The theme of the 10th annual Early Career Scientists Symposium, held Saturday, March 29, 2014, was “Humans as a force of ecological and evolutionary change.”

“All presentations highlighted the critical role humans have played in reshaping the ecological and evolutionary processes that generate and maintain life on Earth,” said Daniel Karp, NatureNet Science Fellow, The Nature Conservancy and University of California at Berkeley, who was one of the presenters. The talks dealt with cutting edge techniques being used to address pressing questions that may well predict the future of biodiversity and human well-being, he observed. “Most research programs concluded that drivers of change were complex and varied – managing the Anthropocene will likely require an integrated, interdisciplinary approach.”

Students at ECSS.According to Professor Vincent Denef, symposium co-chair, an advantage of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology hosting the ECSS is that “it allows us to bring together a group of promising young individuals who perform research related to one theme, to delve into on topic both broadly and deeply, and to generate stimulating discussions that connect the research of all speakers. This is much different than having only one speaker give a seminar, or having a large conference where multiple sessions occur simultaneously.”

“I thought that the symposium was valuable, both to the early career scientists and the Michigan community,” said Karp. “For the early career scientists, the symposium gave great exposure to our research, incredible networking opportunities, and, in some cases, the first prolonged formal presentation format to an academic community outside our home institutions. For the Michigan community, I believe the symposium provided great exposure to cutting edge research from a variety of disciplines. It also provided clear direction and professional development opportunities for graduate students through their interactions with the early career scientists.”

Faculty at ECSS“The ECSS gives graduate students at UM and opportunity to hear a diversity of research talks from biologists who are only a few years ahead of them in their careers,” said Emily Jane McTavish, postdoctoral researcher, EEB, University of Kansas, one of the presenters. “As a participant, it was amazing to interact with biologists at similar career stages who were not working in the same subfield as I am.”

ECSS was a highly successful event with over 100 in attendance. The topic drew participants from a wide variety of disciplines from architecture to zoology and more: ecology and evolutionary biology; natural resources and environment; earth and environmental sciences; environmental science policy and management; biology; bioinformatics; integrative biology; chemistry; medicinal chemistry; molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; information technology; dentistry, civil and environmental engineering; internal medicine; infectious diseases; microbiology; nutritional sciences; epidemiology; and geogenetics.

In addition to the wide array of attendants from U-M Ann Arbor, registrants hailed from U-M Flint and U-M Dearborn, Michigan State University, Northern Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Oakland University, and Earlham College, Richmond, Ind. 

“I was really impressed by how interdisciplinary the talks were on Saturday,” said Cayelan Carey, assistant professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech.  “The speakers integrated several diverse skill sets to tackle their research question, and exhibited remarkable breadth. Given the enormity of the anthropogenic stressors we are tackling in ecology, I left the symposium feeling much more optimistic than I had expected!”

Common themes that emerged were that human activities have and continue to change the ecology and evolutionary trajectories of microbial, plant, and animal life on our planet, noted Denef.

“The importance of combining historical data with new analytical tools emerged as a theme,” said McTavish. “It was great to see how people could tie together next-generation methods with the work that has been done in the field over the last hundred years.”

EEB graduate student Beatriz Otero Jimenez discusses her research during the student poster session with Professor Catherine Badgley, Gordon Fitch, and Jonathan Morris.Students from all universities were invited to present research posters during the lunch break. “The poster session was small enough that it was possible to visit all the posters, which made the session feel manageable and personal,” said Amy Iler, postdoctoral research associate, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, University of Maryland, another of the presenters. “It was great to learn more about the research on ecological and evolutionary responses to anthropogenic change at U-M.” 

During the poster session, Karp spoke with a graduate student whose research closely parallels his own. “Hearing about his contributions was illuminating and opened up the door for future collaborations,” he said. 

A short summary of new and interesting research presented follows (there’s too much to cover it all but you can read about all the speakers and their talks on the ECSS website):

  • Research on how vaccines in agriculture selects for hypervirulent viral strains (Andrew Read, Alumni Professor in the Biological Sciences and Director, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Penn State University, a keynote speaker)
  • Rapid changes in plant phenology in the Rocky Moutnains (Amy Iler)
  • The danger of unfounded ideas that continue to circulate (e.g. Cayelan Carey's work showed often accepted synergystic effects between warming and nutrient loadings on the extent of harmful algal blooms turn out to be false. Instead, nutrient loading is really the most important factor. By perpetuating a false idea, complacency can be bred (well, we can’t change warming, so no point changing anything about nutrients running into the lake)
  • Rapid decline in the modern era of small mammal populations and communities (Rebecca Terry, assistant professor, Department of Zoology, Oregon State University)
  • Impact of ocean acidification on interspecies interactions (Sophie Julia McCoy, graduate student, Department of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago).

Theresa Ong discusses her research poster with Professor Tim James.“Much of the research was new to me, as so many unique fields were represented,” said Karp. “The keynote talk on evolutionary adaptation of pathogens to drugs and vaccines was compelling, novel, and terrifying in its implications.” 

“I think that it is becoming clear that as one of the speakers (Cayelan Carey) mentioned, there are no 'pristine' lakes anymore,” noted McTavish. “It is not possible to divorce ecology and evolutionary biology from human impacts. It is not possible to study systems in the absence of human mediated change, and therefore all biologists need to be thinking about humans as a force of ecological and evolutionary change.”

“The conference had a broader scope than many of the previous ECSSs, but the breadth highlighted the challenges of understanding human impacts and of deciding where interventions or accommodation are important responses,” said Professor Catherine Badgley, ECSS co-chair.

“I think the symposium clearly demonstrated that humans have become the primary driver of ecological and evolutionary change,” noted Karp. “The talks highlighted how scientists are beginning to draw tools from multiple disciplines (e.g. molecular methods, paleontology, etc.) to predict how multiple complex drivers will alter biological systems. The implications for human well-being were also highlighted, indicating that the future research will likely contact drivers to biological systems and ultimately to Earth's life-support systems.”

Professor Mercedes Pascual and Alison Power (Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University)share ideas.According to Denef, “finding ways to translate science into action remains difficult, a discussion was held at the end on how this outcome can be improved.

“This was one of the best conferences/symposia I have been to in recent years,” said Denef.

Special thanks to all of the following: the 2014 ECSS organizing committee: Professors Catherine Badgley, Vincent Denef, Bradley Cardinale, and EEB graduate students Thomas Jenkinson and Theresa Ong; to Cindy Carl for seminar coordination, Gail Kuhnlein for seminar promotion, John Megahan for design, Dale Austin for photography, and Jane Sullivan for on-the-spot assistance.

ECSS 2014 website