Posted by: Adam Kay | November 29, 2011

Perspective of an Undergraduate – Attending the ESA meeting in RENO

Perspective of an Undergraduate – Attending the ESA meeting in RENO 

(This is a guest post by Katie Miller, a senior Biology major)

Although intimidating as it might be for an undergraduate student to hop a plane to a new place they haven’t been before, possibly by themselves, and attend a big scientific meeting, I believe that it can be an extremely enriching experience. Recently, I temporarily vacated my undergraduate classes to attend the Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno, Nevada. For those who don’t know, this is the largest insect meeting in the world where scientists from almost every continent attend to present their research and attend professional networking and collaborative meetings. Upon the looming date of departure to the meeting, certain troubling thoughts occurred to me such as: “what if I don’t see anyone I know?”, “what if I mess up my presentation?”, and “what about my coursework!” Despite the potential hazards of attending a scientific meeting during the semester, there are numerous benefits that an undergraduate student can gain from attendance. During the meeting, I had a variety of different opportunities to learn about hot topics in Entomology and Ecology and about research related to my current project on ants.

One talk I attended was by Ben Hoffmann from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia on “Invasive ant eradication – history, global status and requirements for improvement”. Biological invasions can have devastating impacts on ecosystem function and are one of the main threats to biodiversity globally. Successful eradications are rare. For ant species, there are only ten recorded cases of successful eradication of an invasive ant even though eradication efforts have been going on for nearly a century1.

No doubt the increase in global commerce is a major factor behind the increase in ant invasions, requiring even greater management actions. It certainly doesn’t help that there are folks out there attempting to actually sell invasive ant species (http://myrmecos.net/2011/11/19/world-of-ants-store-sells-extreme-pest-insects/)! Hoffmann discussed the fact that most eradication programs begin well after populations have been established, making success much less likely. There is also a lack of understanding of how ants process food within a nest, making effective food baits more difficult to develop. Furthermore, there are underdeveloped links between researchers and rangers/managers (at least in Australia…not sure about the U.S. but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are similar problems in the U.S.). Managers are not necessarily required to publicly communicate strategies or results of their program and as a result there is a lack of publication of project outcomes. I am deeply concerned about the ever increasing species extinctions and subsequent decreases in biodiversity occurring as a result of human impacts and thus I find it particularly important that people become aware of issues such as the problems Hoffmann highlighted in his talk.

Another talk I went to by Cleo Bertelsmeier, which focused on a database website called Ant Profiler (http://www.antprofiler.org/) set up to record ecological characteristics of ants including morphology, behavior, habitat, nesting, distribution, and invasiveness status. Once information is loaded into the system for a given species of ant, the ant is given a sort of ID card which lists all of its traits. This database has the potential for use to make comparisons among a variety of ecologically important traits, and to examine trait variation across geographic distributions (it could therefore be useful in assessing the spread of invasive ant species). One might worry that simply checking off check boxes next to certain traits could potentially delimit the value of comparison of characteristics due to ambiguous definitions of the particular traits used in the database. For example, Ant Profiler lists tree/canopy, leaf litter, ground, twigs and logs, underground, nomad, and ubiquitous as possible nesting types for ants. However, some ant species such as certain Myrmica ants have been found to nest in snail shells and this does not fit nicely into any of these categories. However, the database could still serve as an important research tool and possibly be used to identify areas where ambiguous definitions might hinder analysis of trait distributions. Furthermore, research on other organisms could stand to gain much from a database such as this one, where multiple characteristics of the organism and natural history are all recorded in one place in a digestible format. This database is clearly just in its beginning stages and needs a lot of work before it can become a valuable research tool but one can hope that with time the site will be able to gain enough contributors to make the site viable.

There were also a number of interesting talks that weren’t about ants. For instance, May Berenbaum, a professor and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI) gave a talk about “What students learn through engagement in entomological entertainment-related activities”. Her talk focused on the Insect Fear Film Festival held at UI since 1984. During this festival, they show two or three feature-length films such as the films “Them” and “Invasion of the Bee Girls” interspersed with animated shorts, each focusing on a different theme. As May puts it in her summary of the history of the festival “When we began, Ronald Reagan was in office, materialism was rampant, and insect movies were terrible; today, there’s a democratic president in Washington, environmental awareness and volunteerism are more fashionable, and insect movies are still terrible; it’s nice to know that there are some things in life to count on”. The festival is also interspersed with opportunities for the public to see and handle live specimens, enjoy deep-fried appetizers, get the insect fear film festival annual T-shirt (which has gained fame by itself), and get more accurate answers to questions about insects than what’s depicted in the films. Students are heavily involved in this festival and as a result have a number of opportunities to engage with not just the university community but the general public as well. My favorite example she gave occurred at the 1999 mosquito film festival where students organized the thematically relevant blood-drive. It has always been my constant struggle to convince certain members of my family of the importance of insects and that we need not always just squish them because it’s somehow politically correct to hate them. Her presentation and other outreach related talks I attended gave me many new ideas for current efforts I am pursuing on my campus and more fuel to continue my attempt at changing these views or at least with multiple new ideas to “brain wash” my baby sister…

Through talks such as these, I had multiple opportunities to speak with distinguished scientists, even though I had never met some of them before. This opportunity to speak with experienced professors and current graduate students not only allowed me to expand my entomological and ecological knowledge but to obtain some great advice on dealing with the hazards of research, the process of moving forward toward getting a PhD, where good potential future labs are that I might want to join to obtain my PhD, and, well, good advice on how to live life as a responsible citizen. Even if the undergraduate student does not wish to go on to graduate school, much can still be gained from attendance and I left the meeting inspired and ready to take action.

1Hoffmann, B. (2011) Biodiversity and Conservation 20:3267-3278.

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