Notes and impressions from the ESA meeting

I enjoyed the meeting and got a lot out of it. Thanks very much to the organizers for working so hard to make it happen. Some random thoughts and impressions:

I screwed up my Ignite talk, but it was fine. I stupidly planned for 15 slides at 20 seconds per slide, rather than the specified 20 slides at 15 seconds per slide. Oops. So I had to change it to 15 seconds per slide (them’s the rules!) I turned it into a joke about how 5 minute talks are for wimps and I was going to do my talk in 3:45, because I’m a blogger and I can be brief. It got a laugh, and the talk itself was fine. Between having been pretty well prepared, and the “modular” way in which my talk was structured, it wasn’t that hard to cut it down on the fly. There’s a lesson here for students. At some point, something’s going to wrong during one of your presentations (or one of your classes, if you’re a teacher). It could be an equipment failure, an audience member or student who keeps interrupting with questions…anything. It’s really useful to be able to think on your feet and deal with it.

A couple of thoughts on Ignite talks. They’re more work to prepare than conventional talks. And the 15 seconds per slide rule is a bug, not a feature. I assume the idea is to try to force people to minimize the use of text and figures, and so give a talk where all the visuals are pretty pictures. But even if you do that, the rule imposes a very awkward and distracting pace and rhythm to your talk. People are always either rushing to catch up with their slides, or (more rarely) waiting for their slides to advance, or (most rarely still) reading their talks so as to stay in perfect sync with their slides. That is, unless you do what I did and cheat, by having 2-3 duplicate slides in a row. But if you’re allowed to do that (and how could anyone stop you?), then there’s no point to the 15 seconds per slide rule. Ignite talks remind me a bit of how authors and poets sometimes set themselves the challenge of writing under some very severe constraint, like not using any word with an “e” in it. It’s really difficult, and even when you pull it off the achievement is more in having produced something that’s decent despite the constraint, rather than excellent because of the constraint.

More thoughts on the topic of my Ignite session (theory vs. empiricism) in a separate post, hopefully.

It seemed like a small meeting this year. Maybe even under 3000? There were plenty of empty seats in most of the rooms. (Though not in the session I was in, which was standing room only. I wonder if part of the reason was that a lot of the Ignite sessions seemed to be aimed at fairly narrow audiences this year? So if you wanted to go to an Ignite session, ours was probably going to be your first choice? I dunno, I’m just speculating.)

Because of the small size of the meeting, and because there wasn’t one street where all the bars and restaurants were concentrated, it was pretty easy to go out to eat and drink. I tried several of the recommendations from our recommondations post, they were all excellent. And I thought the food prices were great.

The meeting was split between the convention center and two hotels across the street, which wasn’t ideal. I know there’s a lot that goes into choosing a meeting location, and I don’t necessarily think ESA should just rule out anyplace that can’t fit the whole meeting into its convention center. But personally I do much prefer meetings that aren’t so spread out.

Not many people came to our meetup, but that’s fine, we enjoyed meeting the folks who came by (thanks!) Meg, Brian, and I had dinner after the meetup. First time all three of us all got together face to face. I hope it becomes an annual tradition.

One interesting thing that came out of the meetup is that apparently readers often don’t realize who wrote which post? Meg and I apparently have both have had the funny experience of being complimented on posts the other wrote. Maybe Brian has too? Do we need to do more to make clear who wrote which post? Besides, you know, having the author’s name right below the title (in admittedly-tiny type)?🙂

I also saw Meg speak for the first time. Her talk was really good. Brian was scheduled almost opposite me so I couldn’t go, sadly.

Other really standout talks for me: Kathy Cottingham’s opening plenary, Greg Dwyer’s Ignite talk in my session (good points made very entertainingly), George Sugihara (wonderful animated videos from his son, explaining the key ideas), Monica Granados (very creative and thought provoking), Peter Adler (just excellent all around), and Rae Winfree (a collaborator who explained some ideas of mine more clearly and succinctly than I ever have).

I stayed for the whole meeting. Friday morning attendance was low as usual, although it seemed pretty good in the poster session and in the oral session I saw. I still think the ESA should swap the Monday morning and Friday morning activities (possibly with the awards ceremony moving to a late afternoon or early evening slot on Sunday or Monday). That way people are more likely to stay to the end of the meeting (because otherwise you’d be skipping an entire day), and the only people who need to stay for Friday morning are those attending workshops and other activities for which you have to sign up. Lots of other people like this idea too. Worst case scenario, you try it once and if it doesn’t work, you go back to the current schedule.

Finally, anyone know why the meeting was a week later this year, and is a week later again next year? I’m sure some people like having an extra week in the field, but other people have to start teaching in mid-August. And I have personal reasons for much preferring that the meeting start earlier in August.

What were your impressions of the meeting?

