Conferencing in England, and Meeting a Ton of People!

After a long summer of fieldwork, I traveled across the pond to present my research at the International Society for Behavioral Ecology (ISBE) biannual meeting. The meeting was held in Exeter, England, and then I traveled to a post-conference symposium on anti-predator coloration in Penryn, England. Both of these events were held on University of Exeter campuses, which were quite pretty campuses. This post will be part travel-blog but also a shout out to the many people I met at the conference with links to their personal websites (or twitters if they do not have their own website), because they were all awesome and you should check them out!

IMG_1173
A view from one of the high points on the University of Exeter campus, overlooking the university and town.

This ISBE conference, plus the symposium, was the most productive conference I have been to in my grad career. I teamed up with my former lab mate, Brett Seymoure, to do some major networking, which was super helpful for our academic careers, but also a ton of fun! Brett and I are both very interested in animal communication and sensory ecology, specifically visual ecology. Europe and especially England has a very rich community of visual ecologists that work on a variety of systems and questions. Because of the post-conference symposium, most of those people were at the meeting, and we were able to meet many of them. One of the key labs we interacted with, and the lab which put on the symposium, was Martin Steven’s lab. Martin is a well known visual ecologist who has developed, with his current post doc Jolyon Troscianko, several useful techniques for measuring coloration and pattern using photographs. I am using one of their recommended setups for my dissertation, and while I was at the conference, I was able to sit down with Jolyon and get some great feedback and ask many questions, which was super helpful! Martin has also created a great network of students either currently in his lab, or that did a masters in his lab and are now elsewhere, and Brett and I were able to meet many of them. His group studies a large variety of animals from color changing crabs (Sara Mynott), to very colorful moths (Emmanuelle Briolat) and ladybirds (Sarah Paul), to incredibly cryptic nightjars. Martin has also had many people visit his lab, including my former lab mate Russell Ligon, who sadly was not at the conference, and Elisa Badas , who studies bird and egg coloration.

IMG_1155
Brett and I out in the town of Exeter.

During the conference, I was also able to reconnect with several people I had either worked with or previously met. My undergrad advisor, Troy Murphy, who was a major influence on where I am today, was at the meeting, and it was great to catch up with him. I worked with Troy both on his goldfinch bill coloration research and my undergrad thesis on wood warbler coloration, and he introduced me to my first bout of fieldwork on animal coloration in Canada (and he also introduced me to my current Ph.D. advisor). I was able to meet up with a friend I made at a different conference in Japan, Jared Wilson-Aggarwal, who I toured Tokyo with for a few days. He previously worked with Martin on the nightjar project, but now studies dog social behavior and how that relates to disease transmission in Africa. I also reconnected with Trevor Price , from the University of Chicago, who recently gave a talk at ASU and also gave a plenary lecture at ISBE. Trevor has done some very interesting work on birds in the Himalayas, and has now developed a keen interest in color vision and has many cool ideas. Trevor also helped me meet Gavan Thomas and his post-doc Chris Cooney, who are undertaking an awesome project to photograph every bird species via museum skins and study avian color evolution across all birds with great detail.

IMG_1151
Brett and I with Trevor Price. ISBE created a bingo card with different things to do while at the conference, and one was take a selfie with a plenty speaker – check!

Speaking of plenary lectures, there were many great ones at ISBE, given by huge names in our field. We had speakers such as Tim Clutton-Brock and Malte Andersson (who wrote the famous book Sexual Selection), but my favorite talk came from Rosemary Grant. Rosemary and her husband Peter, famously followed up on Darwin’s work in the Galapagos on Darwin’s finches, and published much groundbreaking and influential work. It was a real treat to see her present, especially since I have received a grant with her namesake from the Society of the Study of Evolution.

