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CONFERENCE: British Ecological Society Annual Meeting - ICC, Birmingham

At last, a conference on my doorstep! This year shaped up to be my year of the conferences! The BES becoming my 3rd international, with another 4 national or local symposia rounding me up to 7 meetings this year. But I have to say, I went out on a high with this one. Not only is it the last of the year for me, but will be the last EVER of my PhD. With my New Year deadline for all lab work to be wrapped up, I will soon start writing up my thesis. The end of my PhD is nigh and the 31st March deadline loooooms! On top of that, we saved the best results until last, and boy did it pay off!

Pressing engagements

Suffice to say, this was not a normal conference experience for me. The BES press team (kudos to Sabrina and co!), scanned over 750 abstract submissions this autumn and identified interesting stories to promote to the press in lieu of the Annual Meeting. I can't begin to imagine how mind numbing that was. We were very lucky to have been selected as one of the 6 that they pushed forward to the press as an 'interesting story' (read as, we work in Antarctica even bird poo is press-sexy science in Antarctica). The press took the Antarctic bait and as a result, myself and my supervisor Pete Convey were fielding interviews and calls from press for most of the conference. I was initially terrified that I would trip up and bring the University of Birmingham or BAS into disrepute, and during live radio work had the mantra of ‘don’t say fuck or bugger’ rotating around my mind – surely making it only more likely I would actually swear. All of this press was swirling around the results I was to present on the final day of the conference: that a small introduced midge was adding 3-5 times as much nitrogen to the terrestrial ecosystem of an Antarctic island as would otherwise be found. Which is an interesting result given how nutrient poor polar ecosystems are - a small change to soil nitrogen could upset the vegetation community. I’d prepared a fun talk, checked and double checked the results, done 4 interviews back to back and then, bam! In the middle of a radio interview with a German radio station my throat went as dry as the radio presenter’s sense of humour – I was sick! And within hours I was snotty coughy achey sick! The day before the talk! Buggery fuck.

Pete and I talking with Volker Mrasek

Just a few days earlier I had been away with a few dozen friends and their kids. As is want of the corruptible immune systems of children, some had some awful breed of lurgy. Now, I pride myself on the resilience of my immune system and use it as a tool to mock my fiancé when he succumbs to the slightest of viruses with exaggerated pantomine. But I think the frenetic chaos surrounding this conference broke me just enough. My defences were down. The virus attacked. And consequently I had to intravenously consume Lemsip through my entire talk. Which I think was well attended – either that or the double vision was worse than I thought. Anyway, enough of this – what of the conference?!

Sausage Slam

(Gosh, thats a dubious sub-title isn't it. Never mind, I'm going to run with it - it was that or sausage fest ...) Kicking off with the Science Slam on Sunday evening, the annual meeting instantly sured itself up as the lighter of all of the conferences of the year. None of the seriousness of the entomological Linnean games at EntSoc, nor the silver service standard of the polar communities amassed in Davos at POLAR2018 – here at the BES, we have drag queens, singing and stand-up. Polly Nation (aka Lewis Bartlett – no, I’m not sure if we are related or not!) brought the house down with her bee themed drag act, whilst mathematical stand up, singing pigeons and musical geneticists continually raised the bar for all conference launch nights to come. Excellent work from Chris Jeffs and co!

Queen Bee, Polly Nation

The chap who did a drum n' base song about DNA was so good that I replaced the memory of his name with the lyrics to his song, so if anyone reading this knows who I mean please let me know. I'm sure I could shed some bug-related knowledge to make room. Host for the night, comedian Ivo Graham gave me face ache from smiling so much. God that guy is smart and impossibly quick! Then with bean bags, a bar, a ‘draw-your-study-species’ station and numerous lively stands – including one with a twittering songbird soundtrack - the conference hall kept up the light hearted and entertaining vibe of the event for days to come. I can testify to the joy of realising you need a break, then stumbling across a table of grown scientists drawing with felt tip pens. Alas, what should have been the cherry on the top – the conference dinner, otherwise known as BESFEST – was a let down. And they were doing so good up until that point, but hours of queueing, loud oompah bands and a sausage heavy german buffet was a sure fire way to clear a room of ecologists, especially vegetarian ones. I left early, with a belly of beer and potatoes and my ears ringing with the cries of lederhosen clad whenches shouting ‘cheers luv’! No ta. Not the fault of the BES though I should state, the venue seemed a bit overwhelmed.

Seminars & Science

So to the science, the reason we were all there. Brilliantly organised into logical sections (I’m looking at you Ent Soc of America!), the sessions covered a huge range of topics, species and disciplines. Thanks to the handy conference app I was able to pick talks out of sessions and build my own portfolio of lectures based on different themes. For example – I spent Monday learning all about nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems by dashing between rooms as appropriate, with talks on N:P:C stoichometry in seeds from Tereza Mashova; a great talk from Thomas David linking soil nitrogen to pollinators; and a really very interesting study from Noemi Pichon on litter decomposition under N enrichment. I learnt a lot from these talks that I can apply to my own work. Tuesday was the day of the environmental physiologists, but in a no way biased turn of events I found the most interesting talk of the day to be from the exuberant Walter Andreuzzi on Antarctic soil food webs - the dry valleys are such a fascinating ecosystem. I'd love to study them myself, in fact I had a mind last year to try and join him and colleagues in Diana Wall’s lab for a post-doc, so it was great to hear about new research coming from that group and meet in person. Same for a co-author of mine, Grant Duffy - we are writing a paper together through a mutual contact but have never met in person, so it was really beneficial to sit down and chat. Even if I did cough ever other word!

The poster sessions were well attended and the standard really high, I love to see more and more people using graphic design to communicate their research. Not only graphics, but fancy dress and social media campaigns too. The researchers studying the use of monkeys in tourism really did a great job to raise the profile of their work. Pretty hard to ignore someone walking around in a monkey suit! Dedication right there.

Workshops & Wellbeing

I managed to get to one lunchtime workshop, a well attended seminar on mental health and resilience from the charity Mind. Mental health is high on my radar at the moment as I am trying to organise a new seminar series at the University of Birmingham on this subject. Society is opening up dialogue on this subject and Im keen to ensure that my department is not left behind, crucially, that the people of the department are not left behind because we missed out on that conversation as an institution. So to see the BES openly encouraging this is really great. I was also pleased to see that people could write their own gender options on their name tags or pride stickers, and that there were gender neutral toilets on every floor. Furthermore there was a lot of twitter activity prior to the first mixer event about anxiety and networking with strangers and how to deal with it. I’m pretty outgoing (see post about me on a stage in Belfast) and like meeting people, but still find these events stressful. I cant imagine what they are like for someone more introverted. And let’s face it, this is a room of scientists, who typically are not renowned for their social abilities.

The main feeling from this conference was that the BES is a real community of scientists looking out for each other, whether that is promoting their work or supporting their well-being. And that at least is something to strike up an oompah band for. Although less the sausage and potatoes please.

Good job BES - I look forward to Belfast 2019!

Conference hall with the 'draw your study species' station bottom left


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