Live from London: reporting from "Elements, genomes, and ecosystems"


Chicheley Hall, satellite of The Royal Society.

Scientific meetings are great: see old friends, meet new colleagues, sow the seeds of collaboration, see interesting work from around the world, and so on. They’re fun, they really are.
But they can be so big. The annual meetings of the big societies in ecology, evolution, and molecular biology are attended by thousands of people in convention centers and university campuses. At these yearly meetings, most participants scramble around to dozens of talks everyday and then spend the social hours either chatting with folks they already know or trying to track down that colleague that they really want to meet. While this format is great for getting a wide survey of what’s on deck in your research area and strengthening connections with colleagues, it isn’t necessarily designed to provide an outlet for new collaborations and easy networking (especially for young investigators like grad students and undergrads!).

“Can’t wait for the one helpful comment I’ll get during this poster session”

But there are alternatives to the big meetings, of course. Small workshops are held all the time for more-focused topics or learning specific skills. There are also smaller society meetings such as that held by the Society for Systematic Biologists this year (which was all the rage on twitter for a few days). The focused nature of these meetings can create more opportunities for creating connections between attendees, but they are also limiting in their diversity of disciplines. Rare are those meetings that are both small and diverse, but I’ve spent the last three days at one that fits the bill: The Theo Murphy International Meetings organized by The Royal Society.

The theme of this meeting was “Elements, genomes, and ecosystems: cascading nitrogen and phosphorus impacts across levels of biological organization” and it brought together experts in biological stoichiometry, plant and animal genomics, molecular evolution, and agriculture. The goal was to make connections between scientists from across extremely diverse, but importantly-connected, disciplines. Located at the Royal Society’s historic Chicheley Hall in the English countryside, the meeting isolated 70 scientists from all career stages and challenged them to think of big connections between the big ideas in their fields.

“Fleas on the curtains” has never been exclaimed with such delight

The talks spanned from agriculture to genome evolution, but here are some highlights from talks and discussions that may pertain to the readers of The Molecular Ecologist:
Professor Claudia Acquisti‘s talk “StoichioMetaTranscriptomics of sea waters” showed differences between transcriptomes of marine life along a gradient of nitrogen availability that suggested nitrogen limitation as an important driving factor.
Professor Barbara Mable reviewed the current understanding of polyploidy’s relationship with environmental change. Despite plenty of good theory, few empirical studies support polyploids as being more tolerant to a wider range of environments. Additionally, Dr. Mable presented an argument for considering polyploidy as just another force for speciation instead of a marginal curiosity in evolution.
Maite Guignard used the long-running Park Grass plots to test if nitrogen and phosphorus availability limits genome size in angiosperms. She showed that when nitrogen and phosphorus are both added to treatment plots, species with the highest genome sizes increased dramatically.
Professor Maurine Neiman detailed her lab’s work on New Zealand mud snails that exist in mixed sexual/asexual populations of varying ploidy. She showed that the cost of increased phosphorus demand in polyploids can be limiting for these groups, especially in stressful conditions.
In addition to the sixteen talks and associated discussion periods, students and faculty provided 23 extremely-diverse posters, from the relationship between diets and nucleic acid content of daphnia to the environmental influence of coral symbiosis interactions.

So very British: meeting building, old church, pub behind church. All on a cloudy, wet day.

The most common trend across all these talks and posters? Anytime anyone was asked what they thought of the meeting, the answer was almost always, “I’ve learned so much”. When you throw a bunch of scientists in a venue that exudes the weight of three centuries’ worth of scientific discoveries, inspiration is tough to avoid and collaboration is easy to come by.
If you’d like to hear the talks and discussion, audiovisuals should be added to the meeting webpage soon. If you ever get the chance to organize or attend one of these unique meetings, don’t hesitate. If you are reading this from the headquarters of a major funding institution for science, why aren’t you doing these types of meetings already?

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