ESA Wednesday review: Ignite sessions

I made it to the Ignite session on eco-evolutionary dynamics this morning. It was a very interesting experience. Kudos again to the meeting organizers for adding these sessions and to all the speakers for having a go at it. Some random thoughts:

  • In previous posts, I’ve suggested that Ignite talks are, or should be, completely different beasts from regular ESA talks. I thought that trying to treat them as short ESA talks would just lead to bad talks. I was wrong about that. Some of the Ignite talks I saw were indeed totally different beasts, such as Chad Brassil’s excellent talk kicking off the session. Chad spent a good chunk of his 5 minutes using a wonderful analogy to classical music to make the point of his talk. But other Ignite talks were basically short ESA talks, or at least that’s the way they felt to me. And more often than not, it worked. Tom E. X. Miller’s talk on eco-evolutionary dynamics of species undergoing range expansion was a particularly strong example of a “short ESA talk”, I thought. So how do you cut down 15-17 minutes of material to 5 minutes? Well, one big way is to assume familiarity with the subject on the part of the audience. This allows you to dispense with the “introduction” almost completely, allows you to briefly refer to published work (your own, or that of others) and assume the audience remembers it, and allows you to put up slides without walking the audience through them because you’re assuming the audience is sufficiently familiar with the material not to need to be walked through it. Personally, I am familiar with the subject of eco-evolutionary dynamics, and so I liked it when the speakers assumed as much. Sometimes you sit in a regular ESA session and get tired of hearing basically the same 5-minute intro repeatedly. Here, you only had to hear the same 20-second intro repeatedly! On the other hand, I wonder if audience members who weren’t as familiar with the topic found the talks difficult to follow. Another way to shorten a 15-minute talk to 5 minutes is to make simpler points. For instance, several speakers showed slides with contrasting pairs of figures, one figure showing eco-evolutionary dynamics, the other showing dynamics with evolution switched off. The point of all those slides was that the two figures looked different, which is something that could be seen at a glance. Precisely why or in what ways they were different wasn’t something anyone had time to get into.
  • Several of the talks provided object lessons on the value of stage presence and showmanship. For instance, one of the speakers turned out to have prepared too little to say about some of his slides. He said what he had to say and was ready to move on–but the slide was still up. So he just paused briefly and then said “I’ll just let you absorb this slide for a moment.” It got a nice laugh, defusing the awkwardness. Which was actually pedagogically useful. An audience that’s aware of awkwardness, aware that the talk isn’t going precisely according to the speaker’s plan, is not an audience that’s engaged and listening actively to what the speaker is saying. (Well, a little awkwardness is harmless, but a lot gets distracting) Similarly, in the middle of his talk Dave Post inserted a slide that just read “Breathe”. It was funny, but (if I recall correctly) it also served the purpose of dividing the two sections of his talk. And Katia Koelle used humorous pictures from the movie Much Ado About Nothing on many of her slides. Emma Thompson represented “ecology” and Kenneth Branaugh represented “evolution”, with the two together representing “eco-evolutionary dynamics”. It was funny–at one point she jokingly compared Emma Thompson to smallpox (a disease with dynamics dominated by ecological forces). But it also served a purpose. If the slide’s not going to be up for very long, the audience needs to be able to grasp it quickly. The pictures helped with that.
  • A couple of the speakers had some quite text-heavy slides, which I found difficult. I found it hard to try to speed-read the slide while simultaneously listening to the speaker.
  • I had the impression that the speakers varied in the level of detail with which they prepared their talks. I’m curious if any of the speakers wrote their talks more or less word-for-word and memorized them. I bet some of them did, even if they didn’t end up saying exactly what they wrote. It seems like it’s really hard to wing it for an Ignite talk.
  • The discussion afterwards was interesting on multiple levels. I think a lot of credit for that goes to Colin Kremer, the moderator. He did a great job of keeping the discussion focused on one topic at a time, if necessary asking folks who wanted to address new topics to hold off until until discussion of the current topic was exhausted. And I thought the discussion was a good one, lots of good points were raised. There perhaps wasn’t as much debate as there might have been. I think in future it would be neat to try an Ignite session in which speakers take opposite sides of some controversial issue. The discussion format was interesting too. The speakers just sat down in the audience and raised their hands when they wanted to speak, like the other audience members. I hear other Ignite sessions adopted a panel session, audience-asks-questions-and-the-speakers-answer format. I’m curious to hear from commenters if they prefer one format over the other (don’t know that I have strong preferences myself, both formats can work) I’ll also note that the large majority of comments during the discussion came from a relatively small number of people, most of whom were either the speakers or well-known senior ecologists (plus one gabby blogger…). This occurred even though there were plenty of students and postdocs in the room. And it wasn’t as if the moderator was only calling on senior people–as far as I could tell, everyone who raised their hand to comment got to do so. Possibly, the dynamics in the eco-evolutionary session had a fair bit to do with the room being packed. Had there been a smaller audience, I bet the discussion might have had a different dynamic.
  • I’m sure my impressions are at least in part (and maybe mostly) a function of the session I chose to attend. Other Ignite sessions on other topics may well have been quite different in all sorts of ways. Hopefully commenters will chime in with their experiences of the Ignite sessions.

I like having a variety of formats in a single meeting. Ignite talks extend the range of variation. I definitely wouldn’t want the meeting to consist entirely of Ignite talks; different formats exist for different purposes. Tony Ives made great use of the space afforded by a one-hour timeslot for his MacArthur award lecture. Plenty of speakers in regular sessions make great use of their 20 minutes, leaving you feeling like the whole 20 minutes was time well spent. I don’t think Ignite sessions are better or worse than other sorts of sessions–they’re just different, much as how posters and talks are different.