While at ISBE, we went on a mid-conference tour, which took us to the beautiful Dartmoor National Park, where we was able to see the amazing Wistman’s Wood, which is a stunted oak forest covered in moss and lichen. Also in the park were many tors (hills topped with outcrops of bedrock), which dotted the landscape. While  on the tour, we met two students from Emily DuVal’s lab, Jess and Karla, who study brown-headed nuthatches and lance-tailed manakins respectively. Me and all my lab mates (Pierce, Melinda, and Brett) also had lunch with Jenny Ouyang, who studies the effect of light pollution on bird physiology and hormones.

IMG_0898
Dartmoor National Park, with Wistman’s Wood in the distance.
IMG_0917
Under the canopy of Wistman’s Wood.
IMG_0936
A view of the diversity of mosses and lichen found in Wistman’s Wood.
IMG_0952
Another view from inside Wistman’s Wood.
IMG_0956
Our tour guide showing us an inscription where a previous king had cut down a tree here.
IMG_0963
A wider view of the forest.
IMG_0983
A close up of the mosses, lichens, and ferns growing all over the branches and trunks.
IMG_0995
One of the many tors in the area.
IMG_1025
Another tor, with the grassland/peatbog landscape all around.
IMG_1039
A jackjaw we found at the pub in the national park.

My poster presentation went very well, and despite being placed in the back corner of the room, I had continuous traffic and nearly lost my voice by the end from talking so much. I presented some preliminary results from my first chapter, which was great to finally get out. This poster allowed me to establish my name in the field and get on many people’s radars, which is great for future post-doc positions! At the anti-predator coloration symposium, I presented a project that I am helping Brett with on Gila monster coloration. Gila monster coloration seems to change with age, and so we explored if this was true, and found evidence that young Gila monsters might be more conspicuous than adults, which leads to some very interesting ideas about a potential switch in anti-predator strategies from aposematism to crypsis. The talk went over very well, mostly because people really loved the fact that monsters are real!

IMG_1163
Me and my poster!

While at the anti-predator coloration symposium, I was able to continue to hang out with many of the visual ecology students I met at ISBE, including Sara, Sarah, and Emmanuelle (from above) plus Sam Smithers (studies polarized vision), Jenny Easley (studies avian taste perception), and Diana Umeton (studies flicker fusion vision). I also met many more visual ecologists at the symposium, where everyone present gave a 5 minute talk with built in time in-between talks for plenty of discussion. The symposium, while exhausting, was incredible, because we were all unified with an interest in coloration and visual ecology, and I was able to meet big names in the field such as Tom Cronin (studies many aspects of vision) and Innes Cuthill (studies many aspects of anti-predator coloration). I also reconnected with Hannah Rowland, who I met in Japan as well, and heard more about her interesting work on avian taste perception & learning and anti-predator defense. I learned a great deal more about mammalian anti-predator defense from Ted Stankowich, which was very fascinating and has been under studied. And finally, I met and hung out with several other graduate students/post-docs, including Amanda Franklin (studies mantis shrimp communication), Emily Burdfield-Steel (studies variation in tiger moth chemical defense), Sandra Winters (studies primate coloration and diversity), and Jenna Proctor and Alice Rosen who both just started in Martin Steven’s lab to study crab and amphibian coloration, respectively.

IMG_1180
The main restaurant/bar street in Falmouth, which is the town next to Penryn and where all of the social activities occurred during the post-conference symposium.

After meeting so many great people and hearing about so much interesting work, I returned to the states exhausted, but also inspired to get back to work and try to live up to the high caliber of research already existing in the fields of animal coloration and visual ecology. I want to thank everyone I met for taking time to share their research with me and provide feedback on my own work.

For those who study any aspect of behavior or color that have never been to ISBE, I HIGHLY recommend going to the next meeting in 2018! Also when it comes to meetings, networking is so important. It helps you get your research out there, both to get feedback and also to get people interested in you or form new collaborations. For me it is definitely easier to network and meet new people if I’m with someone, like I was with Brett this conference. But I’ve also gotten a lot of help from my Ph.D. advisor, Kevin McGraw, who has introduced me to many important people and instrumental collaborators. So my advice is to both find a networking buddy and talk to your advisor about meeting specific people (i.e. do some homework before the meeting), and that will hopefully help open you up to new research opportunities or future job possibilities!

