PopGroup – the small conference that packs a punch

First held in 1968 as a working group to discuss population genetics, the PopGroup conference is a yearly staple of UK-based evolutionary researchers (and increasingly researchers from further afield). However, this year there was to be no university student accommodation, no frigid lecture hall air-conditioning drama, and certainly no ceilidh dancing (although certain people – no comment – were perhaps not quite as devastated about this part), as the 54th ‘Liverpool’ edition of PopGroup was held online. 

Although PopGroup is a small conference and lasts only 2.5 days it packs a punch – but a friendly punch, maybe something more akin to a fist bump. The meeting typically has an attendance of around 150-200, but for this year’s edition this number grew to around 400, with four parallel zoom sessions in contrast to the usual two or three. In addition to the the increased attendance was a notable, and welcome, increase in geographic breadth of attendees, from a typically UK-centric attendance (also reinforced by the fact that PopGroup is always held around the Christmas/New Year period), to this year’s edition, which included speakers based in over twenty different countries. This year’s plenary talks spanned a variety of topics including the spatial patterns of genetic variation, longevity and anticancer mechanisms in mammals, the evolutionary ecology of host-defence, and the impact of drosophila seminal proteins on fertilisation and fitness (a list of plenary speakers can be seen HERE).

This year’s meeting was my fourth PopGroup and after presenting a poster in my first year and talks every subsequent year I can confidently say that PopGroup is my favourite conference. There is a definite ‘family’ feel to the meeting with a substantial number of regular attendees and talks given by researchers of all careers stages (as a result of the mostly first-come-first-served nature of talk allocations). Personally, I love the yearly opportunity to catch up with people that I would otherwise not see and enjoy seeing how the projects and careers of my academic peers progress over time. Additionally, the breadth of the conference is fantastic and ever growing, with topics from across evolutionary biology presented each year (some of these topics and the role of PopGroup in developing many of them are discussed in more detail by two of the longest attending members of the PopGroup meeting, Deborah and Brian Charlesworth HERE). Despite the challenging move to an online format, the organising committee based at the University of Liverpool did a great job with >130 talks all held on Zoom, in addition to networking and poster sessions held on the platform Spatial Chat, allowing attendees to move around and chat in a virtual conference space.

genetical band The Histones performing at Leicester 2020
“genetical band The Histones performing at Leicester 2020” – Photo by Louise Johnson

But don’t just take my word for how great PopGroup is – I asked a number of this year’s attendees, a mixture of first-timers and PopGroup veterans, some of which have attended the meeting over 40 times, what they think about PopGroup as a whole as well as this year’s meeting:

The newcomers

What is your name? Zoe Postel

Where are you based? University of Lille – Lab «Ecology, Evolution and Paleontology » UMR 8198 Université de Lille/CNRS 

What is your career stage? Beginning of my second year of PhD

How many PopGroup meetings have you attended? It was my first one!

How would you describe the scope of PopGroup? It was very diverse, with a lot of topics ranging from theoretical work to more empirical studies, around population genetics. It was also very diverse in terms of attendees, with lots of PhD students but also « big bosses » and this is a very important point for me as it allows young career researchers to meet more advanced researchers, discuss with them and benefit from their  experiences. And what was also very cool is the diverse nationality of all attendees. Personally, I like knowing about the research/projects conducted all around the world, as it gives me new perspectives and new points of view (and also just for the sake of being curious) and such meetings are perfect for that !

Did you present at this year’s meeting? – How did it go? Yes I did ! And it went quite well actually! I was very stressed, as it was my first talk in an international meeting, with so many people ! And even more after the beginning of the meeting, seeing what impressive projects were conducted ! But in the end, the talks were quite short and attendees rather benevolent so it made me realize that there was no reason to be stressed out.

How did you find networking/talking with other conference attendees online? I found it was quite difficult, networking is not something I come by very easily … I am kind of shy and many people seemed to already know each other, so it was a little bit difficult for me to go and chat.  And also, I am often afraid to ask irrelevant questions so yes, quite tough. And even more with the conference being online as for me it takes away the spontaneity that we might have in real life!

Did any of this year’s talks specifically stand out for you? All talks were very interesting and there were a lot, so it is quite difficult for me to pick one in particular. But the plenary talks were outstanding and I really appreciated the opportunity to attend these interesting plenary talks !

