INTECOL 2013: Thoughts from Day 1

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The third day of INTECOL 2013 is just about to start but here we give some of our thoughts on the first day’s sessions and the general themes that have started to emerge. Tabi and Louise review the first plenary talk by Professor Sandra Diaz and two sessions relating to planning and mapping for biodiversity and conservation. Kristina and Sara below talk about importance of the use of new communication tools in creating and promoting science. In general and more specifically we happened to make very similar points and come to the same conclusions on the topic (but from slightly different directions, so it is worth reading until the end). We are enjoying INTECOL a lot so far and are excited to share our experiences of the rest of the week later on.

Finding patterns in ecology and mapping for conservation: Louise and Tabi’s overview of some of Monday’s sessions

  • Sandra Diaz “Theophrastus in the tangled bank: searching for generality underpinning plant functional trait diversity”

Professor Sandra Diaz started off the conference proceedings on the first day of INTECOL at the ExCeL centre in London.

She discussed the use of plant functional traits in relation to biodiversity, looking at how a trait of an organism can both impact the environment (effect trait) and determine their ability to survive within the environment (response trait).

The meaning of Diaz’s title  ‘Theophrastus in the tangled bank’ became clear, as she discussed the need, as ecologists to generalise and find patterns in the tangled complexities of Darwin’s ‘Tangled bank’.

  • Andrew Knight “Challenges and lessons from biodiversity planning in South Africa”

The work of Andrew Knight aimed to mainstream biodiversity conservation into local planning in South Africa, where each municipality makes decisions regarding local conservation strategies and investment. Unfortunately, it is often the case that conservation regulations are overthrown or ignored in favour of development plans.

The high standard of ecological expertise and data quality available to the project allowed for the development of maps to highlight areas of ecological importance and rich biodiversity.

Knight shared an important lesson from the mapping project and was refreshingly honest in his description of its faults. These included the lack of consideration for cultural groups involved and their differing values. There was also a breakdown in communication between the scientists developing the tool and practitioners who were to use it.  As a result, the uptake and use of these maps had varied success.

  • Peter Long “Automatically mapping landscape scale patterns of biodiversity with the Local Ecological Footprint Tool (LEFT) 

For the times when maps and data are not so readily available, we were introduced in a later session by Dr Peter Long to a new tool, Local Ecological Footprint Tool (LEFT), for mapping ecologically important landscapes, potentially anywhere on the globe.  This online tool uses information from a number of different databases, including species records, migration routes, IUCN list information, WWF designated areas, and many more in combination with remote sensed images to identify area of the landscape more suitable or unsuitable for development. All delivered in a report complete with maps and images.

For me (Louise) these issues of data availability, access and formatting seemed to echo throughout the day; starting with the first plenary where Diaz discussed the database she had worked on to allow for the analysis of the distribution and variation in plant functional trait across all vascular plants (or at least as many as possible).  Efforts such as TRY and RAINFOR seemed to be highly commended, however during the day there was also more than one call for the need for common data formatting and frameworks within a discipline; to enable scientists and practitioners to add their own work to common databases and contributing to a bigger cause. This level of collaboration seems important, if not essential, if we are to keep working to understand function at an ecosystem level, and identify general principles that will help to untangle that bank.

Novel means of communication and its effects on science

Kristina’s thoughts: Twitter! Communication! Presentation!

First day of INTECOL was a lot of things: exciting, overwhelming, informative and full of new experiences. Some big themes that were especially prominent (or at least happenings of the day made me think about it): communication, networking and being a next generation of ecologists and what is waiting for us. Here I’ll cover communication part in more detail, and leave the other two themes for subsequent review posts.

I experienced two kinds of communication on the first day of INTECOL: one is the incredibly powerful social media, importance of which in communicating science, sharing information and promoting discussions just keeps growing. It was brought up in the morning’s preliminary session, when the questions for the speaker Prof Sandra Diaz were collected via Twitter – not only from those in the audience were able to contribute, but also those following the conference online. The speakers in the workshop ‘Maximising the impact of your research paper’ mentioned role of Twitter in promoting your work, selling yourself, checking how well-received your research is and what impact it has. Also, I tried to live-tweet from all the talks I was at today using our @EcoPostblog account and through that got engaged with all these different people, who were retweeting, favouriting, following. A whole new level of engagement and experiencing of science going into the next hundred years.

