By Gabriel Nakamura | August 25, 2022

A personal account of my first Ecological Society of America meeting

Last week (14-19th August, 2022), I attended my first ever Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting. If you are an ecologist/evolutionary biologist, the ESA meeting is one of those “must-attend” events. It is the venue where researchers share their studies and is also an opportunity to connect with people from different places (unfortunately, not all places, but I will talk more about it later). Beyond the importance of the ESA meeting, this year, it happened in the fantastic city of Montreal, which made the meeting even better. Here I want to share a few things I experienced during the ESA meeting.

Talks, symposiums, and sessions

During the meeting, I contributed to two talks. In my first talk, I presented the research I’ve been developing as a postdoctoral researcher. In this talk, I showed some problems we face when making historical inferences using different methods from community ecology (based on current species distribution alone) and macroevolution (based only on a phylogenetic tree). While community phylogenetic metrics ignore or assume unreliable premises to make inferences about historical processes, macroevolutionary approaches usually disregard the ecological dependency of historical processes. To solve this problem, I presented a framework that integrates macroevolutionary methods with community phylogenetic metrics to reach more reliable inferences about historical processes acting under different ecological contexts. I also presented two metrics derived from this approach, db-PD, and db-PE. Those metrics consist of model-based metrics that consider the effects of in-situ diversification and historical dispersal on present-day Phylogenetic Diversity (PD) patterns and Phylogenetic Endemism (PE). Luckily, the talk next to mine was canceled, which opened more time for discussions about my work. I received good feedback and exciting questions to think more about.

My second talk was about a topic I have been looking closer to during the last year. My friend Bruno Soares (a soon-to-be Quantitative Scientist at the University of Regina-Canada) invited me to a session he organized with the general theme “Diversifying and Decolonizing Ecology.” At the very beginning, I was asked to mediate the session, but for several reasons, including my growing interest in understanding the barriers that researchers from the Global South face, I decided to give a talk. This talk was one of the most challenging things I have done in my academic life. In a completely packed room, I had five minutes to talk in front of almost 70 people about how to Decolonize Expertise. I showed some data from the literature indicating that no matter the quality and similarity of the work produced by researchers from the Global South institutions, usually their work is way less cited than studies published by researchers from the Global North institutions. I showed some examples of intellectual colonization and actions we must take to change the status quo of scientific expertise. The session was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a researcher. At the end of the session, I left that room with the hope that we can change our scientific community for better, despite all the difficulties.

Networking

The ESA meeting was also important to get to know new people. After my talks, some researchers emailed me to discuss the ideas I presented in my talks. Other people also reached out during the event, and I had good discussions with them. The thematic mixers were also an excellent opportunity to know new people. For example, the Latin America and Caribbean mixers I attended were an important opportunity to know outstanding researchers. Other thematic sessions were also exciting, one specific talk caught my attention. In the symposium “The state of ecosystems across the Global South: Perspectives on ecology, conservation, and environmental justice”, the amazing Sara Cannon showed how colonization legacies affect current biodiversity patterns, going beyond the traditional and naive environment-biodiversity relationship. I highly recommend looking at her work.

Beyond the scientific content

Science is not done in the ether, and I’m pretty sure you do it better when you make science embedded in a vibrant environment. This is the case in the city of Montreal. I know that ten days is a tiny sample to take any conclusion about a town with all the complexities that show up when you live in the city. Still, based on this very restricted sample, I feel that Montreal is one of those cities where challenging tasks, like doing science, become more pleasant. As ecologists, we love diversity, and the city is full of it. You walk on the streets, and you see people speaking different languages. Since biking is a significant part of my life, I fell in love with Montreal. You can see bikes everywhere, anytime, and the cars are sharing the streets with the bikes, as they should have been everywhere (but unfortunately, it isn’t in most cities). After ten days in Montreal, I feel that everything becomes more enjoyable in that city.

Some negative points about ESA

This year the ESA theme was “A change is gonna come.” The reference comes from a song by Sam Cook and was inspired by various events in Cook’s life, but primarily by one in which he and his entourage were denied staying in a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Unfortunately, I didn’t see changes coming in this year. The ESA meeting keeps attended mainly by white, male, western, and anglophone researchers. To give an example, the symposium, namely “The state of ecosystems across the Global South: Perspectives on ecology, conservation, and environmental justice”, was supposed to have in the lineup researchers from different countries. However, due to visa and financial restrictions, only one researcher, the only one from the Global North, was able to attend in person. When questioned about the possibility of having a hybrid meeting (in-person and virtual), ESA denied it.

Hybrid meets are important, mainly for researchers from underrepresented backgrounds. Other societies are promoting hybrid meetings; as far as I could check, they have been very successful and way more inclusive (ATBC and Evolution meetings are some examples of hybrid meetings). If ESA are genuinely committed to promoting changes, it must come from actions, not just statements.

Despite the negative points regarding inclusion and accessibility, ESA was an excellent experience to discuss ideas about science, work-life balance, jobs, connect with people from different places and institutions, make new friends, and see old ones.

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