How does PopGroup compare to other conferences you have attended – would you attend again in the future? Actually, I only went to two other conferences before this PopGroup: the AMPEE5 Meise Congress last year, which is smaller and only last for one day and GDR AIEM « Approche Interdisciplinaire de l’Evolution Moléculaire » (a french meeting around interdisciplinary approaches in molecular evolution). I can’t really compare them, because they are both very different to PopGroup but all three were very cool. And yes, I would definitely attend Pop Group again in the future ! I really liked the experience !!


What’s your name? Brandy St.Laurent – @mosquitohunting

Where are you based? I’m a staff scientist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute studying the population genomics of malaria vectors in Southeast Asia

What is your career stage? Early career, hoping to set up my own vector ecology group in the next few years

How many PopGroup meetings have you attended? This year was my first PopGroup

How did you find networking/talking with other conference attendees – how was this affected by the conference being online? Over many years I have worked to overcome my introversion to finally feel good about networking at conferences – the digital format makes it more difficult to approach and meet new people and brings up all of those introverted feelings again! I tried to engage with people in the spatial chat and pup quiz and did talk to a few people I hadn’t met before. We all just have to remind ourselves that we have nothing to lose and adapt to these new methods of interacting with other scientists.

Did any of this year’s talks specifically stand out for you? There were several talks about the role of mitochondrial genes and inversions in adaptation that I enjoyed. Admittedly, some of the very theoretical talks were a bit over my head.

How does PopGroup compare to other conferences you have attended – would you attend again in the future? I would definitely go again. This conference was really interesting for me because there was work on so many different organisms using population genetics as our common language, including model and non-model organisms. I have never been at a conference with anyone working on plants, for example. Many of us use similar approaches to describe our organisms and populations, and it is great to see what evolution looks like in different systems and at different scales in one conference.

What was your favourite/least favourite thing about PopGroup54? My favorite thing was the diversity of talks and least favorite was simply not being able to interact with folks in person. This was a great mental jump start for the new year as we head into another lockdown here in the UK.

The experienced:

What’s your name? Joe Hanly – @Hanliconius

Where are you based? The George Washington University in Washington DC

What is your career stage? PostDoc

How many PopGroup meetings have you attended? I’ve been going since Bath 2014 with some gaps

Did you present at this year’s meeting? – How did it go? Yes! It went well, I think! I initially thought I would miss out on the opportunity to chat with people about my talk at coffee afterwards, but actually the spatial chat really made up for it. Generally, I’ve found that online conferences have better accessibility. I’m partially sighted and often miss out on seeing other people’s slides or on reading posters easily, but that was not the case this year at PopGroup and so my enjoyment of the science-side of the conference was much greater.

How did you find networking/talking with other conference attendees? I really missed being able to spend time with my colleagues and PopGroup friends – but hey ho, that’s been the tale of 2020. I’d go so far as to say that the spatial chat was a surprisingly big success at replacing some of that in-person dynamic, and I hope other conferences implement similar things! 

Did any of this year’s talks specifically stand out for you? It was really lovely to hear John Turner talk about Philip Sheppard. I did my PhD on Heliconius wing patterning, and the work of Sheppard (as well as the work of John Turner!) is really foundational to that. I always love learning about the history of our field, and to learn a bit more about the lives of people whose work I have admired for years was really cool.

How would you compare PopGroup with other other conferences you have attended? There’s always a great welcoming atmosphere at popgroup, I think by virtue of it being on the smaller side and also having a very regular set of attendees.

Do you have a favourite PopGroup moment/anecdote either from this meeting or another one that you attended? Erm, I have a few popgroup anecdotes that can’t go in print… My first popgroup memory was having welcome drinks in the cloisters around the Roman Baths in Bath, which was a particularly dramatic location. No Ice storms or fights in my time though!


What’s your name? Eve Taylor-Cox – @E_TaylorCox

Where are you based? University of Liverpool

What is your career stage? PhD candidate

How many PopGroup meetings have you attended? PGG54 is my 4th PopGroup meeting

So you were part of the organising committee for PopGroup 54 – how was your experience organising a conference? It was a fantastic experience helping to organise PopGroup54 with a great team, lead by Andrea Betancourt. I was mainly helping with the communications, particularly the Twitter account (where I am often over-enthusiastic with many gifs!) and I built the website working from and incorporating the wonderful logo designed by Sam Whiteford (the Redbubble site, which is still open, to buy merchandise was set up by Stu Wigby). There were definitely lots of conversations on what platforms to use and how to make it as sociable as previous years, even though this year would be virtual. Quite early on in the planning stage, we realised that being a virtual conference could have huge benefits by allowing more people from other countries to get involved, so we definitely looked to maximise the reach of the conference now that everyone could join from the comfort of their own sofa!

