Tag Archives: conferences

How to survive the BES Annual Meeting

I’ve attended pretty much every BES since 1999, during which time the meeting has massively increased in size; we now attract over a thousand delegates, making it the largest gathering of ecologists in Europe. There has also been an overall increase in quality of presentations, accompanied by stiff competition for slots. With so many people and so much awesome science to see*, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.

This post is aimed at people attending the BES for the first time, and gives some suggestions for how to get the most out of it. If you’re a student then some of these tips will be especially helpful. Older hands can check whether they agree and add their own thoughts in the comments.


A stranger is just a collaborator you haven’t met yet. Or more likely a reviewer that you already hate, but only they know it.**

  • Pick a session and stick with it. With 12 parallel sessions, you’re not going to be able to see everything. Or even most of it. One way to guarantee missing even more is to run between sessions to catch particular talks. With the best will (and chairs) in the world, sessions do not run exactly to time, and getting between them often takes longer than you think. The end result is that you have to dash out as soon as one speaker finishes (disrupting the questions in the process), run to another lecture theatre, then miss the start of the next one. Often you’ll end up stood at the back, crammed on the end of a row, or waiting in the corridor. A better strategy is to choose the session that sounds most fun, pick a good seat, then just embrace whatever comes along. Take a gamble and discover something new rather than listen to work you’ve already heard about.

Ooo, colourful! Pick one you like then just sit through the whole thing. The dark green is particularly recommended.

  • No-one has read your abstract. Back in August you had a tentative idea about what your results might show, once you’d finished collecting and analysing the data. By the time you put everything together for the meeting, the conclusion has probably entirely changed. This is not a problem, because no-one will notice. The title you gave was indicative of the content. Treat your talk as a fresh start. No-one is assessing how closely your actual talk or poster follows the abstract in the meeting program.
  • Posters can be skimmed. Good posters, that is. Even yours. Don’t try and read every one and absorb the information (unless you’re marking them), because your brain will be full after the first five. Better to find one with an interesting title or concept, then ask the person presenting it to talk you through. Conversations about posters are always more rewarding than standing in silence while the author nervously watches you. If they’re not there then find them later or send a message.

You’re not going to read all those posters unless you’re really trying to avoid social interaction.

  • E-mail the people you want to meet. If you have a hit-list of people to whom you really want to show off your research, send them a quick message beforehand. Best of all is to say “I’m giving a talk on helicopter weevils in the east stairwell on Thursday at 8:30pm and I’d really appreciate if you could make it.” Most will be flattered and make an effort to come along, thereby finding out who you are so they can recognise you later. It also helps to prompt conversation. If you don’t do this then expect to spend the whole meeting in a futile effort to spot the right name on the tags worn by total strangers. And failing.
  • Having said that, it’s even more important to make contacts in your own peer group. Meeting the stars of your field is often invigorating, but if you’re a PhD student then others like you are the people who, in future, you’ll be collaborating with and seeing at the next conference. I would argue that these are the most important connections you can make — in time they will become your friends. Try not to hang around with people from your own institution too much, you’ll see them again next week anyway. If you’re already an established ecologist then make an effort to talk to younger people, and if they’re on their own, to introduce them to others.

This is the BRITISH Ecological Society. We do not slavishly follow the Americans and their ways.

  • Go to the Specialist Interest Group meetings. They’re the best way to meet like-minded ecologists, and also a great way to get more involved with the society. It’s not well-known enough that the SIGs have access to money, and are always looking for ideas from members for events that they could run. Tell them what you would like the society to put on, and best of all, offer to run an event yourself!
  • Find a conference buddy. The ideal person will be at the same career stage, from a different place, working in a related but slightly different field, and who you’ve only just met. Arrange to catch up regularly, perhaps at breakfast to compare what sessions you’re going to, or at coffee time to swap notes. This doubles your potential to find out about interesting people and science, because they can look out for things on your behalf. The welcome mixer on Sunday night is a good place to recruit one. Also, when you go down for breakfast wherever you’re staying, look out for the tell-tale tags and bags of fellow delegates and approach anyone who looks like they’re alone.
  • Steal stuff. Not valuable infrastructure. But all the stalls will  be giving away a wide variety of useful things: pens, USB sticks, post-it notes, mugs, fridge magnets… Harvest them. I haven’t needed to buy a pen in years. The recent redesign of the BES logo means they’re bound to have a whole load of fresh tat. My family always know what to expect for Christmas. “An Oxford University Press beermat? You’re too kind!”

