My immersive experience at the BES Annual Meeting as an applied ecologist – The Applied Ecologist


Karen Castillioni is an Associate Editor mentee for Journal of Applied Ecology. She is also a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Minnesota, USA. She is passionate about understanding the complex relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in the context of global change. In this blog post, she shares her experience of the 2023 BES Annual Meeting.

The British Ecological Society (BES) Annual Meeting this year was a dynamic spectacle in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland, offering more than just the city’s renowned charm. It was my very first immersion into both the conference and the captivating town. This was no ordinary gathering; it unfolded as a charming exploration at the cutting edge of ecological innovation.

ICC Belfast, the venue where the BES Annual Meeting was hosted in 2023 © Karen Castillioni

Join me as I unfold the exhilarating narrative of my debut at the BES Annual Meeting, where Belfast served as a fascinating backdrop for a journey into the world of ecological wonders. In this blog post, I breakdown the event into four main parts:

  • the talks
  • the poster sessions
  • the party
  • my thoughts as a first time attendee.

1. The talks

The plenary

The Annual Meeting kicked off with an inspiring plenary by Isabella Tree, award-winning writer and conservationist, chaired by the BES President Prof. Yadvinder Malhi. Isabella shared insights from her book ‘The Book of Wilding’, detailing her transformative project at Knepp Estate in Sussex.

By halting farming, the landscape flourished over two decades, now hosting free-ranging grazers, like elks, deers and horses. She also highlighted the importance of regenerative agriculture in carbon storage. This talk was especially impactful to me because it showcased how local efforts can yield remarkable benefits for nature. 

Dr. Isabella Tree talking about her book ‘The Book of Wilding’ and her experience restoring nature on what once was hers and her husband’s farmland © Karen Castillioni

After the Welcome and Plenary Session, the meeting transitioned to Thematic and Parallel Sessions. I made sure to plan my agenda in advance to ensure I wouldn’t miss any cool talks. Here, I’ll spotlight some sessions and talks that caught my attention.

Co-designing projects

I learned about best practices in ‘Co-designed projects in ecological research and practice: Creating and navigating successful opportunities’ mediated by Dr. Marc Cadotte, Professor at the University of Toronto and Editor-in-Chief for Ecological Solutions and Evidence and organized by the JAP. The speakers included academics who talked about their experience building collaboration with stakeholders and Indigenous communities in Australia, Europe and in North America.

The BES team, Philip Dooner, Minhyuk Seo, Lydia Groves, Marc Cadotte, Holly Jones, Caroln Kurle, and panel, Mark O’Connel and Cate Macinnis-Ng., who contributed to the workshop on ‘Co-designed projects in ecological research and practice: ‘Creating and navigating successful opportunities’ © Karen Castillioni

A comment from the speakers that resonated with me was that “if you wish to have success, you must understand your limitations… be open about your limitations to the practitioners”, as well as from the audience “we need to connect with the local community for conservation, communication has to be engaging… Local researchers should talk to their own community and present back results to their own.” These two comments reinforce the need to have honest communication when co-designing projects and making sure that the local community is involved when making decisions.

The Bug-Network project

I saw a live update on The Bug-Network coordinated research, a project for which I’m a contributor. Dr. Suz Eveningham delivered a summary of the comparative experiment results, a study I’ve been following closely over Zoom  and  emails. Witnessing my collaborators in person, beyond the confines of the screen, added an extra layer of excitement.

Crafting compelling research stories

I participated in a workshop focused on crafting compelling stories for our research and presenting our studies in an engaging manner. Among the plethora of valuable advice, I particularly liked the tip to ‘zoom-in’ and ‘zoom-out’ to captivate the audience. When the research becomes too specific, ‘zoom-out’ to something relatable, but once the audience is hooked, ‘zoom-in’ to provide enriching details. I hope I’m effectively putting this advice into practice in this blog post!

Dr. Erinma Ochu, Associate Professor in Immersive Media at the University of The West of England, who chaired the session on ‘Storytelling for ecological justice across planetary boundaries’ © Karen Castillioni

I joined so many different talks, a lot of the ones related to biodiversity monitoring, upscaling the monitoring of biodiversity, resource flow on biodiversity at different scales, talks that used different metrics to estimate biodiversity. A lot of my interests surround biodiversity and using remote sensing to detect biodiversity change because these are core topics of my current research, but I was also super interested in topics about diversity, equity, inclusion and justice which hold significant importance to me.