Overall, the lead up to the conference went smoothly, with everything coming together as planned. It was the first day of the conference when delegates were getting to grips with the platforms, Zoom crashing and a global outage on Slack that sent us to our panic stations and get it all back up and running! Thankfully everyone was patient and we managed to work out the problems for the other days to run a lot smoother. Overall, I was thrilled to be part of the team that organised PopGroup54 and it was so rewarding to see all the amazing talks and people enjoying themselves, never mind people’s bubbles zooming about on Spatial Chat!

What do you think are the most important considerations for making a virtual conference work having seen how successful/unsuccessful different aspects of the conference have been? For us, maintaining the social aspect of PopGroup was really important. PopGroup is always such a welcoming environment for all career stages and so we really wanted to make sure this was also the case, even though this year was being run virtually. During the event, I was really pleased to see how well Spatial Chat (organised by Vicencio Oostra) was working, allowing people to talk and “bump” into people as you would at any in-person conference. It is just a shame we couldn’t have the traditional PopGroup Ceilidh! 

Another key aspect for running a virtual conference I think is communication, especially when technological problems arise! Having the Slack workspace and Twitter account allowed us to make sure everyone was following the conference and keeping up with any delays. I tried to make the website as easy to follow as possible with a clear timetable and all the links to the meetings and webinars in one place.

One amazing thing about holding PopGroup54 virtually is that it became a much more global event. This is why we ran the conference in the afternoons GMT time in the hope that more time zones could attend. We made sure to tweet that the conference is not just UK based and all were welcome, which we think paid off. It was incredible to see how many  different nationalities from 21 countries attended and a greater diversity represented at the conference. We also saw a large increase in registrations when we released the amazing talk schedule that was lined up. 

The main issues during the conference, perhaps surprisingly, arised from Zoom (and the Slack global outage on the first day did not help!). We had not realised that you can not have a Zoom meeting running at the same time as a Zoom Webinar – so this is definitely something to bear in mind for other virtual conferences. However, I think the Zoom Webinar worked well for the plenaries. It allowed researchers, at all career stages, who wouldn’t necessarily have the confidence to ask questions in person to send their questions (with a name or anonymously) to the chair. The Zoom meeting platform worked well (for the most part) for the parallel sessions and allowed people to easily switch between talks. An issue we were not aware of before the conference is that Zoom breakout rooms can be problematic for Linux users – another point to remember for future events!

Overall the feedback from the conference was positive and it was a great experience to have been involved in the organisation of such an amazing event!

What did you miss most about this year’s PopGroup being online? The Ceilidh! I absolutely love the PopGroup traditional dinner followed by a Ceilidh. It really breaks down barriers between the different career stages, and when you realise you are swinging around the room with one of the biggest names in the field, it is just fantastic!

Did any of this year’s talks specifically stand out for you? All the talks were absolutely fantastic this year, with such a range of topics: from theory to more applied research, so it is very difficult to pick a favourite! I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary by Graham Coop. The way he calmly and clearly talked through modelling, so that even I could follow, was inspiring. Also the talk by Gabriela Montejo-Kovacevich (who won the student prize) was fantastic and of great interest as her work is quite related to my PhD project, albeit range expansion with altitude versus latitude in my instance. The talk by Emeritus Professor John Turner on Philip Sheppard was fantastic and it was fascinating to hear about Philip Sheppard’s research and the foundation it provides for much of the research today. It also provided a bit of Liverpool flavour to the conference!

Do you have a favourite PopGroup moment/anecdote? There are so many, but I think a small highlight from this meeting would be helping Ilik Saccheri teach John Turner how to move around in Spatial Chat, and then losing him to find that he had successfully ended up in the butterfly room with Chris Jiggins!

The veterans

What’s your name? Louise Johnson – @LouiseJJohnson

Where are you based? University of Reading, UK

What is your career stage? Associate professor

How many PopGroup meetings have you attended? 21

What year was your first PopGroup? 1996, Edinburgh, as an undergraduate volunteer. 

How would you describe PopGroup to someone who has never been? A friendly annual meeting of evolutionary biologists, mostly from the UK. 

Did any of this year’s talks specifically stand out for you?  James Horton, who’s a PhD student at Bath, presented some beautiful results about highly repeatable evolution at a mutational hotspot. And the plenary by Vera Gorbunova was one of those talks that’s so good it’s almost disheartening, because it makes you wonder why the rest of us even bother. 

