESA this year somewhat skeptical about whether I would find it worth the travel time (and to be honest, the flying related emissions). However as I’ve made more connections with other researchers, ESA has become a richer experience for me in many ways.

    That said, one thing I’d like to see ESA explore is a way for people to deliver talks to the meeting remotely. I think this would give a chance for more people to present their work at the meeting who maybe can’t afford to travel there in person.


    1. I think this would be tricky because the infrastructure can be expensive and there are already so many concurrent sessions anyway. BUT, I think it’s a cool idea, and maybe could be something organized for the rest of the year? I.e., opportunities for people to do ESA-affiliated live streams of talks that people could check in on remotely?


  5. What a great recap Jacquelyn! Thanks so much and it was very helpful to me as I attended ESA last week as a first timer. I assumed the “Ally” ribbon was for those of us from different/sister organizations such as the AGU (American Geophysical Union). So I wore the ribbon on that basis! Oh well! 🙂 And for disciplinary integration, folks should check out the ecoinformatics crowd! Great to know about the SciComm section! Thanks again!


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