Kara’s Tips for Conference Success!

Hi all! I haven’t written in some time, but a topic just came up on twitter that I really want to write about:

As a member of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology I have so many thoughts on this, so I’m going to put them all here for easy reference. Most are relevant to other conferences too!

  • Conferences, especially SICB, are endurance trials, not sprints. You learn a lot of new information, meet a lot of people, and generally are busy every waking hour (and sometimes later) for five days straight. Don’t be afraid to take a break if you need one. You don’t have to go to every session, and you may even process all of the new stimuli better if you take some time to decompress and organize your thoughts.
    • NB: Your advisor may want you to go to some specific things… you should probably do that.
  • Go to talks outside of your area of expertise. You may not understand everything, but you will inevitably be exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking about familiar concepts. Some of my best “big picture” ideas are the result of exposing myself to lots of diverse topics. Are you a swimming biomechanist like me? Maybe check out a bee talk. Really interested in cnidarian phylogenies? Maybe try something on community ecology. You never know. Go to whatever looks interesting.
  • Bring a note-taking device and a note holding receptacle. I know some people swear by digital devices–tablets and laptops. I prefer a paper notebook and pen: I find the lack of internet lets me focus on the talks, and I never need an outlet. I write notes on interesting findings and methods, and write down names and contact information of people I meet or want to meet. (Pro-tip: This makes it easier to follow up with people after–see below.)
  • Meet new people outside of your lab group/ institution. Do it. This may be the single most important thing you can do at a conference. If you’re shy like me, this may be challenging, but you can always ask for an introduction from someone you trust. As long as you’re polite, you probably won’t run into trouble.
  • DO NOT EAT ALONE. This is the single thing that makes me most sad and upset at conferences. Seeing a group of friends going off to eat, and then having to sit by myself with whatever terrible food I find is no fun. Invite yourself along with others if you have to. I volunteer to eat with you if you are going to be alone. You can always leave early if you want alone time later…
  • Follow up with people about a week after the conference. If someone introduces you to someone else, say thank you. If you get introduced to someone, follow up with them. If someone’s research was really interesting, and you want to know more–or just want to let them know it was awesome–FOLLOW UP. It’ll help people remember who you are, and being courteous and appreciative is a good thing.
  • Bring extra back ups of your talk/poster. Just do it. A USB takes up no space, and you’ll be glad you did in case of emergency.

That’s off the top of my head for now… What are your tips for new conference goers? Did I miss anything?


About the Header: The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage

I’ve just switched the header image again, this time, to a plate from the expedition notes of Captain Frederick William Beechey. Captain Beechey, later Rear Admiral Beechey, of the British Navy was an Arctic explorer in the first half of the 19th century. As captain of the Blossom in 1825, he sailed from England westward, around Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America), and north from there to the Bering Strait. He returned from his arctic voyage in 1828. For the rest of his life, he continued surveying coastlines for the British navy, until finally being elected president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1855, a year before his death.

Natural history collecting was routine for such naval expeditions, and the Blossom brought back many botanical and zoological specimens. The conchology, (=the scientific study and collection of mollusk shells) of Beechey’s voyage, from which the header image was taken, seemed to be more than a little problematic for Beechey and his colleagues. He writes:

I wish I could with sincerity have included with the above-mentioned names that of Mr. J. E. Gray, who undertook to describe the shells, but the publication has suffered so much by delay in consequence of his having been connected with it, that it is a matter of the greatest regret to me that I ever acceded to his offer to engage in it. This delay has from various causes been extended over a period of eight years, and I cannot with justice or propriety conceal from the government, the collectors, and especially from the contributors to the work, whose MSS. have been so long printed, that it has been occasionally by Mr. Gray’s failing to furnish his part in spite of every intercession from myself and others: promising his MS, from time to time, and thereby keeping the department in his own hands, yet always disappointing the printer, until at length, from other causes, the publisher fell into difficulties, and all the plates and letterpress  were sold by the assignees and lost to the government. ….

At length, Mr. G. B. Sowerby was engaged to complete the Conchology, and to revise the unprinted portion of Mr. Gray’s MS….

So remember next time you miss a deadline–someone may hear about it 200 years later…

Header Image: Plate 38 from “Molluscous animals and their shells” by John E. Gray (sort of)  in Beechey, F. W., et al. 1839. The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage. Howlett and Son: London.

SICB 2013, Day 2: So many fishes.

It’s the first full day of SICB, and filled with all of the things that make big conferences fun. There were an absurd number of talks (13 concurrent sessions in the morning!), an absurd number of biologists, and an absurd, yet necessary amount of coffee. You may not know this, but biologists run on coffee.

