What is a Scientist? Conferences

This is the first post in my ‘What is a Scientist?’ series. There seems to be a lot of distrust of scientists by a large section of the population. My hope is that sharing my perspectives about some of my experiences as a scientist can help build trust.

What is a Scientist? Conferences

I grew up knowing very little about what being a practicing scientist meant. I probably thought that all scientists wore a lab coat, that they had to be really smart, or that I couldn’t understand what they did even if I tried. I imagine that many people probably have similarly misguided thoughts about what it means to be a scientist.

In this post, I’ll reflect on my first attendance at a scientific conference. This experience was about 10 years ago and helped me understand what scientists do. I’ll also reflect on a conference that I attended earlier this year. During that time span, I went from being someone who knew basically nothing about science to someone who actually feels like a scientist. I’ll share how my opinions have evolved from when I was a somewhat blindly rebellious, 20-year-old to whatever I am now (maybe in 10 years I will have an opinion about that).

In the fall of 2012, when I attended my first conference, I was beginning my third year in an undergraduate wildlife science program. My favorite classes up to that point were those which focused on identifying, and memorizing the Latin names of, many different species. I especially enjoyed getting to know the trees of Indiana. Just a couple summers before, I had completed my first field job, which involved documenting bird occurrences throughout the Hoosier National Forest. Camping, hiking, solitude, and birds. Really a great job. In class that semester, I was just beginning to get experience with collecting data and writing about it but I certainly did not understand much about the whole process of creating and sharing scientific knowledge. In other words: I had recently gained some understanding regarding many of the different parts of Nature, which I greatly enjoyed, but I had very little knowledge about how to more deeply understand and create/share knowledge about how those parts interacted.

That year, I was lucky enough to join my university’s student chapter of The Wildlife Society to the annual conference for that society, which happened to be across the continent in Portland, Oregon. Which is a cool city! I remember arriving to the hotel near the conference center and feeling like an explorer in a foreign wilderness, given that I had no idea what to expect regarding conferences. I didn’t have anything to present. I knew few people and wasn’t particularly good friends with anyone I was with. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to meet new people and learn from them. At the time, though, I was for the most part still too shy to try to meet new people. So, as I recall, my first conference experience was largely a solitary one.

To be honest, there aren’t many specific things that I remember about the trip to Portland for that conference. I wish I had taken better notes back then. I remember visiting Multnomah Falls during a field trip, my heart beating startlingly fast as a participant in a wildlife-themed quiz bowl in front of hundreds of people, and unintentionally annoying at least one of my travel-mates by wandering off one day when we were all in the food truck area. I also remember a networking event when I got to meet Purdue alumni and learn about their careers. During my free time, I probably visited Powell’s Books and Voodoo Doughnut, which I’d recommend.

Me near Portland in 2012, at Multnomah Falls

One thing I definitely remember, however, was a feeling I had in the sprawling conference center, where there were many different rooms that were designated for specific wildlife science disciplines. For example, there might have been a room for invasive species management, another for endangered species conservation, etc. And in each of these rooms people met to either present talks or listen to others speak. There were also ‘poster sessions,’ where people stood by posters that described their research and hoped someone would stop by to talk to them. The feeling I remember when I was wandering from room to room, and from poster session to session, was disappointment/disgust. I distinctly remember feeling that presenters tended to care more about advancing their careers than about conserving/managing wildlife. I felt like everyone was focusing so much on their own discipline that they were missing the bigger picture. And it didn’t seem to me that people had the deep personal connection and adoration for Nature that had gotten me interested in wildlife science.  

A view from Portland in 2012. Note Mt. Hood in the distance.