How would you compare PopGroup with other other conferences you have attended? It’s small, informal and non-hierarchical – for example, talks are allocated first-come-first-served, whether you’re an FRS or a first year PhD student. The programme also allows plenty of time for discussion, socialising and chit-chat.

What keeps you coming back to PopGroup? I’ve got to know so many other attendees that it’s become more like a yearly reunion than a conference. Or even a winter festival – there’s Christmas, Hogmanay and PopGroup. 

Austin Burt with some of his students and grandstudents taken at Oxford 2019 (I'm in the middle tier on the right)
“Austin Burt with some of his students and grandstudents taken at Oxford 2019 (I’m in the middle tier on the right)” – Photo by Louise Johnson

How do the most recent meetings compare with the earliest PopGroups you attended? The biggest difference, and a very positive one, is that it’s fairly gender balanced now. The first few PopGroups I attended were overwhelmingly male, so I was delighted the first time I had to queue for the Ladies! There’s also a broader range of topics, covering evolutionary biology much more generally. This is also a good thing. One can tire of F-statistics. 

Do you have a favourite PopGroup meeting you have attended? Sheffield 2001 was particularly fun because I was about to join John Brookfield’s lab, who were all attending, so I got to know my new colleagues as we all tried out the paternoster lift.

Do you have a favourite PopGroup moment/anecdote? Loads, but it might be unwise to commit them to print. The ceilidhs are always a highlight, though!


What’s your name? John Brookfield

Where are you based? University of Nottingham

What is your career stage? Emeritus Professor

How many PopGroup meetings have you attended? 45

What year was your first PopGroup? 1976

How would you describe PopGroup to someone who has never been? Very friendly, very egalitarian, where outstanding FRS professors give 15-minute talks interspersed with talks from graduate students. It’s a great place for a graduate student in population or evolutionary genetics to give their first talk. There’s always lots of scope for discussion in population genetics as it is so multi-layered, with theory, bioinformatics, experimental work, and overlaps with ecology, palaeontology, and plant and animal breeding.

Did any of this year’s talks specifically stand out for you? The talk from Wilder Wohns stood out in particular for exemplifying the vast data sets that are now available for bioinformatic analysis in population genetics.

How would you compare PopGroup with other conferences you have attended? It is, for me, a re-union of old friends and colleagues. There is exciting new work presented, but also a feeling for the traditions of the subject. Generally, the work presented is not the result of frighteningly expensive experimentation, which means that many different teams throughout the UK (and also the rest of Europe) can compete on an equal footing, and have their own ideas.

What keeps you coming back to PopGroup? The friendly atmosphere and the subject matter, which overlaps precisely with my own scientific interests. Also, a lot of people at these conferences are my friends, and my former students and post-docs.

How do the most recent meetings compare with the earliest PopGroups you attended? While some aspects of the development of mathematical theory of population genetics are similar now to their 1976 incarnations, for the most part the scientific content is almost unrecognisably different compared to the late 1970s. In the 1970s, the data sets were either observations of frequencies of visible polymorphisms or the frequencies of allozymes discovered through starch gel electrophoresis. Since around 2008 there has been the population genomics revolution. This has been enormously positive, and some of the age- old questions about how microevolution happens are finally being answered. If I have any concerns, it is possibly that the process of gathering large amounts of genome data and getting the most recent population genomics software to draw conclusions from it is in danger of becoming a bit mechanical, with the scientists not always being able to know (since they don’t know exactly what the assumptions behind the software are) whether the software applies to their own population data sets. (For example, it could be that the software assumes panmixis but the data sets fed into it are genomic information from a strongly structured population. Or it could be that the software assumes that variants are either neutral or positively selected, yet the data contains millions of variable sites subject to purifying selection.)

Do you have a favourite PopGroup meeting you have attended? I cannot identify a specific meeting as I have been to so many. The meetings in the 1980s were interesting because the field was getting used to the first DNA data sets and interpreting these in a population genetics framework, seeing how population genetics principles applied to genomic evolution. And this raised controversy because those coming to evolutionary genetics from the molecular biological field were uneasy with the mathematical, or at least quantitative, approaches that population genetics used for these data.

Do you have a favourite PopGroup moment/anecdote? The most amusing anecdotes tend to involve foolishness by individuals and I cannot relate these here.

– So there you have it, hopefully we’ve convinced you that you’re missing out if you have never attended PopGroup and perhaps I’ll see you next year at PopGroup55 in Norwich (which is set to be a ‘hybrid’ online and in person format making it possible for everyone based outside the UK to attend)!

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