Judging talks

Finally, I was a judge for some talks, which was a great opportunity to learn about different topics and see how each author communicated their research. The talks included:

  • ‘How do disturbance and persistence drive community and structure across contrasting ecosystems? A functional approach in Cerrado’
  • ‘Mediterranean woody systems: fire or herbivores, that is the question’
  • ‘Phenotypic plasticity drives a shift of plant P-acquisition strategies from mining to scavenging along a gradient of soil phosphorus availability in South American Campos grasslands’.

Best of luck to all the authors!

2. The poster sessions

A range of topics

The poster sessions featured a diverse array of captivating topics, ranging from:

  • regenerative farming
  • satellite monitoring of pastures
  • using native species to increase forest productivity
  • soil seed banks change with restoration, first steps for seagrass restoration
  • foodweb perspective on species reintroductions
  • plant interactions
  • biodiversity conservation.

I spoke with Dr. Akira Mori (University of Tokyo, Senior Editor of Ecology Letters and a long-standing Associate Editor for Journal of Applied Ecology) as well as Dr. Nicola Largey (MKO Research) and Dr. Andréa Davrinche (University of Helsinki), learning much about their research. 

The impact of mitigation on ecosystem functioning

Dr. Akira Mori’s research compared areas undergoing climate change with and without protection, examining the impact of mitigation plans on ecosystem functioning. He and his co-authors discovered that mitigating climate change, particularly in protected areas, effectively conserves tree diversity-dependent productivity. Without such action, ongoing and future efforts to preserve biodiversity and its societal benefits could be compromised. 

Poster session featuring topics related to restoration, alpha and beta diversity, foodwebs and satellite monitoring of pastures © Karen Castillioni

Estimating birds’ flight height

Dr. Nicola Largey aimed to assess the accuracy of visually estimating birds’ flight height, both with and without a map-based reference. This research is crucial as birds are prone to collisions with wind turbines. To simulate bird flight, Dr. Largey and her team employed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as a target, enabling the quantification of accuracy and variability in surveyor estimates of height and distance, with and without map-based references.

The findings revealed that incorporating map-based references significantly increased the precision and accuracy of height and distance estimates. This research underscores the importance of adhering to protocols and utilizing references in animal conservation efforts.

Moderating diversity effects on leaf traits

Last but certainly not least, I had a conversation with Dr. Andréa Davrinche. Her research immediately grabbed my attention, as I’m also exploring complementarity effects in my own studies. Dr. Davrinche, along with her co-author Dr. Sylvia Haider, conducted a greenhouse experiment to distinguish between the roles of resource addition and resource accessibility in moderating diversity effects on leaf traits. This research is pertinent as it sheds light on the mechanisms driving complementarity effects in resource use.

Poster presenters: left- Akira Mori (University of Tokyo), middle- Nicola Largey (MKO Research), right- Andréa Davrinche (University of Helsinki) © Karen Castillioni

In their experiment, Dr.  Davrinche and Dr. Haider grew species in pairs, investigating the effects of phosphorus fertilization and resource accessibility through soil microbiota on the aforementioned traits. It was intriguing to hear  Dr.  Davrinche share that while some hypotheses were confirmed, others were not, surprising her. For instance, the soil treatments differed in their interaction with species diversity, which suggests synergist effects from resource addition but counter effects from microbiota presence.  Our chat was insightful, and we even brainstormed new ideas for future experiments. I’m delighted I took the time to stop by her poster.

3. The party

First and foremost, take notes. Every conference needs a party!! 🥳 This should be mandatory. Picture this: ecologists turning into Celtic dance enthusiasts! Couples trying not to step on each other’s toes, hands clasped, and the crowd turning into a joyful chaos. Claps, giggles, and everyone with badges still intact (bonus points for coordination). The music cranks up, and suddenly, feet have a mind of their own.

Now, I’m not exactly dance-floor material. Coordination? Nah. But watching ecologists unleash their inner dance maniacs? Absolute riot. Who knew scientists could bust a move? Definitely not me! It’s etched in my memory – ecologists grooving like there’s no tomorrow. Now that’s a story for the grandkids!

BES2023 Annual Meeting party on the second floor of the Lavery’s pub. That floor was trembling! © Karen Castillioni

4. My thoughts as a first-time attendee

Having spent over a decade as an ecologist, the BES Annual Meeting was a dream come true. As a recent Associate Editor mentee, the anticipation was higher than ever, especially considering BES’s status as the world’s oldest ecological society.

From the get-go, the meticulous organization impressed me, and the commitment to increasing the Global South representation in ecology and reducing the carbon footprint of the meeting with a sustainability focus was admirable. Some organisational highlights include:

Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion

1. Meeting topics

The meeting touched on topics related to combating helicopter research, otherwise known as ‘parachute science’, as well as good practices when designing, funding, and publishing ecological research internationally.

