Ageing up in Academia: attending the BES conference as an undergraduate helper

Words by Bella Roberts with art by Jenna Bornstein

“Europe’s largest and most welcoming conference dedicated to ecology” attracted over 1,200 ecologists from around the world to frosty Edinburgh, just before Christmas 2022. At the BES (British Ecological Society) annual conference, researchers and graduate students present their work in punchy 12-minute talks, discuss hot topics in workshops, and network at breakfast and evening mixers over 4 busy days. I attended as a helper, meaning I assisted in the running of the conference for half my time there but otherwise was free to attend like any other delegate. Talk topics varied massively, from Asian Elephant smell, to microbial communities on plastics, and I was keen to try it all so went to many different talks throughout. 

A fellow helper and postgraduate working in association with the Natural History Museum gave a memorable talk: “All Creatures Great and Small: linking microbes to macrobes in eDNA/eRNA environmental monitoring”, where she discussed the use of ‘eDNA’ (environmental DNA) for assessing biodiversity. eDNA methods involve taking air, water, or soil samples from an ecosystem to a lab and identifying traces of DNA in the sample to determine species diversity. The speaker emphasised the importance of assessing microbial biodiversity, which can be hugely representative of ecosystem health; this means it can be used to quantify the magnitude of human impacts on ecosystems, by comparing the microbial community in an ecosystem before and after an event (she gave the example of an oil spill in the ocean). This new, efficient, and increasingly accessible method of quantifying biodiversity is likely to change how we do field sampling in the future! 

A project that forecasted disease spread in wildflower populations in the Rocky Mountains was the topic of another of my favourite talks. The researcher’s ‘eco-epidemiological’ models accounted for many abiotic and biotic factors, making the study complex and tedious to perform, but extremely valuable once complete. The models, which may be useful to many other field-based studies, even map wind speed and direction throughout the year, project future conditions, and account for climate change when predicting the spread of disease. Aspects of how air-borne diseases spread in plants would be applicable to understanding the spread of human diseases, according to the speaker, making the study highly relevant in the light of Covid-19.   

Almost every delegate present attended the daunting but inspiring talk given via zoom by the remarkable Patricia (Patty) Balvanera. A professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor in chief of ‘Ecology and Society’ and associate editor for serval other journals, Patty is an undoubtable force. She spoke on the value of nature and the role of ecologists in addressing the biodiversity crisis, explaining how fundamental shifts in our view of nature and conservation are required for sustainable, just futures to be realised. I found some concepts difficult to grasp – she used ideas from philosophy and psychology to explain our existing relationship with nature, and how we could value it more. Integral to her talk, however, was a clear message: heed indigenous voices. Patty stressed how indigenous people think in the long term when considering and valuing nature, thus balancing what can benefit humans with what is right for the environment, a mindset which is necessary for finding sustainable conservation solutions. 

Evenings of posters and wine finished off most days at the conference. A huge room in the basement of the conference centre would display a hundred or so research posters, while the vast bars at the centre and sides of the room, which at lunch held vegan risotto, stew, or chilli, would now hold glasses upon glasses of wine, which were no doubt vegan, carbon neutral or organic. Now was the time for networking! On the first evening, I found this intimidating until I met a towering, corduroy-cladded, wiry haired postdoc (think Sacha Baron Cohen meets Einstein), stood by his poster. He saw me reading it and asked, “are you interested in rarity?”, what followed was a fun discussion on the roles of rare and common species in ecosystems and what they mean for conservation planning (I thanked past me for choosing to write an essay on this topic in my second year). One glass of red deep, I was feeling confident and energised – who knew academic conferences were fuelled by wine? 

I must say, the BES conference lit a fire in my belly (although that could have been the wine), as it reminded me of the importance of ecological research and conservation – especially heartening right after a long, hard slog preparing for winter exams. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend volunteering as a helper to anyone studying or interested in Ecology. The insights I gained not only into niche topics in ecology, but also into the workings of the world of ecological research were priceless.  

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