I will be the first to admit that at that point in my life I was too quick to feel strongly and to jump to drastic, unnuanced conclusions. During my first conference experience I had a romanticized view of what it meant to be a wildlife biologist and had a tendency to rebel against just about anything. I think that much of what I felt then was wrong. I’m sure that most people at that conference did very much care about improving our ability to conserve and manage wildlife. Many people there probably had a far greater knowledge of other disciplines than I did. And certainly a large proportion of them had a deeper ‘connection’ with Nature than I could even begin to understand. However, despite my immaturity at the time, I have often thought back on my initial impressions of a scientific conference and have tried to maintain a couple traces of wisdom I had while still ‘outside of the system.’ As I’ve joined the scientific community, by sharing knowledge at conferences and via scientific articles, I’ve tried to remind myself of a couple important things based on what I saw as a somewhat blind, 20-year-old outsider:

  1. There are a lot of important things I should try to understand outside of my narrow area of expertise. I should seek a broad understanding. However, there is nothing wrong with a specific research focus.
  2. While some self-promotion may be necessary to continue doing science, it shouldn’t be the reason for doing science. Personally, I have chosen to do science to help conserve the natural world, not to feed my ego.  

Another thing that I didn’t think much about then, but do now, is the ecological footprint of conferences. It seems striking to me that so many people who think about the effects of climate change seem to travel vast distances by plane without considering their Carbon footprint. For this reason, I actually think that the switch to virtual conferences that happened during the worst of COVID was a good thing that shouldn’t be totally abandoned. But I suppose that should be a discussion for another post!

After attending my first conference, I completed my Bachelor’s in wildlife science, then my Master’s in applied ecology. I held several wildlife-focused positions and am now hopefully in the last year of my PhD in earth and ecosystem science. It has been a long road to understanding how data are collected, analyzed, and presented. This February, I rode along with some students from my university to Des Moines, Iowa for the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference, where I presented my research focusing on king rail habitat (which is now rare in the Midwest). It was a long ride in a van, and there was an intense snowstorm, but we made it there and back.

My travel group and I on the way to and from Des Moines.

Though I enjoyed the company of my travel-mates, I consciously chose while there to try to meet new people at the conference. I’ve come to understand that perhaps the biggest value of a conference is simply to make connections. So, during the first breakfast, I joined someone who was sitting alone and as a result learned a bit more about the consulting industry in wildlife. At social events, though I checked in with my travel mates, I tried to be available to people I didn’t know who might be interested in talking about their science and/or other experiences.

I also very much enjoyed learning from a variety of talks and posters. I made a point to go to talks outside of my area of expertise. For example, I was fascinated by a talk about how turtles have moved around a campus in Missouri over many years. I also enjoyed the ‘plenary’ sessions, which were times when everyone from the conference could come together to listen to a speaker or speakers. I found it especially useful to learn more about Neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide used in agriculture that can likely have very negative effects on wildlife.  

And then, toward the end of the conference, it was time for me to present my research. Though I had presented posters at conferences, and talks at my universities, it was my first talk at a conference. I was excited for the opportunity to share with managers and others who could help king rails about what I had found out regarding the needs of this species. In addition to most of my travel-mates, who were kind enough to attend my talk, there were probably twenty or so people in the room when I presented four around 15 minutes. I hope that they enjoyed learning about what habitat king rails use and how much.

A view from Des Moines in 2022.

I wonder if any of the attendees of my talk felt like I had in 2012 when attending the talks of others. Did they think that I was hyper-focused on king rails and didn’t appreciate other topics? Did they think that I was just trying to promote myself? Did they think that I didn’t feel a connection with Nature? Perhaps. As a scientist, I’ve learned that I do need to stick to what I know when presenting. I probably shouldn’t speculate much about the patterns of ocean currents during a talk about king rail habitat in the Great Lakes region. And, regarding self-promotion, it is a fact that my career as a scientist will end if no one knows what I’ve been doing. So, I have to share and this may come across as an ego-driven activity. But in reality, I simply have to share what I’ve done to be able to keep doing what I love: being in and trying to understand/conserve Nature. Perhaps this goal of mine comes across in scientific talks, but the fact is that I’m there to present information and someone, like my former self, could mistakenly conclude that I don’t ‘feel a connection’ to Nature. In reality, becoming an ecologist has helped me to feel more connected to the world and its inhabitants than I ever felt before.

In summary, I’ve come to think that conferences and the knowledge that they help to share are a good thing. In general, I don’t think there is much better than people coming together to share ideas and knowledge that are meant to do good.

Note: I appreciate the support I received from my universities, and the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, to gain the experiences described in this post.