As for the live science communication that was on display in all the capital suites throughout the day, it was somewhat less exciting. Maybe the 15 minutes format is flawed – it’s not easy to explain your research in that short amount of time. Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge in various ecology areas is to blame. But there is the third option: maybe many scientists are just not that good science communicators. I found only a handful of the talks on the first day actually captivating and wished to learn more. In some cases it was language barrier to blame, but this was apparent in many of the talks, no matter the mother-tongue of the speaker. However, for us, young ecologists, it’s a great opportunity to learn how to do presentations (and how not to!!) Since most of the talks are tweeted for everyone to see, it is important  that the message delivered by the talk is clear and succinct and engaging. That way the audience reached will be much greater as clear, unrushed, and not stuffy talks are more likely to be shared.

In short, science communication is a very exciting area to be in, whether you are a scientist, communicator or both. And new technologies, in my opinion, are making it only more interesting, while science in turn becomes more relatable. The more researchers realise that and tap into the available resources, the more beneficial it will be for the whole scientific community and advancement of the science itself.

Sara’s thoughts: more detailed overview of the “Maximising the impact of your research paper” workshop

The first day of INTECOL was exhausting but very exciting! It’s great to be a part of such an international event, and the opening ceremony highlighted just how international this conference is; with around 2000 ecologists attending from 67 countries. The day which was to come was full of fantastic talks spanning from Sandra Diaz’s “Theophrastus in the tangled bank”, discussing functional traits of plants and functional trait diversity, to Nishikant Gupta’s talk on the importance of protected areas for the management of freshwater fish biodiversity in Indian Himalayan rivers.

One of the most memorable sessions was the workshop entitled: “Maximising the impact of your research paper”.  Here we first heard from Corey Bradshaw, who stressed the need for scientists to “sell” themselves. Focussing on the possibilities which blogs provide (using his own experience with his blog, he made excellent points regarding the ability of blogs to reach a more varied audience. In this way, you can reach out to not only scientists, but other members of society; non-science professionals, students etc. A blog can help in self-promotion, can allow you to develop your writing skills and hones your thinking!

Writing for EcoPost; this definitely hits close to home, especially with regards to the wider audience which we can reach through the blog. Knowledge should not be kept within the scientific community (as it is commonly done due to issues of communication, such as language and just plain lack of outreach), and it is our jobs as scientists to share what we learn through our studies with the general public. As Bradshaw also mentioned, blogs are also a great opportunity to connect to people with similar interests.

Mark Kinver then went on to discuss the issues surrounding journalism, science and media. It was great to hear from an environmental reporter of BBC News, who really highlighted the importance of the personal stories behind research (as he said; our research is our story). We are all doing our research for a purpose, and in most cases if not all, our science is very personal to us. From my own perspective, my future PhD is looking at a topic which I am truly passionate about and feel is important to the wider global community. So we need to communicate to non-scientists in a way which lets them understand why we are so interested and attached to the topics which we are studying. If you can effectively share and communicate about your passion, you increase the possibility of that passion becoming infectious to others. Why should other people care about your work? What are the wider implications of your research? These all may seem like very obvious answers to cover during presentations and reports, but even some of the talks which I attended on Monday seemed to miss the answers to these important questions. By doing so, they left me wondering why what I had just heard about was important.

The workshop then finished with Mike Thelwall, who again highlighted the need to not only reach the scientific community, but also the wider community through your research. One way to track your paper’s impact is through what is called altmetrics (you can go to to download it). This gives you stats about your own and other’s articles with regards to the number of citations, as well as the number of times it has been shared in social media.

Going back to my own experience with writing for a blog which is not only for scientists, it is very easy to check if what your writing is understandable to the general public; if you’re not sure, have someone who isn’t in your field read what you’ve written and highlight the words they do not understand! You don’t have to ‘dumb-down’ your posts, just quickly explain what you mean when you use more specialist terms.

Going back to INTECOL 2013, all EcoPosters which were present had a great first day. Now going into the second day, the talks are just as varied and fast-paced (we’re sprinting between rooms!). But it is great to be amongst other scientists and hear what is happening across the world in the field of Ecology. Being at the start of our careers, it is very inspiring to see the work of others and I hope that this is the first of many INTECOLs to come in my future!


2 responses to “INTECOL 2013: Thoughts from Day 1

  1. Pingback: #INT13: Hoegh-Guldberg and coral reefs | EcoPost·

  2. Pingback: #INT13: a little bit more on communication and Twitter and ecology science | EcoPost·

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