I PASSED!!!!

This past Tuesday I passed my comprehensive exam! It was a huge relief! Also, this is why I haven’t been blogging as frequently lately.

To explain: at ASU for my Ph.D. program, we have to take a roughly three hour oral exam given by our dissertation committee. This exam not only tests our knowledge in our fields of study, but also is when we defend our dissertation proposal (all of our ideas/hypotheses/methods/data to date). My committee is comprised of my advisor and 4 other faculty, who are experts at various topics covered in my dissertation. For instance, I have an expert on phylogenetics, an expert on hummingbirds, an expert on iridescent coloration, and an expert on statistics. During this exam, they can ask me questions on anything related to my proposed dissertation, even if I’m not directly studying that topic. For example, I was asked questions ranging from how to build a phylogeny to the genetics of behavior.

IMG_0610

To prepare for this exam, I have spent the past month doing nothing but studying, everyday, all-day. And before that I spent most of my free time during field work writing/editing my proposal. This is definitely one of those exams that you have to study more than just a few days before! Above is a picture of some of the material I read; I have a library of papers on my computer which I also went through.

While the entire process was fairly miserable, I did learn a ton. Not everything I read came up during my exam, but I am ok with that because that knowledge will still serve me through the rest of my academic career. This also seems to be part of the point of this exam. It forces you to study and learn a bunch of material, that will ultimately make you a better scientist.

Now that this exam is over, I can breathe free again and relax! I will post the final updates on the documentary filming in a few days, and then I will probably post my tips and advice on studying for this type of exam to hopefully help those who will take it in the future.

Thank you so much to everyone who supported me throughout this entire processes!

About me

As I mentioned, I am a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University. I am getting my Ph.D. in animal behavior, and I am finishing up my third year. I have been doing biological research for seven years at this point, as I started doing research my first summer at college (2009). Its been quite a journey for me, that has lead me from cancer research, to ecological modeling, and finally to studying behavior in the field.

DSCN9552
Me in Flagstaff during the Fall. Photo credit: Meghan Duell (https://meghanduell.wordpress.com)

I have always loved being outside and exploring the natural world. When I was young, my family traveled a lot, especially in the western half of the US, visiting a plethora of national and state parks. Two of my most memorable experiences were visiting Glacier National Park and a month-long trip we took to drive to Alaska, where I was able to see a huge variety of environments and wildlife. I have also spent considerable amounts of time in the South, such as in some of the beautiful old-growth forests and black-water swamps of South Carolina. As an adult, I continue to explore our natural world, both for fun and for my job! My research has taken me to many places around the world, including Canada, Panama, and Japan. I have worked with a reasonable diversity of animals, though most of my work has been on birds. I have also contacted some work on mice and rats, grasshoppers, and beetles.

IMG_7260As I am in my 3rd year of my Ph.D., I am in the midst of my work for my dissertation. I am studying hummingbirds, and specifically I am exploring the evolutionary relationships between their colorful plumage and display behaviors during courtship (see here for more information). The vast majority of my work is conducted in the field, which I very much so prefer. I love studying animals in their natural habitats. Through my field work, I not only learn a ton about the organisms I study, but I also learn a lot about the areas I conduct my work in and all the other life that inhabits it. Because I spend day after day for fairly long stretches of time at one field site, I am able to witness some of the rarer animal occurrences. For instance, while at some of my field sites in southern Arizona, I have seen rock and Arizona black rattlesnakes:

IMG_2268

DSC00943 - Version 2

Outside of my research, I enjoy hiking, camping, and various other outdoor activities, as you will see through this blog. My current goal for the duration of my tenure at ASU, is to visit every wilderness area in the state. There are 90 wilderness areas in Arizona (check them out here), which vary in size and remoteness. So far, I’ve only been two 9 of them, so I have a long way to go! I will make sure to write a post about each one as I visit them, and I will write about the ones I have already visited as well.