ESJ 66: Best in Show

This was my first time in Kobe, famous for its beef and cheesecake. Much of the city was rebuilt in the wake of a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of more than six thousand people in 1995. The city mascot is Kobear (コーベア), a pun almost as clever as the bear is cute. The conference centre was a vertical maze of meeting rooms and halls, with signs in Japanese and an army of concierges attempting to funnel us towards our venue of choice.

I had met Dr. Maria Dornelas at the entrance hall on day one and introduced her to Yuka Suzuki. I’ve known Yuka for a couple of years at this point, but we had never worked on anything together until this conference. Yuka and I had been chosen to organise a symposium at the Ecological Society of Japan’s 2019 annual meeting (ESJ 66), an honour not often given to such early career researchers. The ESJ meetings do not have plenary speakers, meaning that the few invited speakers that headline organised symposia act as the big draw. So, the pressure was on for us to deliver a symposium that people would find interesting and inspiring.

Maria had flown through several time zones on a multi-legged tour of keynote talks that resembled something akin to a millipede. But she was here with us and keen to chat about science, sample the local delicacies (a highlight of any conference for me!) and to offer useful career advice and feedback on mine and Yuka’s work. We had heard that organising a symposium was a nightmare—choosing the theme, confirming speakers, arranging social events etc.—so we were delighted when Maria jumped at the chance to join us in Japan. After that, things seemed to fall nicely into place: Dr. Paula Villa Martín travelled to Kobe with Yuka, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology; Dr. Kenta Suzuki flew in especially for the day of the symposium from the RIKEN BioResource Center; and Prof. Michio Kondoh joined us from Tohoku University in Sendai.

Our symposium line-up at ESJ 66: Prof. Michio Kondoh (left), Dr. Kenta Suzuki, Sam Ross, Dr. Maria Dornelas, Dr. Paula Villa Martín, Yuka Suzuki.

Before inviting our speakers, Yuka and I discussed how our work would fit together. We decided to broadly go for the theme Ecological Stability: Spatial and Temporal Dynamics, with Yuka focusing on spatial dynamics in her talk “Spatial Dynamics: Relating explicit spatial structure with biodiversity in a meta-community” and myself introducing the temporal dimension of stability with my talk “Temporal Dynamics: Disentangling ecoacoustic diversity and stability”. Yuka and I took it in turns to introduce the speakers, and it was next my turn to introduce Maria’s talk “Biodiversity Change in the Anthropocene” which really blew me away. Kenta Suzuki then gave a talk “On the stability landscape of ecological communities” which focused on transient states of community assembly and stability. Paula then spoke about “Diversification strategies in expanding populations” which takes a mathematical approach to quantifying environmental suitability and disturbance regimes in space. Finally, Prof. Kondoh spoke on “Structure and Dynamics of Community Networks: A Minimalist Approach” which combined several projects he’s been involved in with a focus on empirical dynamic modelling.

The conference room was packed to the brim. We ushered people to the odd free seat here and there so they didn’t have to stand at the back. Everyone we’ve spoken to since has said they enjoyed our symposium and thanked us for organizing it. I personally am thrilled with the reaction that we received. Our timing was (accidentally) impeccable because some of the results Maria presented were published in Ecology Letters the same morning as our symposium. Shortly after the conference, Paula’s paper was published in PLOS Computational Biology, so check both of those out if you’d like to read more.

We even won an award for our paper published last year in Ecological Research!

ESJ 66 was a stand-out for me. The opportunity to organise a symposium was fantastic, and I really enjoyed hanging out with Maria and our other invited speakers, as well as catching up with friends and colleagues from Okinawa and beyond. The morning after our symposium I attended an award ceremony because our Ecological Research paper on the Okinawa Environmental Observation Network’s acoustic sensor array published in 2018 was one of a select few chosen as an ‘outstanding contribution to the journal.’ I’ve never won an award like this before, so it simultaneously boosted my confidence and doubled my imposter syndrome!

I’m so thankful to everyone who made this such an incredible conference for me: my coauthors on our award-winning paper; Maria Dornelas and the rest of our invited speakers; the conference organising committee who accepted our symposium proposal; Ecological Research for funding Maria’s trip to Kobe; and the British Ecological Society for funding my own journey from Ireland to Japan. Most importantly though, I couldn’t have done any of this without Yuka, so I will always owe her my gratitude.

While in Kobe, I visited a shrine to academic success, and by the end of the conference it felt like some of that success had rubbed off. Large parts of the conference were arguably upstaged by a sea of adorable dogs at a dog clothes and accessories roadshow which was being held in the same plaza as ESJ. I just hope that our symposium came close to winning best in show.

Read our award-winning article ‘Listening to Ecosystems: data-rich acoustic monitoring through landscape-scale sensor networks’.

Hopefully you’ll be hearing more about ecological stability from us again soon.

Paper reference:
Ross SRP-J, Friedman NR, Dudley KL, Yoshimura M, Yoshida T, Economo EP. (2018). Listening to ecosystems: data rich acoustic monitoring through landscape-scale sensor networks. Ecological Research 33(1), 135-147. DOI: 10.1007/s11284-017-1509-5 

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