U-M EEB presented seven outstanding scientists early in their careers and two keynote speakers as part of an international symposium on macroevolution: fossils, frameworks and phylogenies.

The ninth annual Early Career Scientists Symposium was held at East Hall on the U-M campus in Ann Arbor, Saturday, March 16, 2013. The presenters addressed cutting-edge approaches for revealing large-scale patterns and processes of evolution, using methods and data from fields as diverse as paleobiology, genomics, systematics, mathematical modeling, ecology and developmental biology.

“This kind of symposium helps identify the cutting edge of a field, by giving early career researchers a prominent platform that may not otherwise be available,” said Professor Lauren Sallan, Michigan Fellow and ECSS co-chair. “New blood means new ideas, and these can change the course of scientific endeavor.

“The speakers showed how novel and established methods in paleontology, systematics, developmental biology and other fields are helping to resolve questions about the large-scale mode and tempo of evolution and the history of life on Earth,” said Sallan.  

“Bringing seemingly disparate macroevolutionary fields together, such as paleontology and molecular systematics, was one of the main goals of this meeting, and it will hopefully lead to new collaborations and further interactions,” Sallan continued. “Combining approaches should lead to even greater discoveries.”

“It was an absolute pleasure to experience the amazing work that everyone presented,” said Prashant Sharma, National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology, American Museum of Natural History, one of the symposium speakers. “ECSS was quite a unique experience for me, because symposia like this are not common. The representation of a diverse array of research topics – paleontology, phylogenetics, comparative methods, and ecology, among others – was especially beneficial for conveying some of the exciting approaches and emerging trends in macroevolution.

“I thought some of the greatest advantages for holding such a symposium were the opportunity to share ideas and develop collaborations and the interactions with, and feedback from, the U-M faculty, researchers and graduate student body,” Sharma said.

“The model-based and comparative approaches to inferring patterns of morphological evolution in fossil groups, particularly trilobites, was especially exciting. I think such approaches add a new dimension to arthropod paleontology,” he continued.

“I think the most important addition to the field will be the integration of functional genomics. With the advent of increasingly cost-efficient sequencing technologies, genomic tools are becoming broadly accessible for studying the genetic mechanisms that underly macroevolutionary processes – it is becoming more difficult now than ever to distinguish "model," "emerging model," and "non-model" systems. Beyond research, I hope to see the integration of functional genomics in teaching evolutionary biology at the secondary school level. For example, in addition to illustrating the classic image of Darwin's finches juxtaposed with a molecular phylogeny, the inclusion of the second part of the story – the activity of the genes involved in achieving the morphological diversity incurred by an adaptive radiation – would make for a particularly compelling textbook example.”

“The symposium was a wonderful opportunity to meet other biologists addressing macroevolutionary questions from markedly different angles,” said Paul Harnik, postdoctoral fellow, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a symposium speaker.

“Many of us attend different conferences, and may even have our academic homes in different departments (e.g., Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Geosciences, etc.), which inhibits work on interdisciplinary questions. The ECCS was a great forum for such synthetic discussion and interaction,” Harnik said.

“One of the common themes that emerged from many of the talks was the importance of integrating data from fossils and species alive today. These different sources of data have their respective strengths and by analyzing them in concert we stand a greater chance of reconstructing the evolutionary patterns and processes of interest.

In terms of where he thinks the field of macroevolution is heading, Harnik replied, “Greater integration between fields! In recent years, many of the core questions being addressed in comparative biology and paleontology have converged (e.g., what are the factors that promote or inhibit diversification? how do traits evolve over time?) and integrating approaches and insights from these fields (as has been done quite fruitfully in evodevo) will, I think, really mark the next phase in macroevolutionary research.”

Nearly a third of the 175 event registrants hailed from other institutions including Tel Aviv University, University of Toronto, University of Illinois at Chicago, Earlham College, Wayne State University, Michigan State University, Northern Michigan University and Schoolcraft College. There was great interest across disciplines with registrants from epidemiology, paleobiology, evolutionary anthropology, geology, physics, natural resources and environment, plant biology and pathology, anatomical sciences, zoology, human computer interaction, bioinformatics, and more. A lunchtime poster session provided graduate students from U-M and other universities a chance to present their research and gain valuable feedback from a diverse audience.

Symposium funding is provided by the generous support of alumna Dr. Nancy Williams Walls, who received her doctorate in microbiology. The organizing committee included: Professors Dan Rabosky and Lauren Sallan (co-chairs); Professor Yin-Long Qiu; Joseph Brown, EEB postdoctoral fellow; Valerie Syverson, paleontology graduate student; and Qixin He, EEB graduate student; Cindy Carl, EEB senior secretary.

Captions: (from top) 1. Professors Yin-Long Qiu, John Vandermeer, Deborah Goldberg, Catherine Badgley, Jianzhi Zhang, and Diarmaid Ó Foighil mingle during the symposium. 2. Birds-eye view of a symposium break. 3. Graduate students Jeff Shi and Pascal Title interact during a break. 4. Dr. Douglas Erwin presents a keynote talk. 5. ECSS 2013 committee and speakers: (back row left to right) Yin-Long Qiu, Qixin He, Joseph Brown, Lauren Sallan, (next row) Valerie Syverson, Catherine Wagner, Dan Rabosky, Robert Ricklefs, (next row) Laura Wegener Parfrey, Prashant Sharma, Andrew Leslie, Douglas Erwin, (front row) Graham Slater, Paul Harnik, Melanie Hopkins.