Quick, no-one’s looking after the stand, STEAL ALL THE PENS.

  • Watch out for the drinking. There’s no getting round it, British people do like to drink, more than most nationalities. Add to this the lethal combination of it being right before Christmas, at the end of a draining academic semester, and it’s inevitable that we flood to the bars. Most of the evening social events involve alcohol. If you’re a non-drinker then don’t worry, you won’t be a pariah, just be aware that others will be drinking around you. My main warning is to the drinkers though. It’s easy to slip into a cycle of filling up on booze in the evening, staying out late, hardly sleeping, then sustaining yourself on endless cups of coffee throughout the day. This is not healthy. It’s ok to sometimes drink something that doesn’t contain alcohol or caffeine.*** Really, the water is completely safe.
  • Talk to people! One of the best things about BES, and which we work hard to encourage, is that it’s welcoming and informal. That’s also a British thing; we’re not good at massaging big egos, or letting people take themselves too seriously. This means that if there is someone who has been particularly influential or inspirational for you, or whose advice you’d like, just walk up and say hello. Seriously. Even the plenary speakers would be glad to speak to an enthusiastic student. If you’re not sure then ask me to introduce you. I don’t get embarrassed.

On which note, if you’re stuck for someone to talk to, and you happen to spot me, please come up and say hello! I don’t care whether you’re a keen undergraduate or an embittered old prof, whether you work on foraminifera or velvet worms. I’m always happy to meet new people, and, if I can, to introduce you to lots of other cool ecologists. The one place you’re guaranteed to find me is the Forest Ecology Group mixer. We know how to party.

I love the BES. Forget Christmas, this really is the most wonderful time of the year.

* Although apparently one person only used to come for the meat sandwiches. Each to their own I suppose.

** Thanks to Richard English for the photos, which are all from the amazing BES centenary meeting with INTECOL in 2013. I was there, but too preoccupied to take any pictures.

*** I don’t follow my own advice. You’ll find me a pale, trembling wreck by Wednesday morning, and it takes a few days to recover. No loud noises or rapid movements please.


An ecologist amongst the mathematicians


The skyline of Nottingham looks nothing like that at all.

I’m spending this week at the joint meeting of the European Society for Mathematical and Theoretical Biology and the Society for Mathematical Biology. There are around 850 registered delegates, and it lasts for five days, so it’s a pretty big one. It’s also not home territory for me. Although I’ve drifted into theoretical ecology over the last few years, and increasingly collaborate with mathematicians, my foundation is still very much in quantitative field ecology. I definitely feel like an imposter.

Below are ten personal observations on attending a conference that’s a long way outside my own area. None of these are specific to ECMTB, nor am I qualified to comment on maths conferences in general. It’s also a little mixed up by being on my own campus here at the University of Nottingham, which does tend to change the experience of a meeting.


What’s the collective noun for mathematicians — an aggregation? Swarm? Piss-up?

1. No one knows you so they don’t talk to you. This is particularly striking having just come back from ATBC in Montpellier. I’ve been going to ATBC meetings since 2003. Walking into coffee, or the poster room, or even on the streets outside the venue, it was impossible not to bump into someone I knew. This has a snowball effect as these people then introduce you to others, who you meet again the following year, and before long you become part of a community. Here, standing in the lunch queue amongst hundreds of people, looking around and seeing no-one I know… that was a little unsettling.*

It’s not quite the same as going to a conference as a grad student (I do still remember). Back then, although I didn’t know many people, I was part of a cohort of other students who gravitated towards one another, often assisted by early-career events, and who later became the group of awesome colleagues I have today. Now that I’m mid-career the social groups have already formed. I’m acutely aware that my own regular conference cliques must appear similarly exclusive, even though we’re not deliberately so.

2. Despite the above, one thing no-one can ever accuse me of is shyness. Not knowing someone doesn’t mean I won’t just walk up and talk to them regardless, and everyone I’ve spoken to has been warm and friendly. But I’ve come across another problem, which is that my usual elevator pitch doesn’t work. Put me in a room with an ecologist and I know how to describe what I do clearly and concisely; in no time we will find common ground. My attempts to do the same here have met with confusion, largely because we define our problems in different terms and I’m not good at expressing my research in language that a mathematician can relate to and find relevant. I also often struggle to get my head round what they’re telling me about their own work. I’ll keep trying though.

