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.

Do I Really Look Like an Ostrich?

“You look like an ostrich.”

That is what I remember someone telling me. I’ll not ‘name names,’ but will say that the person who said this to me, coincidentally, had the name of an animal species in his/her last name. I didn’t see the resemblance.

I often do, however, see resemblances, kind of like that person did when looking at me (I’ll admit that like an ostrich I am tall, have a long nose, and cannot fly). I’ve had the opportunity over the last eight years or so that I’ve seriously been studying birds to see many people who study not only birds, but many other animals species. I’ll be the first to admit that some people bear an uncanny resemblance to the organisms that they study.

Yes, I’ve seen frog-people and mice-people, even moose-people. Not usually, but sometimes.

The resemblances that I see, though, usually go beyond attributes such as body-type, facial features, etc. Generally, when I watch the way that people move through the world, I think that their behaviors more closely resemble the organism that they focus their studies on than does their physical appearance (with some notable exceptions that I won’t elaborate on).

In a herpetologist, I’ve seen the calm, zen-like demeanor of a salamander. In an ornithologist, I’ve seen the indifference of a sleepy owl.

It could be that people are hard-wired to see similarities between any two things placed nearby (physically or mentally), and that in fact people don’t tend to behave more like what they study or associate with than would randomly paired people and animals. My gut, however, tells me that this isn’t totally true.

I’m convinced that if one watches anything for long enough, to some degree that thing becomes a part of their mental process and affects everything about them, even if they do not realize it. This is a simultaneously beautiful and depressing realization, especially when one considers the things we all see and wish we didn’t, and also that which some people must see every day and cannot escape.

I feel very lucky to be able to watch birds. And if I do, in fact, become a bit more bold or inquisitive after spending years watching Blue Jays, or even more secretive like a marsh bird, that’s OK by me.

I know that some people probably consciously choose to act the opposite of what they watch, and that most people likely don’t actually behave like what they study or associate with.

To me, though, a world where I think that I might see the intelligent poise, or even ruthlessness, of a wolf in someone is far more interesting, and usually inspiring, than a world without wild and natural influences.

Let’s do our best do maintain the diversity of wildlife, and behaviors in people, that remain. Even if we don’t see the effects of our conservation efforts, others may see the effects, perhaps even when they look at us.

A Stranger, Sagan, and Science

In the spring of 2013, I was a junior undergraduate university student. I was studying wildlife science, and had just gotten to the point that I could take some ‘free elective’ courses, which didn’t have to be directly related to my sought after degree. That semester, I decided to take an introductory astronomy class, for non-majors. I remember enjoying the course, but I do not remember much about it specifically. Parsecs, astronomical units, blue dwarfs, red giants, and parallax shifts. Those are some (maybe most) of the few terms that I remember learning in that class. Admittedly, I did not gain much knowledge from that course that I still possess. As is the case for most of the classes that I’ve taken, however, the main value that I gained was not the knowledge that I can recall, but the motion that it caused. I forget almost everything that I learn, but the act of learning moves me in a direction which could guide for a lifetime.

As I look back, there are very few moments in my life that I can point to which I’m sure had an exceptionally large impact on helping/causing me to become who I now am. And that person who I am now, in a single, simplistic sentence is: ‘I’m a scientist and writer who cares about conserving and experiencing the natural world.’

I attribute much of that sentence to a single moment. And that moment was when I was leaving the aforementioned astronomy course, namely a ‘lab’ portion of that course which occurred every week, at night. If I recall correctly, my in-class assignment for that lab was to try to make a telescope out of materials like cardboard, paper towel tubes and mirrors. When I was leaving the classroom that night, I think that it is safe to say that I couldn’t see anything more closely, nor more clearly, than when I had entered.

But as I walked alone through the hallways, I recall looking for a restroom. I don’t know how I ended up talking to the short, older man who was wearing a stocking hat. I think that he was writing on a paper, beside a cart that held cleaning supplies. Maybe I asked him where the bathroom was? Regardless, for some reason, we began talking.

With a spark of life in his eye that I don’t see often, I remember him asking ‘what did you learn in class today?’

Clearly, I remember saying, ‘I learned how small I am.’

And I think that that was, to some degree, actually true. In preparation for making the telescopes, we were first informed about the far away things that some telescopes (not the one I would make) can show a viewer.

I recall that then the man (who I’ll call Allan) and I began discussing a number of things related to learning. Somehow, I found out that he held the pursuit of knowledge in very high esteem, despite many obstacles, and that when he was not working as a janitor he was working to complete an engineering degree. Allan had nearly completed the degree, and was obviously proud. For some reason, the conversation led to him taking out from his stack of papers by the window a piece of paper, for me. And he wrote down the name of someone who, looking back, I am surprised that I had not heard of at that point in my life: Carl Sagan. I needed to look up this amazing scientist, my friend for the moment said as he handed me the paper. It was as if Allan were speaking of someone who had provided him a key that had freed him from unbearable, stifling chains.

The paper that I was given, with Carl’s name on it. Thanks to my mother for finding this paper in my library and sending me a picture of it!

After he finished praising the work of Sagan, I told Allan that I’d heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I thought must be similar. He replied by saying that I’d be more impressed by Carl. So, thrilled to have had such a nice, unexpected, inspiring conversation, I said that I would look up Carl. We shook hands and I never saw Allan again.

For a variety of reasons that I think are commonly experienced by young (or older) people trying to acquire independence in a complex and challenging world, I was at the time a bit psychologically battered. Therefore, I was receptive to suggestion, and open to possibilities. I think that it is safe to say that the man’s enthusiasm about learning and science that night, and his seemingly sincere awe about reality, was something that I had never seen before. Not in my fellow students, not in my professors, certainly not in myself. At the time, science was just a vague concept that didn’t seem like something that I could actually do, which I felt was at odds with my ‘creative’ self, and about which I knew embarrassingly little. But that night, for maybe the first time, I felt truly excited to learn more about it.

And, so, when I got back to my dorm room, where my roommate was sleeping on the other side of his desk, I did look up Carl Sagan. In the dark, from my glowing laptop computer, I learned that Carl was an astronomer and science communicator with broad interests, who rightly insisted that science is a way of thinking that anyone can relatively easily participate in. He had gained most of his fame by writing the book ‘Cosmos,’ and by producing a compliment to that book in the form of a TV series, for which he also was the host. After I listened to several videos of Carl speaking that night via headphones (his voice and rationality are still soothing to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g), I eventually acquired and read the book ‘Cosmos’ a few months later. Reading a book like that either in a tent or from my car (i.e. house), during a summer spent travelling thousands of miles across the Great Plains, hiking deep into natural areas to identify what birds were present in those areas, was transformational. The words of a scientist/poet like Sagan, who confronted the strangeness of reality by looking at it hard rather than hiding from it, was the most intense jolt of scientific inspiration that I’ve had. That inspiration, I think, was just enough to keep me on my journey toward becoming a scientist.

That journey toward understanding and participating in conservation-related applications of science, and to become a conservation biologist, has been a circuitous, difficult route that is still being blazed. Scientists are people, too, and can be difficult to deal with. I’m sure that Carl was no exception. I’m sure that I‘m no exception (though I try to be good!). There are limited funds to support science, and many fiercely seeking them. The entire process of being a professional scientist can be isolating and exhausting. However, as Carl wrote, ‘science exacts a substantial entrance fee in effort and tedium for its insights.’ To pay that fee and to be able to understand even a microscopic fraction, from my minuscule human perspective, of the incredibly vast process of which I’m a part has become a truly awe-inspiring experience.

And I have the kind man in the hallway who told me about Carl Sagan to thank for that.