How Specialty Conferences Can Broaden Horizons for Entomology Students
By Mason Russo
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
In July 2023, the Society of Island Biology (SIB) hosted its fourth meeting in Italy on the island of Lipari. This conference brought together a variety of scientists from around the world, specifically those who conduct research on islands. The attendees conduct research in locations such as the Zhoushan Archipelago in China, Macaronesia islands, Ogasawara Islands of Japan, Canary Islands, Galapagos islands, Crater lakes in Uganda, coastal islands in Finland, Hawaiian Islands, Aegean Archipelago and many more remote islands. There were more European attendees than from other regions due to their proximity to the conference venue, but the overall group of scientists represented a diverse background of faculty, early career professionals, and graduate students from around the world.
The Island Biology 2023 conference took place in Sicily, on the island of Lipari, in the Aeolian Archipelago. It was fitting that biologists who work exclusively on islands had to travel to multiple islands to arrive at the destination for the meeting. After entering Sicily, there were multiple options to take a ferry to Lipari, with the shortest from the port city of Milazzo. The Aeolian Archipelago is composed of seven main islands (Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi, and Panarea) with many smaller islets off of these. These islands still have volcanic activity, with daily eruptions on the island of Stromboli that can safely be viewed by tourists. These islands are also characterized by human activities dating back to 400 BCE, with the first anthropogenic impacts on the biota of this area that resulted in the destruction of their local forests. The conference organizers had joked that this year would bring the largest invasion of island biologists ever seen in the archipelago.
As a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, I was fortunate enough to obtain funding to travel to this meeting and present research from one of my dissertation projects evaluating the regeneration of native coastal forests under pressure from an invasive insect. This was my first meeting in a conservation-oriented conference and one of the few I have attended that has not been through the Entomological Society of America. The smaller size of this conference was a nice change of pace, making it easier to network and discuss in depth questions after presentations. ESA meetings can be overwhelming with the many concurrent symposia, resulting in a schedule where many attendees are walking between a maze of rooms to catch their preferred presentations. It is common for two presentations of interest to overlap and for the attendees to have to choose between talks. ESA meetings provide greater networking opportunities and content, but it was a nice change of pace to attend the SIB meeting on such a smaller scale.
This year’s conference theme was “Ecological and evolutionary processes on real and habitat islands.” The main sessions seeking abstracts reflected this, and the available submissions were oriented to island biogeography and macroecology, conservation on islands, evolution of islands and their biotas, island ecology, and humans and islands. There were only three rooms to view oral presentations in, all of which were in different buildings that were a five- to 10-minute walk from each other.
The distance between locations (and temperature outside!) typically meant that attendees stayed the entire duration of a symposium. This was a new experience for me, as I usually rotate between different ongoing sessions at conferences. I stayed for talks that were not remotely related to anything I have worked on, allowing me to learn more about vertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, and many ecology and evolution studies. As someone who primarily has worked with insects, integrated pest management, and invasive insect species, this meeting was an excellent opportunity to learn more about conservation in islands around the world. There are similar threats island ecosystems face around the world, and it is encouraging to see that many accomplished scientists are working to address these issues. Surprisingly there were not a large number of entomologists attending the meeting, but this allowed me to interact with researchers in many disciplines.
The conference also encouraged networking through multiple tour options for attendees. There were some who participated in five days of hiking around mainland Sicily prior to the conference, and everyone was able to choose to attend a mid-conference excursion on the fourth day of the six-day meeting. These mid-conference excursions visited remote parts of Lipari or the outer islands and provided a great opportunity to hike, learn about the native species, and network.
On my outing, the Italian researchers provided excellent information about the native plants we encountered. I also met multiple faculty during these excursions who were interested in my research and attended my presentation as a result of our discussions.
There was also an option for attendees to take a boat ride at night to the island of Stromboli and watch the active volcano. Two boats full of island biologists stopped for dinner on the island prior to sunset and then departed on the boat to watch the glow of the small eruptions on the way back to Lipari. These opportunities provided another casual setting for interacting with other researchers, and this was where I met many people who I had not met during the sessions I had attended. This was likely a factor for some of the attendees to attend this meeting, and exciting excursions likely are utilized by conferences to attract a wider audience.
ESA meetings offer excursions (without active volcanoes) that allow for similar ways to meet other conference attendees, and this can be a great way to network for a graduate position, postdoctoral fellowship, or early career opportunity. ESA meetings also provide student-specific activities, which was something that the SIB conference did not do, likely due to the schedule and limited size of the meeting. However, a Whatsapp chat that I created with the first three attendees I had met quickly grew to over 30 participants. This was an effective way to organize hikes, dinners, or meeting up. It would be interesting for a future SIB meeting to have a Whatsapp chat link for students to join, to expedite the networking and interactions during these brief meetings.
The Society of Island Biology has not been around for as long as other societies, but this conference attracted scientists from around the world, highlighting the need for global collaboration and coordination to face the challenges of our time. The next conference will likely be in China, emphasizing SIB’s effort to grow its community and expand the network of scientists that gathered at the meeting this year. Although many of the readers of Entomology Today do not work on islands and are unlikely to participate in the next meeting, conferences of this type highlight the importance of collaboration with international audiences. There are many global conferences that entomologists are eligible to attend, which can raise the profile of the institution of the presenter and also serve as a way to advertise the Entomological Society of America for those who wish to present at a future meeting.
During this conference I was able to attend talks that provided ways for me to expand my methods for future ecological studies, and I had detailed conversations from a wide discipline of scientists with different frameworks of thinking about the scientific process. As someone who is new to these types of projects, this feedback was very valuable to receive. Despite the later dinner time for Europeans, it was very enjoyable to have discussions about a range of topics after the presentations and to learn about the challenges with working on their various islands around the world. Their enthusiasm and passion for research highlights the effort that is being conducted to save vulnerable ecosystems or species that are threated by the compounding issues we are facing today.
Global problems such as the potential collapse of biodiversity, invasive species threats, and climate change will require cross-discipline collaboration to help mitigate the worst impacts of these threats. A great opportunity for entomologists for this type of interaction awaits at the International Congress of Entomology meeting in Kyoto in 2024. I hope for those who are able to attend that they can experience new cultures, learn something new, and form connections that lead to scientific collaboration.
Mason Russo is a Ph.D. student in entomology at the University of Hawai’I and the current Pacific Branch representative to the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: email@example.com.