Reflections on ESA 2019: Communication, Connection, & Community

If you’re not an ecologist, you might be wondering what ESA 2019 is. Let me explain.

On the banks of the Ohio River, Louisville.

On the banks of the Ohio River, Louisville.

The Ecological Society of America is a large professional organization of ecologists. Like other professional organizations of its kind, it can help members find each other, publish their work, and share it with the broader world. ESA is a handy acronym that can be used for the organization itself, or for its annual meeting, around which much of its activity orbits. 

Until a year ago, I was not a member of ESA. I published a dissertation chapter in one of its many high-quality journals, but did not see the value of spending what was—as a grad student—a lot of money on a membership that promised low-to-moderate return on investment. I preferred to travel to smaller, more geographically proximal, and more subject-specific meetings, which served me very well—I reached important audiences for my research and made essential professional connections in my region. In 2014, when much of my lab attended the relatively local ESA meeting in Sacramento, I might have joined them. Instead, however, I attended the Oral History Institute at UC Berkeley, which was essential to my interdisciplinary dissertation research.

A year ago, I was invited to serve as Secretary of the Natural History Section of ESA. Because the organization is so large, smaller subject-and interest-specific sections enable people to find their own tribe, so to speak. Sections organize special sessions at the annual meetings, sponsor student awards, and provide professionalization support for their members, among other subject-specific initiatives. Serving as a section officer is a volunteer position, but one that I felt could make a positive difference, as I feel strongly about the value of natural history to the discipline of Ecology.

Mike Gaige translates the stories of the land in the Parklands of Floyds Fork.

Mike Gaige translates the stories of the land in the Parklands of Floyds Fork.

An essential part of advocating for the role of natural history in ecology is encouraging others to engage in its practice, so the Natural History Section organizes a field trip at each annual meeting. This year, our field trip, Kentucky’s Outer Bluegrass: Afoot and Afloat, was led by Mike Gaige in the Parklands of Floyds Fork, an extraordinary 4,000-acre area that is being put into conservation to protect the watershed and the biodiversity within it. We hiked through eastern deciduous forests while Mike translated the stories of centuries of shifting land uses told by the land. We visited a wolf tree, and tried to imagine the surrounding forest as open pastureland 150 years ago. We found frogs, salamanders, and toads under rocks in the creek bed composed 450-million-year-old Ordovician limestone. We floated down Floyds Fork of the Salt River in canoes while bald eagles glided through the stream corridor overhead. We explored fossils on gravel bars. We were birders and botanists, entomologists and field ecologists from all over, enjoying a day of discovery in nature together. We learned from each other and shared our knowledge freely and openly, without fear of appropriation or need for attribution. It was the perfect way to kick off the meeting.

The Section also organized an Inspire session titled, Historia Naturalis: Inspiring Ecology at ESA 2019. Inspire sessions consist of 5-minute talks on a common theme with 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds, giving speakers an opportunity to stretch their comfort zones with a different communication style. The intent of our session was to highlight the role of natural history in inspiring the work of prominent ecologists. David Inouye (Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory) explored how to train ecologists to be natural historians; Richard Nevle (Stanford University) showed us that natural history drawing can teach students (and the rest of us) to patiently observe the natural world and be present with what it is, rather than what we think it should be; Erika Zavaleta (UC Santa Cruz) discussed natural history as a part of our unique identity as humans, and a part of our cultural identity as ecologists—a practice that unites rather than divides us; Haldre Rogers (Iowa State University) talked about how important it is to commit to a place and really get to know it, and to invest in local communities; Desiree Narango (City University of New York) explained why natural history is so important in urban areas and how to inspire people to care about it—that empathy is essential for conservation and stewardship; Seabird McKeon (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) explored how modern tools and technologies have expanded our ability to explore classical natural history questions; and I shared the value of natural history museum collections, which can provide windows to the past in order to answer important modern ecological questions. Taken together, these talks made it difficult to argue that natural history is an outdated relict with little value to ecologists, and the discussion with the audience that followed only served to clarify its necessity in our community.

As a presenter, the unique format of an Inspire talk gave me the freedom to let go of all the detail that I normally feel compelled to include to couch, caveat, preface, and explain my research. Honing my message gave me a chance to boil it down to the essentials, and the result was a clearer, more piquant message. The Inspire sessions I attended at the meeting were collaborative and supportive and honest; they were thrilling and funny and moving. They were educational and invigorating and clarifying. The conference—indeed, science—needs more of these meaningful, humanity-revealing dialogues.