Today I also gave my own talk. It seemed to go over well. Although during the week I’ve had multiple conversations in which I’ve summarized my key points in less than two minutes with no slides. Had I chosen to assume rather more familiarity with the material on the part of the audience, I feel like I totally could’ve given my talk as an Ignite talk. Which is another line of evidence that it’s perfectly possible to treat an Ignite talk as just a short version of an ordinary ESA talk.

7 thoughts on “ESA Wednesday review: Ignite sessions

  1. I went to the same session and was somewhat disappointed. I was expecting that Ignite talks would *not* be short ESA talks, summaries of people’s usual research. I was hoping for bold conjectures, syntheses, and viewpoints. (Perhaps “ignite” promises too much by association.) Perhaps part of the trouble was the session topic/question: we all agreed that eco-evolutionary dynamics are not the exception.

  2. A few random thoughts on the session:

    One tiny useful procedural idea for the discussion (taken from some software engineering practices) is to ask participants to stand up (in place) when they’re commenting/asking questions — it makes them more audible and (sometimes) encourages brevity.

    A few comments I didn’t make during the session:

    * we have *very* few estimates of evolvability (standing genetic variation/proportionality constant between the fitness gradient and the rate of trait change in a simple QG model). This seems to me to be a big barrier.
    * I was a little disappointed that at least one of the discussants suggested that we most need more controlled/microcosmic case studies. It seems to me that we’re at the point where we should be attempting to take this out to the field. After all, the question of the session was “are eco-evolutionary dynamics common?” — I assume that means “in nature” and not “in model systems chosen by ecologists” …
    * as a theoretician I was wondering whether there are plausible non-dimensional/general quantities that we could measure to quantify the characteristic speeds/relative speeds of eco- and evo dynamics. Evolvability is clearly one of the key quantities; it quantifies the evolutionary response to the ecological state. Is there another central quantity that characterizes the ecological response to evolutionary changes? Or is this a hopelessly simplistic way to think about it?

    • Hi Ben,

      Re: evolvability, evolutionary biologists have plenty of estimates of additive genetic variance (heritability) for all sorts of traits. So when you say estimates of standing genetic variation are rare, I’m a little confused–am I misunderstanding you?

      • Maybe it’s just that for the traits I’m particularly interested in (parasite virulence/replication rate, dispersal distance) these seem hard to get … (although it’s relatively easy to measure proxies for dispersal capability, and sometimes those work — e.g. Cheptou et al 2008 PNAS)

  3. A few further thoughts, inspired by conversations with several folks who gave Ignite talks or attended Ignite sessions (both the eco-evolutionary one, and others).

    -Discussion dynamics apparently varied widely. In some sessions with smaller audiences, everyone just kind of sat around and chimed in, with no moderator, and it worked well. And apparently, I hear there was at least one Ignite session in which the discussion basically didn’t happen–it petered out and everyone left after a few minutes?

    -Some folks felt, like Robin above, that the eco-evolutionary session was short on new ideas and/or debate. But others loved it for exactly that reason–it was an efficient introduction to the topic. Having said that, I do have the sense that in future lots of people would really like to see an Ignite session based on a truly controversial topic or premise. But it can be hard to organize that sort of thing. Not everybody likes getting up in public and debating others. Which is one reason why it’s easier to organize sessions of like-minded speakers.

    -Re: Robin’s disappointment at not seeing more “bold conjectures”, I wonder if that’s something that could be cured with appropriate choice of session topic? Maybe you’d get more bold conjectures if the topic were such that speakers didn’t have the option of just talking about their previous work? I have no idea, I’m just throwing the notion out there.

  4. Hello Jeremy and other participants,

    My two cents about the Ignite Session (IS) format. I really liked it. It had a special dynamic and found it refreshing although I agree with you that all session should not be “Ignite”.
    I went to the IS-6 about climate change effect on treeline organized by Melanie Harsch.
    I think that in order for all participants to fully benefit from an IS, it should have a good structure. For instance: the first two talks should be more introductory (so that members of the audience that are not familiar with the concepts can catch up), this should be followed by presenting one aspect of the subject (two IS talks) and then by contrasting opinions (two IS talks). Finishing with two IS synthetizing and presenting future avenues. But obviously, the structure of the session is up to the organizer.

    The discussion was great, we were neither too few nor too many (with the panelists, we were about 25), and the moderator Steve Mamet did a great job of offering the opportunity first to the public to ask precise questions, and then to have a discussion. The organizers wanted to narrow the discussion on how to improve our research in that field, and a secretary (thanks to Andrew Trant) took notes during the discussion, so we could review it later.
    Obviously, the most outspoken were the senior scientists (Christian Korner enlightened us once again with his huge experience in that field), panelists, and a couple of people whose research are centered on this subject, but I am certain even the more “silent” members of audience got something out of that one hour brainstorming.
    I also really appreciated that following the discussion, we had the occasion to have more private talks within the IS room, and that all the panelist didn’t just disappear after the discussion.

    A couple of thoughts about the IS talks:
    The speed of talking: indeed finding the good speed can be difficult (too slow, and you have 10 awkward seconds, but you can turn those into a funny moment if you’ve got stand-up comic genes)… however too fast and the foreigners might not understand (as you might have realized by now, English is not my mother language, and some talks were hard for me to understand because the speaker was sprinting through his talk).
    How to prepare for such a format: I tried to think how to practice for such talks. My idea would be to practice with a tempo (like musicians do) until I can get my talk synchronized with the slides.
    Small ESA talks? I agree that IS should be small ESA talks, but they should focus more on how the research fits in the broader theme of the talk.

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