“I was particularly struck by the number of speakers who mentioned that their participation fulfilled a long-held aspiration,” said EEB Professor and Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil. “Over its 12 years of existence, our ECSS has established an excellent reputation in our field, one that will only be enhanced by this year's offering.

“For those of you who could not attend, I'm very pleased to report that our 12th annual Early Career Scientists Symposium -- Frontiers in Community Assembly -- was a great success from beginning to end,” said Ó Foighil. “We had a lively and thought-provoking roster of speakers, a well-attended poster session, good turnout that held up throughout the day, flawless logistics, significant participation from external students and faculty and a friendly and engaged vibe.”

The University of Michigan symposium sponsored by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was held on Saturday, March 12, 2016 on the central Ann Arbor, Mich. campus. The event drew 175 registrants from at least 17 universities. Attendees hailed from as far as Brazil and across the U.S., from Harvard University, Rice University, and University of Nebraska to universities as nearby as Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State University. Nearly one-quarter of the participants were from external universities or affiliations. There was a great deal of interdisciplinary interest from dozens of fields as wide-ranging as anthropology, biology, and computational medicine to earth and atmospheric sciences, fisheries and wildlife, international studies on global health, epidemiology, political science, museum studies and history.

The stellar keynote speakers were Rosemary Gillespie, professor and Schlinger Chair in Systematic Entomology, Department of Environmental Science and Essig Museum of Entomology, University of California, Berkeley, and Tadashi Fukami, associate professor, Department of Biology, Stanford University. The exceptional early career presenters were: Rachel Germain, graduate student , EEB, University of Toronto; Robin Hopkins, assistant professor, Harvard University and Arnold Arboretum; Melissa Kemp, postdoctoral fellow, National Science Foundation and Harvard University; JP Lessard, assistant professor, Department of Biology, Concordia University, Montreal; D. Luke Mahler, assistant professor, EEB, University of Toronto; Andy Rominger, graduate student, University of California, Berkeley; Megan Rúa, postdoctoral fellow, National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS).

Ben Winger, assistant professor and Michigan Society Fellow, who was a member of the organizing committee, said, “We strove to bring together speakers from different subfields of ecology and evolution who might not otherwise interact with one another or be familiar with each other’s work, in an effort to foster productive discussion on this cross-disciplinary topic. I was really impressed to see how enthusiastically the speakers engaged with one another and the audience both during the panel discussions and during the social events, and how the connections between their work emerged organically throughout the day.” 

Common themes

Lydia Beaudrot, assistant professor and Michigan Society Fellow, and a member of the organizing committee, said, “There is a lot of overlap in interest in this topic between ecologists and evolutionary biologists, but not enough communication and cross-pollination of ideas.”

“To me, one emerging common theme was that incorporating evolution into the traditionally ecological research on community assembly deepens our understanding of community assembly at both ecological and evolutionary time scales,” Fukami said.

Lessard said, “Understanding community assembly requires an approach that takes into consideration deep-time dynamics,” he said. “What controls speciation? Does speciation lead to ecological convergence? Is community composition stable through time? Dispersal dynamics are largely ignored in most cases.”

Sampling of interesting research

“Rachel Germain gave a captivating talk on her experimental research examining predictions of the evolution of stabilizing difference in sympatry (existing in the same geographic area) versus the evolution of fitness differences in allopatry (population separated geographically),” noted Beaudrot. “This research sheds light on why the numerous studies in community phylogenetics that have examined patterns of under dispersion and over dispersion have often produced conflicting results. Germain's work suggests this is because the underlying predictions of the community phylogenetics framework are inherently flawed and her work offers suggestions for how to advance work in this field.”

Fukami also appreciated Germain's talk “about how pairs of species that have been native to the same region (e.g., California) show systematically different ways of coexisting with each other, compared to species that come from different regions (e.g., California vs. Spain). Another talk I particularly liked was the one by Luke Mahler, who applied sophisticated statistical analysis to test whether Anolis lizard communities on Caribbean islands show evolutionary convergence.”

Lessard said, “To me, the most insightful presentation was that of Melissa Kemp who showed that the extinction of a key community member led to a reorganization of the community which had consequences on contemporary ecological dynamics, and possibly ecosystem functioning.”

Where research is heading

“Our morning panel highlighted a number of future directions, including understanding process-based links between beta-diversity and local adaptation (Luke Mahler), looking at all of the players within the system and how they have a role in diversification (Rosemary Gillespie), interacting more with geologists to draw from their expertise and how geology influences community assembly (Melissa Kemp) and developing more nuanced null modeling because our current null models are too null (Andy Rominger),” said Beaudrot.

Fukami added, “I think one direction is a more genome-based understanding of community assembly.”

Lessard said, “To me, it is really about finding ways to integrate different disciplines to get a better grasp at how spatial and temporal processes interact from small to large scale.” 

Advantages of symposium

“EEB at UM is unique in that we are the only place to hold an annual early career symposium of this size and caliber,” said Beaudrot. “The symposium brings prestige to our department. In addition, the symposium offers tremendous networking opportunities for young researchers and attendees.” 

“I think the event is very educational to the graduate students of the EEB department, as it shows what level of scholarship is achieved by leading researchers elsewhere at the career stage comparable to theirs,” said Fukami. “I would love to have my students have such an opportunity. It is also not just Michigan, but the whole EEB field in the country and in the world benefits from this symposium, by showing who the hot upcoming stars are, and for students and postdocs everywhere to have something to aspire to (being invited to the symposium). This helps advance ecology and evolutionary biology more quickly than otherwise. This symposium is now very well known.”

Lessard feels the advantage of holding such a symposium is “to assemble a group of people working at the leading edge of a topic and to try and come up with new perspective to move a field forward. I do think there should be a follow-up e.g. workshop to synthesize our views and develop a framework.”

Thanks to the U-M EEB organizing committee: Professors Lydia Beaudrot and Benjamin Winger, James Pease, postdoctoral fellow; graduate students Marian Schmidt and Senay Yitbarek; and Carol Solomon, senior secretary. With additional thanks to Dale Austin, photography; Gail Kuhnlein, promotion; Jacqueline Marsack, on-site assistance; John Megahan, poster and program design.

Most presentations will be available for viewing on EEB’s YouTube channel soon.

A bird’s-eye view of the lunchtime poster session. Posters were presented by undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs from U-M and other universities. “It was great to see so many folks engaged with the posters,” said Lydia Beaudrot. Image credit: Jacqueline Marsack.