Taking on an international conference… alone!

Thanks to a great scheme at my university (UNSW) I was able to get some funding in 2019 to fly over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and attend my first international conference- the British Ecological Society’s annual conference for 2019. UNSW has a scheme where every PhD candidate is allocated a generous sum of money to travel to one international conference. I cannot explain how invaluable this was for my PhD and my career and how great my experience at #BES2019 was!

After a long couple of flights from Sydney to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to London (a night in London to catch up on sleep and check out the Natural History Museum!) and then London to Belfast, I arrived at my hotel and attempted to get a good nights sleep through all the nerves for the first day of the conference.

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The Conference

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Day 1

On day one I had selected to go to an optional early careers day for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. They had an amazing line-up of speakers which started with Professor Jane Memmott who is taking over as the British Ecological Society’s president in 2020. She gave us the story of her career and her family’s journey through academia with her, she left us with some fantastic tips that I will remember for a long time. Here are her 8 tips:

  1. You can’t do it all (or at least not at the same time) – don’t beat yourself up for not keeping up with others
  2. Be true to yourself – create a “mission statement” of what you want from your career/life and stick to your desires and dreams
  3. You will need coping strategies for rejection – let yourself sulk and then move on!
  4. There isn’t a single route to a permanent job
  5. Be a good colleague and supervisor
  6. Read outside your field – and don’t be afraid to change fields
  7. Take decent holidays (I totally agree!)
  8. Quality is more important than quantity in terms of outputs
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Professor Jane Memmott talking about her “vision statement” she wrote many years ago and sticks closely to!

Then we heard A.Prof Rob Salguero-Gomez talk about publishing (an important skill and tool in research) and about securing funding. Rob reminded us that it is important to have a mourning period when our papers are rejected but it’s also important to remember that reviews are not about ourselves personally, but about our work, we must take them on board but not to heart and move on with criticism; using it to our advantage.

We also had a great talk by two people from the BES inclusivity and diversity team who spoke about how to manage others well. This definitely isn’t talked about enough in academia! A lot of relationships, whether it be supervision, mentorship, peer-to-peer support etc. are not spelled out or defined clearly and this can have bad consequences for peoples’ careers and workplace mental/emotional health. It was a great way to discuss how best to talk to and work with people that are both mentoring/supervising us, and people we are mentoring/supervising.

Finally we heard from an awesome “mid-career” researcher – Dr. Iain Stott who was a great example of someone who had sat in our exact place a few years ago, worked hard, and took amazing opportunities to get to his spot in his career.

By far, the best part about the early careers day was meeting new PhD students and post-docs from all around the world. I met an awesome group of ecologists from Trinity College Dublin, I also met some great PhD students from UK and European universities that I can call long-distance friends! It was really cool to connect with other students that have the same dreams and the same struggles and issues I have, all around the globe.

Day 2

The second day (and the first day of the main program of the conference) began with a fantastic plenary from Prof. Jonathon Chase all about synthesis in biology. Jonathon’s talk really raised the issue of scale, and how difficult it is to “compare apples to oranges” across studies in biology and particularly in meta-analyses (comparing results from multiple studies from different places in one analysis).

There were some other awesome talks by people like Dr. Aveliina Helm from the University of Tartu who studies restoration in Estonia. She quantifies the actual effects of land use change on plants – looking at certain aspects such as extinction debt or time lags in land use change on plants. She even mentioned one case of restoration where uniformed biologists had planted trees in concrete thinking it was important to have forested vegetation, her team had to remove the trees from the concrete (a huge feat!) to allow the vegetation to return to it’s closer and more realistic type: a grassland.

During the evening I went along to the macro-ecology SIG (special interest group) social night. We played some hilarious games and I got to meet awesome ecologists whose names I’d been reading on papers for years! Once again, everyone was so welcoming.

Day 3

A.Prof Ester Ngumbi kicked off day three of the conference with another inspiring plenary. She is a researcher from the US who has worked all over- from Africa where she grew up, to Europe and the US. She is now advocating for the importance of good science communication through news articles, social media and more!

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There were also some other super interesting talks in the symposia and break out sessions, like Professor Charles Davis from the Harvard Herbarium who spoke about new research to look at phenological and flowering changes in plants through time using millions of herbarium collection sheets (look out for some of my upcoming research into Sydney flowering time changes using herbarium specimens that builds on some of this work).

Day 4

The final day of the conference was jam packed with more great talks like Maude Baudraz from Trinity College Dublin who spoke about her population dynamics reserach into Plantago lanceolata all across Europe!

I finally gave my presentation on this last day and it went really well. Everyone asked really interesting questions and my research was really well received.

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Richard Bardgett ended the long, but fantastic conference with his plenary as his hands his president of the society title to Jane Memmott! One super interesting fact that I learnt from his talk was that Cleopatra loved EARTHWORMS! She declared them to be sacred and recognised how important they were for soils! Who knew an Egyptian queen was one of the earliest soil scientists.

Some cool things I noticed at BES

This is a well planned conference, and it has to be, with over 1200 delegates and 12 sessions that all run at the same time, followed by hundreds of posters and with many meals and social activities all running throughout the meeting. However, BES seems to be a society that goes above and beyond for its members. Prior to the opening conference drinks, they had a smaller group drinks for anyone who was new at the conference, this was great for me to meet even more people and feel like I had other people to talk to even though I didn’t know anyone before I came tot he conference.

They also understand that everyone has different needs and personalities and included a separate “conference drinks” session for people that wanted a smaller, more intimate and less socially intense experience and this was targeted especially to people who may have social anxiety. They even had a quiet room which was really accessible for people who just needed a break from all the talking/networking/conference buzz.

I felt immediately accepted and welcomed at #BES2019. I had so many amazing chances to network with awesome researchers in my field, both later career academics and peers doing PhD’s like me! It may have been a huge conference, but there were so many kind people willing to meet me and introduce me to others. The research was exciting and the organisational aspects of the conference were fantastic. I hope to be back soon!

Holidays!

My husband Mitch joined me in Belfast towards the end of the conference and we both took some leave over Christmas/New Years to travel around Ireland, Scotland, England, Finland, The Czech Republic and Denmark! We had the most amazing time in all those countries and had a wonderful break. Here’s a few fun holiday snaps!

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