INTECOL 2013 – Better late than never!

I had hoped to post during the INTECOL 2013 conference in London at the end of August, but there was simply too much going on.  It was the best conference I have ever attended and I was so busy attending talks, reading posters, and talking with amazing, interesting researchers that I just didn’t get around to it. 

Luckily for anyone who couldn’t be there and wanted to know what was going on, twitter was full of it!  The hashtag #INT13 trended a couple of times during the week, with lots of lively discussions, comments and questions about what was happening at the conference – I definitely recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.  There were well over 10,000 tweets, which have been archived here.

The organisers went beyond general encouragement for people to tweet and actually made twitter the only way for people to ask questions after the plenaries.  In my view this led to three main benefits.  First, it was easy to see if there were questions that a lot of people were asking and perhaps prioritise these.  Second, it gave people a chance to ask questions who otherwise may have felt too shy to stand up and ask in a room full of 2000 delegates.  Third it prevented one of my biggest conference annoyances: the question- by-lecture, where someone uses their ‘question’ as a platform to expound upon their view of the issue before tossing in a token “don’t you agree?” at the end.  However, it would have been good to let people know that this was a plan in advance and offer some sort of workshop, perhaps during the Sunday session, for anyone new to twitter to have a chance to pick up the basics.

While I saw dozens of talks at Intecol, the highlights for me mostly came from interactions over lunch and during the social events.  This is when the really interesting discussions about research took place, and it gave me a chance to get to know some of the other people working in my field in a relaxed setting.  For instance, I somehow found myself at the same dinner table as Profs. David Tilman, Brian Moss and Stephen Hubbell at the Mixer on Tuesday.  Reasonable or not, at the conference proper I wouldn’t have felt I had anything important enough to say to approach them, but at dinner it was much less formal.  I had a great discussion with Prof. Tilman about various grassland study systems, analysis methods, and even my own research and results, which was really useful and also really encouraging for an early career researcher.

As the student representative, I have to put a plug in for the Plants Soils Ecosystems (PSE) special interest group.  We sponsored the Soil Biodiversity Symposium (though I did not help to organise it).  The symposium was standing room only for large parts of the day, and included some of my favourite talks of the conference.  In particular, Christine Hawkes’ wonderfully enthusiastic talk looking at how soil microbes respond to rainfall across a natural rainfall gradient and what happens when the soil moisture is changed, and Franciska de Vries talk about the effects of drought on fungi and bacteria food webs were near the top of my list for the conference.  More about Christine’s work can be found on her lab website.  Franciska’s work was recently published in PNAS and she also blogs at franciskadevries.wordpress.com.

The PSE symposium was followed by a drinks reception.  Fran, Emma and I have been putting a lot of work into getting the new group going and organising events, so it was great to see so many researchers come along for a drink and to chat about their work.  I really enjoyed meeting new people who were working on similar things, and catching up with people I met at our first social event when the new group was formed last December.  It also gave us a chance for a shameless plug for the workshop we’re organising on 2-3 October this year, which I don’t hesitate to repeat here… Digging Deeper: Research challenges in plant-soil interactions.

Among the plenaries, there was some really interesting food for thought.  Favourites for me were Georgina Mace considering what or who is conservation for, Bill Sutherland looking at how we can improve decision-making, and David Tilman debunking the biodiversity vs. food debate.  In case you were wondering, the short answers are (1) people and nature, (2) checklists, and (3) sharing vegetarian recipes.  For the longer answers, check out the twitter feed as most of the slides were posted as well as questions and discussions, or I can write a summary if there is interest.

As for my own contributions, I gave a five minute talk in the Speed Science session, which was my first talk at a major international meeting and went down well, with a couple of people seeking me out afterwards for further discussions.  I also presented a poster in the Climate Change Ecology session.  Before the conference, I was regretting signing up to do a poster.  They take a long time to create and I’ve been to conferences where no one even looks at them.  Now I can say that I’m happy I did it.  I had handouts beside the poster which all disappeared before the session even started, and my back up supply was gone by the time the session finished.  I had a queue of people wanting to chat about my work throughout the session, and even got collared after the session by people who didn’t have a chance to chat with me during it.  If only all poster sessions could attract so much interest!

The one downside of the poster session is that it conflicted with the busking by the BES Roadies.  We took the tent and a few of the activities along to promote the engagement we’ve been doing at festivals all summer.  I was sorry I couldn’t join them for a bit more festival-inspired fun, but I heard it was really well received and at least I got to join them for a drink afterwards.  I particularly love the photo they took of BES past president Georgina Mace and current president Bill Sutherland playing ‘Whose Poo?’!

Past and Present BES presidents play Whose Poo?

So much more happened than I can fit into this one post, but rest assured that it was a brilliant meeting.  Below are a couple of links to blog posts about the conference, or elements of it.  If you know of any others, please put them in the comments so others can find them too.

Kathryn Luckett: INTECOL 2012 and that tweet

Simon Leather: Sometimes big can be good

Journal of Ecology blog: Reflections on #INT13

BESfest.org: Meet Me in the City

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