Adventures of the conference bonanza and ABMs in Arizona Part Deux

(by Bec Wheatley, wannabe modeller and former antechinus minion)

Few things make you feel more like a badass scientist than attending a scientific conference. Well, few things other than finally analysing a giant chunk of data and getting the kind of results you've always fantasised about .... but more on that later. At conferences, you get to hear about new research that's happening right now, inevitably learn a bunch of new things and meet some truly awesome (and potentially equally nerdy) people, and basically just revel in the total sciency-overload for a few days. Thanks to several generous grant schemes and an awesome supervisor, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Ecological Society of Australia conference in December, and the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in January, where I got to present the research on predator-prey interaction simulations I'm doing with A/Prof Ted Pavlic and Dr Ofir Levy.

Sights in Fremantle, Western Australia. Western Australia was last on my checklist - I've now visited every state in Aus!

Sights in Fremantle, Western Australia. Western Australia was last on my checklist - I've now visited every state in Aus!

I'd been wanting to attend the ESA's annual conference since I first started my PhD, and so it was that I joyfully headed west to Fremantle with Skye, to see what's been going down in Australian ecological research. What did I discover? That exposure to (a limited number of) predators can actually help endangered animals survive in the wild, through helping them learn appropriate anti-predator responses; that heat waves can cause massive die-offs in flying foxes, and we can use biophysical models to predict when this will happen; and that integrating scientific research with indigenous biocultural knowledge is critically important to protect not only our threatened species and ecosystems, but also Australia's cultural heritage and traditions; plus so much more. The talks at ESA gave me a lot to think about and digest, and forced me reconsider a few of my own views on conservation. It’s a conference I would absolutely recommend to any Aussie ecologists, students or otherwise!

Me and Skyebo working so hard at the Indian ocean

Me and Skyebo working so hard at the Indian ocean

Also, some conference advice: be friends with a wonderful postdoc who lets you crash in her fancy conference hotel room. Skye is the best!

The Mississippi, pretty street cars, and the French Quarter.

The Mississippi, pretty street cars, and the French Quarter.

After a quick camping holiday to the South Island of New Zealand (where I had various bird-induced excitement attacks), it was off to New Orleans, Louisiana for SICB with Robbie and Chopper. New Orleans was a pretty fun location, but the conference itself was the real star (and by the way, that's how you know you're a bigger nerd than the people attending the Wizard World Comicon in the conference room next door). I discovered that elevated oceanic CO2 may compromise anti-predator responses in damselfish; that mantis shrimp use UV colour spots to size up their opponents; and that jerboas are insanely cute, and their bipedalism allows them to be extremely manoeuvrable and unpredictable, making them difficult to catch by predators (and researchers). I met some amazing scientists, and generally had the time of my life, because SICB is totally my scene in terms of research interests.

 

Some further conference advice: suss out whether your otherwise affable lab mate snores really loudly before you agree to let them crash in your room without buying you some ear plugs!

The somewhat overrated Bourbon Street (by day), and a totally not overrated New Orleans dessert.

The somewhat overrated Bourbon Street (by day), and a totally not overrated New Orleans dessert.

Preparing for and attending scientific conferences does take time (and money), and it would be easy to just pass them up completely when you have things like, um, thesis deadlines coming up. But in my opinion, conferences are very important - they're a great opportunity to meet other researchers, to communicate your own research, and to listen to talks about studies you might not think to pick up a paper on. It's also refreshing, frequently eye-opening, and (I think) healthy to be exposed to new ideas. Plus... they're a great opportunity to travel!

A gorgeous urban sunset in Tempe, Arizona, and the (sometimes hilarious) signs you see up around my Arizona home-base, Brickyard Engineering.

A gorgeous urban sunset in Tempe, Arizona, and the (sometimes hilarious) signs you see up around my Arizona home-base, Brickyard Engineering.

A trip to the USA would obviously be wasted if I couldn't go back to Arizona State University in Tempe to get some extra modelling advice from Ted (see Part One). This time, sensitivity analyses were on the agenda - a process by which you vary your model's parameters one at a time (or sometimes even two at a time), to see how each parameter affects the model’s output. This meant integrating NetLogo (my modelling program) with R (my preferred statistical software). Luckily, someone has written a package for that called RNetLogo, and to them I am eternally grateful. Despite that, the analyses and associated coding turned out to be pretty tricky, and having a couple of weeks with Ted’s expertise on hand was seriously helpful. I'm still working through the bugs and hiccoughs that come with running my model using all possible parameter combinations (turns out I didn't have the model quite as debugged as I thought!), but I’m keeping at it - eventually, I'm certain success will be mine!