Evolution 2013: The Good, the Better, and the Future

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.

19 thoughts on “Evolution 2013: The Good, the Better, and the Future

  1. Karen Cranston

    Thanks for the shout-out to the Open Tree of Life symposium! I also want to note that the entire iEvoBio leadership team AND both keynote speakers were female. Yay for diversity (at least in gender dimension). I have a suggestion for discussion after talks – at iEvoBio, we did blocks of lightning talks followed by a block of discussion. That way, speakers could use their full allotted 5 minutes (because they will!) and we still had time for not just 1-2 questions, but actual discussion.

  2. Mark Holder

    I agree that the ievobio lightning talk organization was a very nice format.
    I really like David’s suggestion of trying to push the “regular” talks back to 10 minutes with 5 minutes of discussion. Even if there was some “cheating” there would at least be some time for questions. Have the electronic “end of presentation” interruption come up at 10 minutes could take the pressure off moderators to enforce the time limit.
    I really enjoyed the Evolution and iEvoBio meetings, and I learned a bunch (as I always do). But it is a bit frustrating that the main talks seem to continue their trend toward becoming 14 minutes of lecture with time for one question and often not enough time for a clear answer to that question.

    1. Tracy Heath

      I also really liked the discussion after the iEvoBio lightning talk sessions. And a longer time for group discussion in the Evolution talks would be great (perhaps I appreciate this more since I’ve attended a Hennig meeting). However, I think restricting everyone to 10 minutes plus 5 minutes of questions would lead to a number of talks that are followed by 5 minutes of awkward silence. That’s why I think I prefer to have the discussion at the end of a group of talks like at iEvoBio, since this won’t call attention to any presentations that didn’t inspire any questions or comments.

      (Disclaimer: I am often guilty of pushing–and going beyond–the 15min time limit.)

      1. David Hillis Post author

        Yes, I also agree that the model of leaving time for discussion of any paper at the end of the session might work. The problem is that it assumes that everyone who spoke will stay through the session. That is not as much of a problem if they don’t run concurrent sessions on the same topic.

  3. Dave Bapst

    As a major concern of mine is the integration of paleontology with evolutionary biology, I was extremely pleased with this meeting for both the increasing participation and attendance of those who would identify as primarily paleobiologists (although lines blur…). Increasingly I hear from paleobiologists who do attend Evolution that they see more presentations they are interested in, whether phylogenetic or macroevolutionary, than at some paleo conferences, so hopefully this will help increase our numbers and visibility at Evolution in the future.

    I was particularly pleased there was no segregation of paleo-talks into a paleo-centric session. Instead, we were shuffled into the phylogenetic and macroevolution sessions, and I think this was to the benefit of all. Segregating paleo out into its own session only reinforces the myth that our fields ask different questions in our research, when this is increasingly not true, even if some of us have fossil records and others don’t. Before I first attended Evolution at the 2010 meeting, I was told horror stories about how paleo-talks were relegated to a poorly attended closet, and thankfully this has never occurred in my experience (there was a paleo-only session in Oklahoma, but it was very well attended).

    1. David Hillis Post author

      I agree…it is great to have the participation of paleontologists, and best when the talks are integrated into the rest of the meeting. I’m delighted to see the increasing representation of paleontology at these meetings as well.

  4. Hilmar Lapp

    Re: scheduling to minimize conflict, what about doing this computationally and data-driven? For example, quantify the relatedness of sessions by the extent of overlapping authors and co-authors between sessions, then use computational optimization to minimize conflict between more related sessions. Likewise for room capacity, wouldn’t the number of submissions for a session be a good predictor of size of audience attending a session?

      1. David Hillis Post author

        Sounds like someone could get a publication about developing the methodology to minimize overlap of sessions at the meeting!

        1. Bob Thomson

          If I remember correctly, didn’t the organizers of the Idaho meeting attempt an automated clustering approach to assigning talks into sessions? I can’t remember if the organization of sessions themselves was included. In any case, it might be a starting point.

  5. Rich Glor

    Thanks for this update. I’m sorry to have missed a meeting that sounds like it went off very well. It’s great to hear that the phylogenetic methods talks remain popular; hopefully we can get a bigger room next year.

  6. Brian O'Meara

    I like David and Mark’s idea of shorter talks with more time for questions. I was really surprised that the lightning talks packed as much in as they did without feeling rushed or omitting things like intro and broader context. They seemed more tightly written, and better rehearsed, than the 14 minute regular talks and thus were able to communicate about the same info (I guess there’s an advantage to being able to practice your talk seven times in the half hour before delivery). I agree that I was in several regular length talks, esp. the ones about previously-published work or those that were essentially ads for methods/software, that would have been much better shorter. I’d suggest going to just lightning talks (maybe lightning+: 7 minutes or so rather than 4), plus half hour symposium talks. Do three or so talks, then group questions, a la iEvoBio. I’d gladly halve the number of parallel sessions at the cost of making talks shorter and tighter: better to see a shorter talk than to miss half the ones in an area.

    One other thing I’d suggest is recording talks (audio on top of slides, not fuzzy slides with someone in front of them). Easy to do in Keynote/Powerpoint, I’m not sure how it is with PDFs.

    As far as lightning talk organization, they were in structured blocks in the first sessions (phylogeography only, for example), but I put some of the singletons (an R-Encyclopedia of Life interface, evolving art, etc.) at the end of the sessions. Some people I talked to wanted a more random distribution (the block of 18 four-minute phylogeography talks may have been a bit intense) but others wanted more similarity, but this could just be a function of which section they saw. With more lightning talks there’d be fewer singletons.

    1. David Hillis Post author

      I also saw some 15-minutes talks in which several people from the same lab gave back-to-back talks on different aspects of the same larger project. These would have been much better as a small cluster of Lightning Talks, with a discussion at the end to tie it all together. With 15-minutes talks, they each had to be independent, and so they re-covered a lot of ground each time.

  7. David Hillis Post author

    Ah…thanks for that clarification of the organization of the Lightning Talks, Brian. I think it would help if they were assigned to a topic session, but that the sessions were fairly short (like the three talks idea), followed by time for questions. In fact, I really like the idea of three to five short, closely related talks followed by a discussion. I think it might greatly improve the interest in and value of the talks. I’m sorry that I couldn’t stay for the iEvoBio sessions, as it sounds like that format worked very well there.

  8. Mark Holder

    I should also point out that getting humiliated by a member of the national academy in leg wrestling was a highlight. Hopefully they’ll work that in to the regular program in Raleigh.
    I can only imagine what it is like when the Nat. Academy hosts a meeting.

    1. David Hillis Post author

      Funny…I’ve had people tell me that I “liven up” the NAS meetings (especially the President’s Dinner, which always has a live band and dancing). I don’t think that comment was necessarily intended as a compliment, though.

      1. Dave Bapst

        I don’t know what the NAS dancing is like, but the Evol13 dancing would have fit in perfectly at the annual dance party held by Sue Kidwell and your fellow NAS member, Dave Jablonski.

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