About Us

We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dispatch from Albuqerque

The 94th annual Ecological Society of America meeting kicked off this Sunday with two, count them, two Gonzalez lab members in attendance. The theme for this year's meeting is "Ecological Knowledge and a Global Sustainable Society," and while there is some deal of murmuring that the theme is particularly ironic for a relatively isolated location that happens to be in a desert, the unique setting has inspired some interesting conversations on water issues and other elements of sustainability.

External to the meeting theme there have been some genuinely interesting talks in the desperately over-air-conditioned Albuquerque convention center. In particular over the last two days I have enjoyed an interesting special session calling for the emergence of a fully formed discipline of "warfare ecology" to address the unique and prevalent ecological challenges presented by war, and a symposium looking at interactions of ecological and evolutionary dynamics. Indeed, there have been a few shards of inspiration capable of piercing even my bitter and withered heart.

One thing that strikes me about a lot of the talks is the value of a charismatic study system, by which I simply mean a clear cut relationship to nature. I think it is a weakness of my talks, and indeed of many other theoretical talks, that they fail to sufficiently highlight the organisms involved, treating the model systems as abstractions unworthy of particular merit or attention. The problem strikes me as twofold: on one hand I think that such naturalistic exhibitionism keeps the audience's attention better than sheer theory, but also reminds us of the tendency for nature to act in idiosyncratic and contextual ways.

Of course, the talks are only half the conference. Come nightfall there are always interesting people to talk to, and you really never know who you'll end up eating with. Never have I talked to so many people from so many countries.

Albuquerque out.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update Michael. Sounds like you are having an interesting time.

    Here in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island, I'm mulling over many of the same issues, except the warfare ecology one.

    The town is (once again) experiencing a water shortage with stage 2 water restrictions in effect. A desert location such as Albuquerque understandably has water issues, but this is a town in the middle of the temperate rainforest! And while the locals stop flushing their toilets and go without bathing, the tourists get pampered with high-end spa treatments. It's a crazy dichotomy.

    I'm also preparing to head out for some canopy sampling in Clayoquot Sound, and I am reminded at how 'sexy' that research is. Yet, with a soil ecology background, I find it ironic that when I do the same research on the ground no one cares.

    Yes, sexy study systems will get attention, but I also think that their own sexiness can hold back progress in the field. I've been frustrated with much of canopy research being exploratory and observational rather than driven by mechanistic questions and hypotheses. What I call a "Hey what's over here? Hey what's over here?" approach.

    I look forward to the fall when the whole lab will be back together again - with new additions! - and we can recap all our crazy summer adventures in biodiversity science.

    Tofino out.