6 thoughts on “Notes and impressions from the ESA meeting

  1. This was an excellent meeting for me, which is likely a result of balancing meeting and socializing energy allocation. But other factors could have contributed like size, dispersion of bars and food, and the nice hotel (the Hyatt).
    I too enjoyed Peter Adler and Greg Dwyer’s talks, in addition to a talk by Michael Koont on the role of propagule pressure on population dynamics, Meike Wittmann gave a good talk on Allee effects in stochastic populations, and Allen Herre gave a good talk on endophytes and plant structure and function.
    I particularly liked the ignite session, and I thought you gave a good talk (although I wouldn’t have apologized so much beforehand). Some, like JJ Stachowicz, Anette Ostling, and Bradley Cardinale did a spectacular job at timing, but it was really clear to the audience that it must have taken a large amount of work for all of the speakers to keep that pace. I think that made it more fun and perhaps opened up people to some of the ideas (?). I have a lot to say about that, but perhaps I’ll save that for another post.
    I had planned to attend the meetup–especially because I pretty much read every post on this blog–but I was caught in the poster session. But, there’s always next year . . .

    • Hi Zen,

      To clarify, I thought the Ignite talks themselves were good. It’s just that I think they’d be even better, and easier to prepare, if the constraints on number and timing of slides were removed. Just have people give 5 minute talks–but structured however they want to structure them.

      In your post, you note that the format can lead to energetic talks. I agree; that’s a big part of what made Greg’s talk entertaining. And from your experience, it sounds like it can help students avoid being nervous or bland (although it’s not clear to me that ESA speakers need that help). But I guess I’d say that putting on a really high energy show isn’t every speaker’s cup of tea. There’s more than one way to give a really good talk, and so if a format obliges speakers to give one style of talk, well, that strikes me as an overly-limiting format.

      But different strokes for different folks. And I probably should’ve emphasized in the post that I’m glad I tried it once. It was an interesting experiment for me.

  2. I agree with your overall observations about attendance, venue, and dining and all that. It was nice to meet all three of the Dynamic Ecologists (I didn’t realize it was the first time you all had been in the same place at the same time!)

    ESA has typically been my least favorite meeting (compared to entomology, social insects, tropical biology), and I think because they’re so large. Maybe I liked this one more than I was expecting to because it was smaller (and more spread out, in a linear spatial arrangement) than other meetings. Even on Thursday afternoon, I was bumping into old friends/colleagues who were there the whole time. It’s just so big that you can’t count on making sure you see who you want to see, you need to schedule it. Which is pretty weird, because there are few collaborators who I need to see, just a number of people who I want to and enjoy seeing.

    During the whole meeting, I only heard one person complain about overlapping sessions of interest. Usually this is a frequent problem and complaint! I think the organizers must have been more thoughtful when putting sessions together to minimize (though not eliminate) concurrent sessions that would attract people with shared interests.

    As a somewhat-aside, this was first ESA since I commenting periodically on this site and started my own blog, and since I started using twitter (tied to the blog). This totally changed my experience at the meeting, in a super-double-good way. I had the chance to meet a few dozen people I interacted with via social media but hadn’t met before (including you all, of course). It’s nice to get positive affirmation that people are likely to volunteer in a conversation but that you otherwise wouldn’t get across a continent or an ocean. I’m curious how much commenting or posting affects how we all interact with one another. There are articles and such about how the use of social media affects science and scientists, of course – but I didn’t anticipate how much it would change my experience at the conference.

    • Good to meet you as well Terry!

      Re: the size of ESA, that’s why I love it. It’s efficient. If I’m only going to go to one meeting a year (and most years, that’s all I get to go to), I want it to be a meeting where I can catch up with everyone I know.

      Re: complaining about overlapping sessions, I think people mostly don’t complain because it just comes with the territory at ESA. You just learn to accept that, for something like half the time slots, you’ll have 2 or more talks you want to see.

      Interesting to hear how your social media experiences affected your experience of the meeting. It actually hasn’t affected me all that much, I suspect because I’m not on Twitter. I suspect that to most people who only “know” me online, I’m an author with readers. Which is different than a Twitter friend, I imagine.

  3. Absolutely excellent meeting. Why?
    1. I met lots of colleagues from around the world as well as new peeps
    2. There seems to be a shift of topics towards things I’m really interested in, such as incorporating mechanisms in macroecology, spatial dynamics of species, and modelling. There were way more talks I wanted to see this time round than at previous meetings. Maybe because I’m getting old and have wider interests?
    3. I volunteered to chair a session, and it was a great idea: forced to pay attention to the talks, ask questions, and stick to the session even if some talks were less interesting “a priori”.
    4. Ignite sessions were fun!
    5. The abundance of social events filled up my nights entirely with science and fun.
    6. Meeting Brian and Jeremy was fun too (Meghan was busy), even if it feels weird to be an academic groupie of sorts. It was interesting to realise that you guys have no way to know what readers think if they don’t comment…so here you go.
    7. I agree with Terry: the tweeting frenzy was awesome. Particularly to compensate for point #2 below…

    Things I liked less:
    1. spatial spread – annoying for sure when one has to run a coffee in hand.
    2. I was actually annoyed by conflicting sessions! I found it worse than previous years. It felt like themes were grouped by half day. For instance, my session “climate change: distributions and phenology” was scheduled at the same time as a session “range dynamics” (!!!). A dispersal symposium happened as the same time as session on invasion biology: dispersal. Etc.
    3. The Thursday dinner (I had been warned) was absolutely overpriced for what it was. Most of the people I talked with agreed with that.

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