#Evol2013: Home from Snowbird

2013.06.25 - Ben, Tom, mountains
On balance, Snowbird, Utah was a pretty great place to hang out with a whole bunch of biologists for five days.
This was my sixth Evolution meeting, and I think it was the first one where I’d just about entirely shaken off the combination of imposter syndrome, social anxiety, and sensory overload that forms a sort of neurotic contrapuntal to conference attendance as a grad student. What talks should I see? Should I try to introduce myself to [insert scientific bigwig]? How do I keep myself occupied for yet another two-hour poster session?
This year, the contrapuntal was finally drowned out via two non-independent processes: I had people to meet, and places to go. At this stage of my career, I have friends and collaborators and mentors all over North America, and Evolution is the one time all year that a large number of them are in one place.
And there were still other people I wanted to talk to, and even actual duties to attend to—I volunteered to judge for the new Ruth Patrick student poster award, which meant I had meetings to attend and a list of top-notch posters to go see at every poster session. I had meetings with my co-bloggers here at The Molecular Ecologist and over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! I met Joan Roughgarden. I contemplated some writing projects with co-authors. I helped coordinate the “Outgroup” meet-up of LGBTQ folks one evening. I asked asshole questions after talks that I’d liked.
The talks I saw
And I didn’t see even half of the presentations I would’ve been interested in seeing, I think. Part of this may be that I now have two pretty distinct major research interests—species interactions, and methods for identifying the genetic basis of adaptation in genomic datasets. Sometimes those intersected, but they often didn’t. Here’s some highlights from what I did manage to catch:

  • David McCandlish presented some mathematical modeling on conditions under which adaptive walks start out with a reduction in population mean fitness. As with most theory talks, I think I want to see it all laid out in a paper before I decide what to think about that.
  • David Haak gave a nice talk on the genomics of plant defense in wild tomatoes, putting the results of a lab assay for resistance to herbivores (Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm) in phylogenetic context, and demonstrating that tomato species with lower standing production of defense chemicals have higher growth rates—consistent with the hypothesized tradeoffs between tolerance and defense.
  • Katie Wagner presented population genomic data from the “species swarm” of cichlids in Lake Victoria—although she showed that, with enough single nucleotide polymorphism, her samples formed monophyletic groups with different morphology, she also found lots of variation across the dataset in gene trees. That result which sounds familiar, and it probably means there’s been a lot of recent, maybe even ongoing, gene flow within the swarm.
  • Lucinda Lawson (who needs to set up a website, it seems) presented the first population genomic data I’ve seen for Darwin’s finches—a long overdue dataset!
  • Sebastien Renaut used genome-scale data for three pairs of sympatric species of sunflower to show that putatively adaptive divergences between the species in each pair often showed up in the same genomic locations—but not the same SNPs. Which is consistent with parallel but independent divergence—pretty cool.
  • Angie Sremba presented some cool work reconstructing the characteristics of whale populations prior to intensive whaling in the early twentieth century—all based on DNA from bones that washed up after the whales were butchered at sea.
  • In the ASN Vice Presidential Symposium “Ecology, evolution and coevolution of host-parasite interactions,” Britt Koskella presented a lot of very cool—and intensive—work on fine-scale local adaptation of bacteriophages to the bacterial communities living on the leaves of horse chestnut trees. And Jaap de Roode had some nifty updates on his work with a protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies that is in turn affected by the host plants the butterflies choose.
  • Julie Allen used genomic data for human and chimp body lice to show that both louse species have had faster rates of molecular evolution than their hosts—consistent with the parastises’ shorter generation times, frequent experience of bottleneck events, and/or relaxed selection for mutation repair in defunctionalized genes. But then she also found that the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous mutations was consistent with purifying selection acting on the lice, too.

My overall impression from this admittedly biased sample is that the genomic future is pretty much here, in 2013: everyone has some form of high-throughput sequencing dataset, though a lot of us are still figuring out what to do with all that data.
2013.06.24 - Larkspur
The conference in general
I didn’t check out a lot of the new lighning talks—both because they were in a different building from most of the concurrent sessions, and because it was actually kind of tricky slipping in and out of the lighting talk session the way I would with a program 15-minute or 30-minute talks. With each lighting talk only 5 minutes long, the lightning session basically added three times as many scheduling conflicts as an additional regular session would’ve! I did see a neat lighting talk by Mark Dybdahl, on models of infection genetics—and of course Tim’s presentation of his new peer review venture, Axios, which I’ll be keeping an eye on. For those who liked the lightning format, I see that Peter Beerli briefly discusses his experience giving a lightning talk, and provides Python code to auto-advance a PDF slideshow.
It was great to see the continuing expansion of Twitter use (minor initial gaffes notwithstanding) at Snowbird—this year, the organizers picked the #Evol2013 hashtag early and lots of attendees made good use of it.
Probably my favorite innovation at Snowbird was the half-day off, in the middle of the conference, for field trips—I got to go hike up a mountain with a bunch of other nerds, and take lots of photos of wildflowers, without worrying about what I was missing back at the convention, or extending my stay before or after the conference was done. It was also mighty nice that, rather than a ticketed banquet, the Snowbird meeting concluded with a “super social” that was open to everyone who’d paid to attend the meeting—I’m sure it’s heavily dependent on the finances of the organizing societies, but I hope that’ll become standard practice for future years.
And see also
For good measure, you should of course also see Kim’s recap post and retrospectives from Graham Coop, David Hillis and Joel Adamson.
Oh, and for the record, here are the merit badges I earned at Evolution 2013:

Any questions? Got the answer Laughter is the best science Timely talk
New network edge Life listed Early bird Drink up!

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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