The 2013 Evolution meetings (joint meetings of the Society for the Study of Evolution, Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists) were held in Snowbird, Utah, from 21-25 June 2013. The meetings were a great success, and as usual, the meetings featured many packed sessions on phylogenetic methods, theory, and applications. These meetings were held in Snowbird twenty years ago (1993) as well, but much has changed since then. As I flew home from Utah this week, I contemplated a few of things that made the meetings successful, and I compiled this list of thoughts and recommendations for future meetings.
Things that made #Evol2013 a success:
1. The presence of outstanding undergraduates who are working on research. This was better than I ever remember in the past. In addition to fostering science careers for undergrads, it also makes the meeting much more attractive to faculty who are interested in recruiting outstanding graduate students. It gives undergraduates exposure to professional scientific communities, gives them a chance to practice presenting research papers in public, and allows them to explore opportunities for graduate school. I hope all three societies will continue and even ramp-up efforts to attract research-oriented undergraduates to the meetings.
2. Increasing diversity. The sponsoring societies have made great progress on gender diversity. My favorite symposium at these meetings (on the Open Tree of Life) had a 50:50 ratio of male:female speakers, and women were well represented in all the executive boards, symposia, editorial boards, and of course paper sessions. Computational sessions and programs have gone from nearly all male a couple of decades ago to having outstanding female representation and leadership. We’ve made a little, slow progress in ethnic/racial diversity as well, but we have a long way to go there. I’m not saying that we’ve solved all the problems, but the progress in this area is clear.
3. Electronic connectiveness. The tweets and posts and blogs throughout the meeting add a level of communication and discussion that make the meeting much more useful and fun. The meetings are now so large that it is hard to imagine how they could function without this. The Wi-Fi capacity at Snowbird was barely up to the task, although I realize it is hard to keep up with the growing demand. But meeting planners for the future will need to understand that almost all attendees expect to be connected these days, and many connect on multiple devices. We need to plan accordingly.
4. An open end-of-meeting social for all, rather than a formal banquet dinner. This was much better, more inclusive, and fun than a formal banquet, especially with the impromptu dance party afterwards! Even many of the meeting attendees who didn’t care to dance themselves seemed to enjoy watching all the evolutionary biologists cutting loose on the dance floor. The Evolution Dance Party should be a regularly scheduled and planned event. Informal opportunities for meeting and relaxing often lead to great conversations about science and collaboration. I met more people and had more interesting conversations about science at the informal events (socials, parties, etc.) than at or between all the paper sessions.
5. Outstanding sessions and presentations. The overall quality of the presentations was impressive. I do, however, long for the days when we could schedule at least 5 minutes of discussion for every paper. I realize that luxury is no longer feasible, but serious open questions and discussion of papers is now almost impossible. The meeting included an option for Lightning Presentations: Five minute presentations of a research project or idea. These were actually quite successful, and I think some of the 15-minute presentations I saw would have been better as Lightning Presentations. Perhaps we should encourage more 10-minute presentations, with 5 minutes allotted for questions. This would not require a change in scheduling, but it would encourage more open discussion of new ideas and methods. To make the Lightning Talks more effective, I think they will need to be scheduled in blocks of similar topics, just like the regular presentations. And, of course, we should make every effort to locate all the sessions as physically close as possible, so that people can easily move among sessions.
6. The weather and location. It would be hard to beat the beautiful surroundings in Snowbird, and the weather was ideal. Giant pools and hot tubs for swimming and relaxing in view of snow-capped mountains were great. It is too bad that they were open mostly only when the meeting sessions and activities were in session, so that limited their use. There was also an afternoon off for hiking/wildlife viewing/field trips/relaxing. This was a great idea, and allowed meeting participants a mid-meeting break to relax, recharge, and talk.
So what advice would I give to future meeting hosts?
7. The Schedule. For the past two years, the meetings have “featured” an electronic schedule. I am a big fan of reducing paper use whenever possible, but I have found it hard to adjust to this change. It was especially hard this year, because the “Schedule of Events” did not even include all events, so it was very easy to miss Presidential talks, special meetings, and even some paper sessions. It was also hard to use an electronic schedule when the Wi-Fi was often well over capacity or otherwise non-functional. Until these kinks can be worked out, I think we should continue using a printed schedule (perhaps with an opt-out for people who are willing to deal with the potential connectivity issues).
8. The meeting location. In past years, the meetings were always held on university campuses. The growth of the meetings limits the number of universities that are large enough to handle the large number of participants. As a result of this growth, the meetings have mostly moved from university campuses to convention centers. This tends to make the meetings much more expensive (particularly for housing and food), and it eliminates the opportunity for universities to showcase their facilities and programs. On the other hand, it also allows the possibility of having the meetings in beautiful localities like Snowbird. Most of my favorite evolution meetings have been at university campuses (the meetings at University of Hawaii, Colorado State, Chico State, and University of Idaho, among many others, come immediately to mind). The worst meetings are when they are held at isolated convention centers in unremarkable and difficult-to-reach college towns. If we are not going to meet on university campuses, I’d recommend that we meet in beautiful locales like Snowbird. If we meet at convention centers, there should be some local attraction to compensate for the added expense.
9. Room capacity. I know that it is hard to predict how many people will go to which sessions, and there are always bound to be problems. But we have a nearly 25-year history of these meetings, and for 25 years, the Phylogenetics Methods sessions have been standing-room only, with many people unable to get in the room. Surely we can learn from past meetings which sessions are likely to be well attended and plan accordingly.
10. Session overlap. Again, this is an easy problem to criticize and a hard problem to solve. But for the past couple of meetings, there have been parallel sessions on exactly the same topic. That guarantees conflicts. At this meeting, I was a co-author on papers in different sessions at almost exactly the same time. Both of these sessions were packed, making it almost impossible for me to attend both (I wasn’t the presenter on either, but nonetheless, I’d like to be present). Some overlap is unavoidable, of course, but parallel sessions should differ as much as possible in their topics.
All things considered, #Evol2013 was an outstanding success, and it was gratifying to see the continued growth and maturation of phylogenetic biology. Phylogenetic trees were everywhere at these meetings, and are no longer limited to the phylogenetics sessions. These meetings made me think back to all the changes in the field of phylogenetics over the past quarter-century. I’ll plan to write a follow-up post about that topic.