For example, I participated in the ‘Equity in International Ecological Research, sponsored by Journal of Applied Ecology, and heard stories from Dr. Asha de Vos about her journey in marine conservation as a marine biologist in Sri Lanka. Asha really rode the waves of parachute science in her own country.

Dr. Asha de Vos, a marine biologist, talking about her journey in marine conservation in Sri Lanka and actions towards equity and justice in ocean sciences. What an inspiring talk! © Karen Castillioni

She thrived by being a pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean, but she fought hard to have her voice heard. So many talks in this session inspired me, but Dr. de Vos’s was greatly remarkable to me as a woman of color from the Global South (like me) who has faced familiar challenges.

2. Informative badges

Each badge, given to delegates when they first checked in, doubled as a handy program summary, providing a quick glance at upcoming events.

3. Guidance everywhere

Staff members and volunteers were strategically placed on every floor and in all rooms, ensuring smooth navigation and readily addressing any inquiries. There were also large maps on each floor.

Map at the ICC, Belfast © Lydia Groves
5. Accessible spaces

Rooms were easily reachable, and volunteers adeptly managed seating to prevent overcrowding.

6. Lunch (and desert!)

For me, a delightful surprise was the provision of lunch – a rare treat at conferences. The spread out serving stations not only prevented congestion but also facilitated networking, allowing me to connect with ecologists from various fields, even a journalist covering the event! I am used to conferences where people disperse during lunchtime, making it challenging to connect. I appreciated that BES offered a way for us to stay together and engage during the meeting.

Environmentally conscious practices

1. Badge recycling

Although badges were intended for recycling, I couldn’t resist keeping mine as a nice souvenir on my desk!

BES Annual Meeting 2023 delegate badge © Lydia Groves
2. Plant-based/vegan food

Our lunch time was filled with plant-based options, including our desserts! Our food menu included potatoes, rice, leafy green vegetables and salads, accompanied by delicious desserts with cake, mousse and pie.  This is a great initiative from BES to accommodate food restrictions and to help the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of animal agriculture. 

3. Transportation solutions

Despite a citywide strike, the conference efficiently promoted alternatives like taxis and ridesharing. The provision to store bags and coats alleviated the burden of lugging them around.

Tech-enabled networking

1. Whova app

The ‘Whova’ app transformed networking, offering resources for connecting with participants sharing similar interests. From ecological topics to running enthusiasts, the app facilitated meet-ups and laid the foundation for potential collaborations.

The app also allowed attendees to send in questions during the  “Q&A” section of each session, which was highly appreciated because I knew my questions would be asked without me having to stand up and speak in front of others. This allowed me to ask questions in every session that I attended.

Inclusive social atmosphere

1. Strong social networking

Despite my introverted nature, the welcoming environment encouraged interaction with a diverse group of people. The socials were not just informative but genuinely enjoyable. I could connect with other delegates with similar interests in ecology and in life. I also connected with other Journal of Applied Ecology editors, either in hallway conversations or over fish and chips during our editor’s dinner!

Dr. Alessandra Fidelis (on the left), my former Master’s advisor, and I (on the right), reconnecting at the BES meeting after years © Karen Castillioni

I also had a chance to reconnect after so many years with my former Master’s advisor, Dr. Alessandra Fidelis. I was Dr. Fidelis first Master’s student at the Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil. In her lab, it was where my interests about global change flourished when I explored the impacts of invasive species in the Cerrado. Check out our photo together!

Dr. Alessandra Fidelis giving a talk about ‘Post-fire regeneration of tropical savanna after long-term fire exclusion’ © Karen Castillioni

Final thoughts

In essence, my inaugural BES Annual Meeting transcended expectations, blending professional enrichment with a vibrant social experience. It’s not just a conference; it’s a dynamic ecosystem of ideas, connections, and memories.

Concluding the event, Prof. Yadvinder Malhi delivered an insightful talk on his research on biosphere functioning and its interactions with global change in tropical forests. As the BES president for two years, he provided updates on the society’s past accomplishments and outlined future goals.

Prof. Yadvinder Malhi explaining the dynamics of plant biomass production across months © Karen Castillioni

Prof. Malhi emphasized the crucial need to combat parachute science, highlighting the society’s efforts in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.

Closing remarks of BES Annual Meeting 2023 and announcement of BES Annual Meeting 2024 in Liverpool, UK © Karen Castillioni

Bid a bittersweet farewell, I eagerly anticipate future meetings. Sharing in the excitement of friends attending the BES Meeting, I now also look forward to future shared experiences.

The British Ecological Society’s 2024 Annual Meeting will take place in Liverpool from the 10-13 December. You can find out more information here.

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