This was perfectly exemplified by an Inspire session titled, Plant Love Stories. In it, ecologists told stories about how plants changed their lives. I laughed and cried at these compelling, engaging, and humanizing tales. They served to deepen my understanding of how good storytelling is a critical component of science communication; and, more importantly, that humanizing ourselves as scientists can help us reach the broader community as well as each other.

On the theme of humanizing our science, Robin Wall Kimmerer, the acclaimed writer and scientist, gave a powerful lecture titled, P-values and Cultural Values: Creating Symbiosis Among Indigenous and Western Knowledges to Advance Ecological Justice. From my front-row seat, I was rapt as she shared injustices in ecology that I had felt but not been able to articulate or communicate before I heard her words. She called attention to the status quo of science communication that excludes participation by the broader citizenry, resulting in “intellectual imperialism” that devalues other ways of knowing. She pointed out how indigenous knowledge has been rendered invisible by modern western science’s entanglements with colonialism, and how the commodification of knowledge has led to the illusion that anyone can put a copyright on the truth. In my own experience, this is in part a direct result of a reward system in academia and the sciences that encourages knowledge hoarding rather than knowledge sharing.  

As Dr. Kimmerer points out, however, more information is not what is needed for positive change, but wisdom. Part of the solution is to engage with different ways of knowing, including indigenous knowledge. In her words, “Indigenous science includes cultural values to answer not only what is true, but what is right.” If we want our work to truly make a difference, ecologists are invited to return to what drew most of us to ecology in the first place: a sense of wonder and humility for nature, combined with an openness to different ways of knowing. Dr. Kimmerer’s wisdom was so resonant and profound, I could not bring myself to share it on social media right away, as I had with so many other talks I enjoyed. It needed more time to sink in first, is still percolating, and will be for some time.

Aww, shucks.

Aww, shucks.

Social media—particularly Twitter—turned out to be an excellent way to further connect with meeting attendees. Presenters often put their Twitter handle on one of their slides, providing an easy way for people to get in touch with them, learn more about them, and even instantly share an aspect of their talk with the entire world. I don’t use Twitter daily, but for meetings like these it is an exciting way to connect. Plus, nothing beats the instant gratification of an audience member admiring your work in public. The #ESA2019 hashtag made it easy for people to follow what was being tweeted out of the meeting, even those unable to attend in person.

Mini dewlap.

Mini dewlap.

Name tag anatomy was featured prominently. There were several ribbons that could be stacked at the bottom of one’s name tag, to indicate some kind of status or important contribution to the society; for example, whether one was a donor, a member for more than 30 years, or a fellow of a program. There were ribbons for session organizers, mentors, and section chairs. I looked through the bins and found one that fit—“organizer”—and I was happy to join the ribbon club. It was difficult, however, not to guess at the similarities between excessive ribbon stacking and the function a male lizard’s dewlap. After about 5 or 6 ribbons stacked together, it started to get a little comical.

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Pronoun stickers were also available to put on name tags. This was an important contribution, as there was some controversy over the choice of location for the 2019 meeting and the LGBTQ community’s sense of safety. There was a sign explaining why to use a gender identity tag that summed up the reasons very well. I felt a greater sense of community with, and support of, my LGBTQ colleagues by choosing to wear one.

Like most professional conferences I’ve attended, there was no antidote to the “firehose effect”. By Wednesday afternoon, I was drinking copious amounts of coffee to stay in the game, squeeze in more talks, and engage in more exciting conversations. I was so taken by Historia Naturalis, Plant Love Stories, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s talk that the excitement of sharing and unpacking these ideas largely outweighed the value of attending as many paper presentations and poster sessions as possible. I surely did my best, and attended many—and some very good ones at that. However, my experience, and that of most everyone I talked to at the meeting, was that the greatest value of attendance comes from happenstance hallway encounters, sparked collaborations, new friends and acquaintances, and support networks.

The meeting lifts us up because it reminds us of our kinship—it is a place to gather around new ideas but also to be together in community. When we return home to our institutions, we may have a department or work colleagues, but when we meet at the conference, we can really connect with each other. I lost count of how many times I heard someone say to a colleague from the same geographic region, “Hard to believe we both had to come all the way to Louisville to have this conversation!” It is the intention of setting all else aside for a week to simply connect with one another that makes the conference space so valuable. I am invigorated, inspired, and excited for the fruits of new connections and the nurturing of old ones, and am already looking forward to ESA 2020 in Salt Lake City.

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