As I mentioned, I spent this morning in two sessions on fish swimming biomechanics. Despite the narrow focus, the talks had very different themes.  For instance, did you know that stingray fin skeletons seem adapted for their particular mode of locomotion? Erin Blevins of Harvard University does. Their fin bones are so complex that they seem more reminiscent of a ray-finned fish’s than they do a sharks. This is even stranger given that rays are much more closely related to sharks.

A few talks tried to simplify the vast array of undulatory swimming kinematics down to just a few variables using sophisticated mathematical and computational models. What does that mean? Suppose you have an eel swimming, a tuna swimming, and a sperm swimming. Their patterns of movement, (“kinematics”), are quite different. But if you approximate the kinematics using equations (often combinations of sine and cosine waves know as Fourier series), you can boil the movements down to, perhaps, two angles and a speed. Some simulations can predict optimal swimming movements. Others demonstrate the incredible physical challenges of swimming at small sizes, like how larval fish may experience day-to-day accelerations of over 40 times Earth’s gravity!

My talk went a little overtime, but I think it was well received. I’ll take it.

After the morning sessions, and paying slightly too much for Indian food across the street, I took a nap to recover from my morning…(Talks are exhausting!), so I don’t have too much to report from the afternoon. I sat in on a talk about water snake tongue flicking, proving that even the most arcane science can be fun. I even learned about the association of an arboreal habit, and grasping behavior in mammals. If you live in the trees, you’ll often have forelimbs that are particularly well suited for grasping and fine manipulation.

The afternoon poster session was a fun time too. The science was great, but poster sessions are often my favorite parts of meetings for a completely different (and perhaps less valorous?) reason: socializing. Biologists from all over the world coming together for a few days—these people are friends as well as colleagues, and I don’t often get to see them. They are tremendous influences, and some of the best motivators for my continued research.

Tonight, I’ll go to a lecture on invertebrate vision before hopefully going out into the town. (Much more likely I’ll hang out for a social though…)


EDIT: I’m posting this a day later. The invertebrate vision lecture was amazing. More later!

SICB 2013: Biology in the Bay Area

Hi everyone!

Once again I’m going to be keeping you posted about all things wonderful at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s annual meeting. This year we’re in sunny and favorably temperature-d San Francisco, and the meeting promises to be the largest yet. There are over 600 scheduled talks, and more than 1600 posters (if my eyes don’t deceive me.)

As usual, the chief problem seems to be choosing talks to see given the myriad overlapping and related sessions. Tomorrow seems to be the most biomechanics heavy day, with sessions on fish swimming, running, jumping, and all kinds of morphological and physiological evolution. While I’ll be buried for most of the morning in the fish swimming sessions, (and giving my own talk) I’ll do my best to write about a whole diversity of things.

Sadly I’m going to miss Robert Satterlie’s opening plenary lecture… Flights are exhausting, and only made more so by idiotic bicycle falls a day prior. If there’s anything fascinating at the welcome reception, of course, you’ll hear about it. 


School’s Out For Summer…at least, classes are

With final papers submitted and exams finished, life gets so much sweeter. I can go back to enjoying the spring weather, going to friends’ cookouts, and actually working on my research. It’s actually a relief to have enough time to read papers, analyze data–and keep up a blog, perhaps.

In honor of my new-found free time, (and in memory of the many hours spent last week on flight biomechanics) I offer you:

The Leading Edge Vortex Sonnet

Though once they said that bees could never fly
When limited by quasi-steady flow,
The underlying theory was a lie.
Non-steady conditions cause lift to grow.

As vortex sheets roll up above the wing,
Creating a negative pressure core,
Higher lift coefficients they do bring
So that even a bumblebee can soar

And just thirty years later we have found,
Among the flying animals and plants,
Leading-edge vortices on wings abound,
And through the fluids organisms dance.

So when they say you can’t make enough lift
An attached LEV may help you drift.

A leading edge vortex on a moth's wings.
A leading edge vortex on a moth’s wings. (Picture from Charlie Ellington’s animal flight group at the University of Cambridge.)

** Don’t worry, I’m keeping my day job. 

Most charismatic arthropod?

Arthropoda may not be the most endearing phylum. It’s filled with critters  that make people squirm: mosquitoes, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, barnacles… If I had to guess, I would say most people’s least-favorite animal is an arthropod.

This thought led to a discussion I had yesterday: Is there a charismatic arthropod? Every phyla must have some exemplar of charm, right? So I’m asking you, dear readers, to nominate your pick for “Most Charismatic Arthropod”. I’ll feature the winner in an upcoming post. (Besides, it must be easier than coming up with the most charismatic onychophoran….)

To start you off, I nominate the peacock mantis shrimp, Odontodactylus scyllarus.