3. Connected to this is that mathematicians ask hard questions. They’re probably not tough for a mathematician, but to me they’re challenging and unpredictable. I can usually anticipate what another ecologist might ask me, and I’ve often thought about the answer myself. What makes mathematical questions difficult is that they come from an entirely different perspective and way of thinking about systems. This is great of course, and one of the main reasons that I’m here.

4. All this means that it’s hard to sell your research as an outsider. Without wanting to sound arrogant, I’m confident at BES that if I have a talk scheduled, people will come. Some in my specific area will make a special effort. Here there were a reasonable number of people in the room for my talk, but I can’t pretend that I was the draw as it was in the middle of a long session in between established speakers. Was this because it’s a fringe topic, because I’m an imposter, or because I’m not familiar with how to pitch my title and abstract to make them enticing for this audience? I suspect a bit of all three.** On the other hand, it was refreshing to talk to a room of complete strangers with no expectations or preconceptions.

5. A pattern I’m picking up from the conversations I’ve had so far is that the whole conceptual structure of the field is different. My guess is that mathematicians self-identify with a particular field or approach, which can be applied and tested in a variety of contexts. Ecologists, on the other hand, fix on a particular system or problem and bring in a portfolio of methods that will help them to study and understand it. I find this really invigorating: it’s forcing me to rethink the links between areas that I don’t normally associate with one another, and exposing me to research I wouldn’t otherwise see.

6. This is held back, alas, by the realisation that I don’t even know the basics. In a number of talks, the speaker has glossed over some logical step or series of equations as being commonly understood by everyone in the room. Often that leaves me floundering, although I’m picking up a wish-list of things I need to learn. Are ecology talks as impenetrable to outsiders for the same reason? When we flash past a slide on Janzen-Connell processes or SARs, do we lose a significant fraction of the audience?

7. One real difference in behaviour I’ve noticed is that mathematicians interrupt talks — and the speakers don’t seem to mind at all! I’ve seen several talks stopped while someone asks for clarification of a particular parameter or equation. This is unheard of in ecology, but I think it’s great, because on most occasions I didn’t understand it either.

8. Ecologists (and biologists in general) are often insecure about their grasp on mathematics. Yet I’ve heard a similar sentiment expressed in several talks here; theoretical ecologists worry about their lack of field experience. To me this is very reassuring, and makes me feel more comfortable about being out of place. We can all help one another.

9. Call this a loss of attention span on my part, but I don’t like 15-minute talks any more (and 25+5 is even worse). Ten years ago the 15+5 model was standard in ecology, but the growing size of the meetings has meant that we now run on 12+3 as standard. This not only allows more to be packed in (or fewer parallel sessions) but forces effective speakers to focus rigorously on their core points. With 15 minutes there’s room to digress, and for the audience’s mind to wander. Even I was getting bored of the sound of my own voice by the end.*** If I did have one specific suggestion for the organisers it would be to change this; many in BES resisted at first but now I don’t want to go back.

10. I’m not attributing any of the above comments to inherent differences between mathematicians and ecologists, and that’s not a deliberate choice on my part, just that I don’t see any evidence of ‘two cultures’. The dynamics are exactly the same as any other conference I’ve attended: people gather and talk excitedly about research, ask interested and penetrating questions of speakers, greet old friends with delight… it’s all very familiar****. There’s no need for me to trot out any cliches about mathematicians because, so far as I can see, none of them are true. Everyone has been very welcoming and genuinely pleased to talk. Maybe I’ll come back next time and know a few more people…


Like me, Robin Hood is more at home in the forest than at a maths conference. Posted by @ECMTB2016

* The flip side of being unknown here myself is that I also don’t really have a clue who I should be speaking to. I’ve been taking a haphazard approach so far.

** That said, I’m very grateful to the organisers for giving me a slot in a session on the very first day, despite being an outsider. Many thanks :o) The talk seemed to go fine, though my confidence largely stemmed from having already published most of it, and presented it before at the BES in Lille. It was a safe bet.

*** Please insert sarcastic rejoinders in the comments. I know I’m a bigmouth.

**** OK, there are some differences. For one, there’s much less booze involved. I’m told by people who work in catering that the worst conferences are ecologists, geologists and archaeologists. There’s something about academics who spend large amounts of time in remote locations with nothing to do other than drink. Also, mathematicians are better dressed than ecologists. I’ve yet to see any sandals or — that mainstay of ecology meetings — the barefoot speaker. This is A Good Thing.