Centennial ESA wrap-up: Our favorite talks

Six people from the lab were at ESA in Baltimore this year, presenting four talks and three posters! It was great to be there with such a big group. Even President Obama wished everybody well. We spent our time unsuccessfully trying to stereotype a Brony, eating crabcakes (the ones at Faidley’s were amazing), and perhaps drinking a little too much. Despite similarities in our interests, we ended up at a pretty diverse group of talks. Here’s a quick wrap-up of some of our favorites:


When Tiny Things Rule the World was an awesome ignite session of nine diverse female scientists giving 5-minute talks about all things small. Here are some of my jumbled thoughts on the session:

Not only were the talks about science great, but the conversation afterwards was great also. The conversation had a women-in-science undertone that was constructive and not grumbly. Each person offered further insights into their own research as well as thoughtful advice for young scientists. It was nice to see these women talking freely and enthusiastically about their research in a way that is not really possible during normally formatted oral sessions where enthusiasm is often veiled beneath nerves, graphs, results, and interpretation.

Ultimately, it is hard to keep track of 9 back-to-back 5-minute talks, but a few notes on each to showcase the variety of research regarding “tiny things”:

  • Dr. Sara Evans explained how to explain unexplained variance.
  • Dr. Jen Talbot revealed how the turnover of fungi species during leaf litter decomposition can’t be explained by differences in enzyme productivity between species.
  • Dr. Teresa Billinski talked about the Rhizosphere and host-plant immunity.
  • Dr. Rachel Gallery, in a very elegant and humorous five minutes, disclosed that boreal and tropical forests have great overlap of microbial community, because forests, regardless of designation, have evolved to be, well, forests. She says, “there is no macro without the micro”.
  • Dr. Tamara Zelikova showed how leaf cutter ants, in their 8 meter deep and 20 meter wide nests emit 2x more carbon dioxide than empty nests.
  • Dr. Laura Parfrey took us into the ocean and showed that algal morphology can be a strong indicator in host-specificity of microbial communities.
  • Dr. Rachel Vannette reminded us that tiny things rule the world only sometimes”. She stressed paying attention to the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why of the associations.
  • Lastly, Dr. Se Jin Song talked about host-associated microbiomes and convergent evolution of traits, such as diet and flight, across biomes. She finds similar microbial communities within organisms with extreme diets anteaters who had evolved separately. She expands this to other traits (e.g. bird flight) to possibly answer the question of whether microbiomes can act as pre-adaptations to evolved traits.

I definitely did not do these talks or these scientists’ research justice. So check them out further online! But, overall, this session stood out to me this year at ESA, and I think more scientists should consider participating in these sessions!


Understanding Temporal Trends of Biodiversity was a symposium organized by Dr. Nicholas J. Gotelli of University of Vermont, and was meant to be an organized session of talks about how different anthropogenic drivers may threaten global biodiversity. Something interesting to note about this session is that Gotelli invited speakers who found opposing trends in biodiversity change through time. Additionally, the spatial range at which the studies were conducted varied between speakers, providing plenty of topics for discussion at the end of the talk. Though I was not around for the entire session, I can offer my notes for the last three speakers, as well as some insights from the session discussion:

  • Dr. Mary O’Connor gathered hundreds of datasets to analyze the changes in biodiversity in the oceans over the past decades, and found that the mean trend is increasing biodiversity. However, local diversity as driven by anthropogenic effects is on the decline, and that the thermal niches of species may be shifting under climate change. There is a marked negative effect on species richness of negative human impact, but the data may be biased by ecologists doing their sampling in non-impacted sites. O’Connor has put the call out for ecological data, so if you have some that you would like to share, check out this site for more information!
  • Dr. Forest Isbell found that that assessing biodiversity change also effectively allows for insight into ecosystem functioning. He also pushed for a more uniform way of gathering data across ecosystems, and pointed out that species gains may be due to the recovery of older, more rare species, rather than an accrual of new ones via invasion. Though studies using species richness provide invaluable information on ecological aspects, using other response variables such as Shannon Diversity (which encompasses both species richness and evenness) and functional diversity could help to complete the picture of biodiversity for a place.
  • Dr. Anne Magurran discussed how environmental changes may be driving temporal turnover in marine communities using the fish communities of western Scotland. She found that while species richness was remaining relatively constant in her time series, the composition of species in each region was changing, with some species shifting their range northwards with the rising and homogenizing of sea temperatures. Her work is an example of including information about species identity to uncover unforeseen patterns in community composition, as species identity was consistently a stronger force of community reorganization than richness.

One of the interesting points of the discussion was on the topic of assimilating data from researchers to do meta-analyses. O’Connor, along with the Biodiversity Change Working Group are doing large-scale analyses of diversity data that is reliant on researchers’ contributions. While most researchers are more than willing to provide their data on species richness, fewer are willing to hand over more detailed data containing species identities and functional diversity. They try to work with the researchers and offer the incentive of authorship on the papers and citations for the data used, but some scientists still have a hard time handing forth their information. One audience member made a solid point, recommending that we try to shift the thinking of data contributions towards a positive one, turning the connotation into one of leaving a legacy of one’s hard work and research in the field. Though I am still fairly new in the research community, this really resonated with me and encouraged me to contact O’Connor to see if the data from this past summer’s surveys would be useful to their study. This symposium was very useful for getting ideas about my research, and it was great to hear what’s going on with other researchers in my field!


I spent a lot more time chatting in the hallways at this meeting than ever before, and so I missed out on a lot of good talks. But I’ll highlight three that I thought were exceptional. I sat through a good chunk of an organized Plant-Soil Feedbacks session. Jim Bever gave a great introduction to the field with a review of his work in this field, specifically looking at how negative plant-soil feedbacks could affect species diversity, along with some experimental data and a meta-analaysis to show that this theory really works in nature. It was a great demonstration of the linkage between theory and empirical work. I have to say it was disheartening to then see so many people continue to test the same question over and over again in more talks during the conference, despite sufficient data to answer this question already.
I spoke in an organized session about the effects of rapid evolution in communities. I thought all the speakers in this session were really impressive, but Michael Cortez’s talk stood out to me. He described circumstances in which evolution should stabilize or destabilize systems, and whether it does depends on whether the ecological dynamics are stable or unstable, and in some case, the rate of evolution. Look for more from our lab on this topic in the future because I think microbial communities are a great place to test this theory. Finally, I was really impressed with Stef Porter’s talk in an Eco-Evo-Plant-Soils Symposium organized by Jen Schweitzer and Jen Lau. She demonstrated that rhizobia can affect trait expression in plants, and ultimately selection on those plant traits. It’s cool to think about microbes as important selective agents, as that opens up a whole big can of worms in terms of where we might expect to see eco-evo dynamics.


So now we’ll start to get excited about Ft. Lauderdale next summer. I’m always excited about ESA, but getting together some enthusiasm for southern Florida is going to be tough.

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