Summer is for many people a time to work on their tan at a baseball game, find some way of distracting the children, or head off on a well-earned break. For us at the McAdam lab, however, it also means something else: conference season.

Due to the absence of teaching obligations, the summer is when many academic societies choose to host their annual meeting. This allows scientists to get together, share with their colleagues their latest research, brainstorm genius new ideas, and find out about job opportunities and openings for graduate students. While one can share research or job opportunities online, a face-to-face interaction is a lot more conducive to generating ideas and building genuine connections with those working in the same field.

So where have we been this summer? And what was it like? Below we share some of our experiences as well as some of the pros and cons of the conferences we attended.

The McAdam Lab’s conference season started in May with the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meeting (CSEE) in Victoria, British Columbia. Not only was I excited to head to the Pacific coast, but myself, Erin and Julia had co-organised a symposium at this conference. Our symposium (Ecology and Evolution in a Social Context) brought together 6 researchers to talk about their work on how variation in the social world of animals and plants (yes, really, social behaviour in plants!) influences their lives and how populations evolve. Organising such an event is a great feather in our caps, but does add a bit of extra stress to attending a conference. It went really well however, with 6 great talks and a really stimulating discussion. 

CSEE is rather unique in that it hosts an annual symposium addressing the obstacles and issues faced by women and other minority groups in Ecology & Evolution (the Symposium for Women Entering Ecology & Evolution Today; SWEEET). The symposium is for people of all genders and stages in their academic careers. Julia was one of the co-organizers and it was a great success. The McAdam lab also contributed to the development and incorporation of a Diversity Statement for the Society. The deliberate implementation of these values will help promote the voices of minority groups in the society, and allow all members a safe and supported experience during annual meetings.

The rest of the conference was great. Julia, Erin and I gave our talks about social interactions in fruit flies and squirrels, respectively, while Andrew talked about what happens when you feed squirrels around 9,000kg of peanut butter (Not all at once!). We also heard about some fascinating research, met previous acquaintances and made new friends before taking off to explore Vancouver Island for a long weekend. Our adventures took us to Botanical Beach, the Juan-de-Fuca trail, and we even got to see a professional surfing competition in Tofino. Who said that ‘conferencing’ doesn’t have its perks?

After that, things really heated up. In June, Erin, Julia, and I went to the Animal Behaviour Society meeting (ABS) in Scarborough, a less salubrious suburb of Toronto. What the conference lacked in surroundings however it more than made up for in content, as we all agreed it was one of the most interesting conferences we had ever been to. Every session there were multiple simultaneous talks we wanted to attend, and every break was filled with chatting to people who we were desperate to talk to about their research. I gave a talk on social interactions and how they can influence evolution, which was well received, even if Julia appeared to be drifting off during it:

While Erin and Julia spoke about their squirrels and flies respectively. One of the fun things at conferences is tweeting about everyone’s work. It also allows you to meet up in real life with people you’ve only interacted with electronically, turning twitter friends into real ones. Also, you stumble across areas of research you never knew existed!

After two excellent meetings together, the McLabbies went their separate ways to advertise the on-going research in the McAdam lab. Erin and I had a brisk turnaround following ABS. Erin headed to Moscow, Idaho for the 97th annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) where she bonded with friends over locally made ice cream. ASM was a much smaller conference, about 300 attendees, compared to the 700-800 at CSEE and ABS. This made it an ideal conference for networking, and through a cool program called “Meal with a Mammalogist”, which pairs up students and professors over breakfast or lunch, Erin had the chance to meet and chat with some prominent scientists.  

Erin bonding with newly made friends over ice cream at ASM.

Erin bonding with newly made friends over ice cream at ASM.

I, meanwhile, headed over to Evolution, in Portland Oregon, which, unlike ASM, was one of the largest conferences I had ever been to. This meant there were quite a lot of talks on subjects I knew nothing about, but generally I managed to find stuff that was interesting. I fought jet lag, gave an edited version of the talk I gave at ABS, and went to a sci-comm workshop put on by the American Society of Naturalists, which was really great as I got to practice being interviewed about my research.

Finally, after another quick turnaround and fighting conference fatigue, Andrew and I headed up to Montreal, and then further north to Saint Michel-des-Saints, for the Wild Animal Modellers BiAnnual Meeting (or WAMBAM, which is easily the best acronym for a meeting). This was a smaller, more focused meeting for those interested in studying the microevolution of animals in the wild.

Such a conference has a totally different feel to the others, as you see the same 40 people every day, almost everyone presents their work, and you know every talk is going to be closely related to your research. It’s exciting to know that the people there are likely to be your collaborators in years to come.

After a busy but productive and stimulating conference season the McLabbies have spread their research far and wide. See below for our “Conferences At-a-Glance” table to help guide you as you plan ahead for the 2018 conference season!

- David Fisher