Field notes from my first ESA meeting

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From iDigBio
A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, which assembles a diverse community of researchers looking at system-wide processes.  It was an excellent learning experience for me, as scientific fields each have a particular set of tools to look at different problems and our collective perspectives can solve research problems in more creative ways.

In particular, it was intriguing to attend talks on the ecology of the human microbiome.  Due to the complexity of host-associated microbial communities, and the limitations of technology, the majority of studies to date have been somewhat observational.  We have mapped what is present in different animals, in different areas of the body, under different diet conditions, in different parts of the world, and in comparison between healthy and disease states.  But given the complexity of the day-to-day life of people, and ethics or technical difficulty of doing experimental studies in humans, many of the broader ecological questions have yet to be answered.

For example, how quickly do microbial communities assemble in humans?  When you disturb them or change something (like adding a medication or removing a food from your diet) how quickly does this manifest in the community structure and do those changes last? How does dysbiosis or dysfunction in the body specifically contribute to changes in the microbial community, or do seemingly harmless events trigger a change in the microbial community which then causes disease in humans? Some of the presentations I attended have begun teasing out these problems with a combination of observational in situ biological studies, in vitro laboratory studies, and in silico mathematical modeling.  The abstracts from all the meeting presentations can be found on the meeting website under Program.  I have also summarized several of the talks I went to on Give Me The Short Version.

One of my favorite parts was attending an open lunch with 500 Women Scientists, a recently-formed organization which promotes diversity and equality in science, and supports local activists to help change policy and preconceived notions about diversity in STEM.  The lunch meeting introduced the organization to the conference participants in attendance, asked us to voice our concerns or difficulties we had faced, encouraged us to reach out to others in our work network to seek advice and provide mentoring, and walked us through exercises designed to educate on how to build a more inclusive society.

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500 Women Scientists at ESA, August 2017

My poster presentation was on Wednesday, halfway through the meeting week, which gave me plenty of time to prepare.  You never know who might show up at your poster and what questions they’ll have.  In the past, I’ve always had a steady stream of people to chat with at my poster which has led to a number of scientific friendships and networking, and this year was no different.  The rather large (but detailed) poster file can be found here: Ishaq et al ESA 2017 poster .  Keep in mind that this is preliminary work, and many statistical tests have not yet been applied or verified.  I’ve been working to complete the analysis on the large study, which also encompasses a great deal of environmental data.  We hope to have manuscript drafted by this fall on this part of the project, and several more over the next year from the research team as this is part of a larger study; stay tuned!

In preparation for the ESA conference next week

I’m counting down the days for my first Ecological Society of America (ESA) conference next week in Portland, OR.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve been diligently working to finish as much analysis as possible on the data from my recent post-doc, as I am presenting a poster on Wednesday, August 9th from 4:30 to 6:30 pm; PS 31-13 – Soil bacterial diversity in response to stress from farming system, climate change, weed diversity, and wheat streak virus.

Several of my new colleagues will also be presenting on their recent work, including a talk from Roo Vandegrift on the built environment and the microbiome of human skin, and one from Ashkaan Fahimipour on the dynamics of food webs.

The theme for this year’s ESA meeting is “Linking biodiversity, material cycling and ecosystem services in a changing world”, and judging from the extravagant list of presenting authors, it’s going to be an extremely large meeting.  It’s worth remembering that large conferences like these bring together researchers from each rung of the career ladder, and many of the invited speakers will be presenting on work that might have been done by dozens of scientists over decades.  Seeing only the polished summary can be intimidating, lots of scientists I’ve spoken to can feel intimidated by these comprehensive meeting talks because the speakers seem so much smarter and more successful than you.  It’s something I jokingly refer to as “pipette envy”: when you are at a conference thinking that everyone does cooler science than you.  Just remember, someone also deemed your work good enough to present at the same conference!

Fort Ellis inoculation day

Today was a big day out in the field at Fort Ellis: virus inoculation day for the project I’ve been part of, on how farming system can alter reactions to adverse growing conditions (like climate change, weed competition, and disease).  This is the second year of the project, and the fifth year of the larger crop rotation study, so a lot is riding on being able to keep to the schedule.

Spring has been cool and wet here in Montana, which has presented us from being able to do work in the muddy fields but hasn’t slowed down the wheat or the weeds.  If the wheat is too developed when the virus is sprayed, the infection won’t manifest well enough to measure.  Thanks to carefully prepared protocols, seasoned personnel, and a stretch of sunny, dry days, we treated our plots and went home early!

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Harvesting a feast of data

My greenhouse trial on the legacy effects of farming systems and climate change has concluded!  Over this past fall and winter, I maintained a total of 648 pots across three replicate trials (216 trials per).  In the past few weeks, we harvested the plants and took various measurements: all-day affairs that required the help of several dedicated undergraduate researchers.

In case you were wondering why research can be so time and labor intensive, over the course of the trials we hand-washed 648 pot tags twice, 648 plant pots twice, planted 7,776 wheat seeds across two conditioning phases, 1,944 wheat seeds and 1,944 pea seeds for the response phase.  We counted seedling emergence for those seeds every day for a week after each of the three planting dates in each of the three trials (9 plantings all together).  Of those 11,664 plants, we hand-plucked 7,776 seedlings and grew the other 3,888 until harvesting which required watering nearly every day for over four months.  At harvest, we counted wheat tillers or pea flowers, as well as weighed the biomass on those 3,888, and measured the height on 1,296 of them.  And this is only a side study to the larger field trial I am helping conduct!  All told, we have a massive amount of data to process, but we hope to have a manuscript ready by mid-summer – stay tuned!

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Plowing Forward: Montana Agriculture in a Changing Climate

Agriculture is consistently Montana’s largest economic sector, but as an arid state we need to prepare for the challenges brought on by changing weather patterns.  Yesterday, agricultural producers, scientists, special interest groups, lawmakers, and the general public came together at the Bozeman Public Library to talk about the future of climate change and what it means for people in the agricultural industry and research sector.  The event was organized by Plowing Forward, a collaborative group to coordinate local Ag. education efforts.

“If you’ve eaten today, then you’re involved in agriculture.”  -Chris Christiaens at the Plowing Forward meeting in Bozeman, MT, Feb 10, 2017

Opening remarks were led by Chris Christiaens, lobbyist and Project Specialist for the Montana Farmers Union, based in Great Falls, MT. Chris gave us some perspective on how Montana farming and ranching has changed over time, especially over the last 10 years,including changes to the growing season, harvest times, water usage, the types of plants which are able to survive here.  He reminded us that the effect of climate on agriculture affects all of us.

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Chris Christiaens, Project Specialist for Montana Farmers Union.

Next, we heard from Montana’s Senator Jon Tester, who runs a farm in northern Montana that has been in his family since 1912.  The Senator spoke to his personal experiences with farming and how his management practices had adapted over the years to deal with changing temperature and water conditions.  Importantly, he spoke about how agriculture is a central industry to the United States in ways that will become even more apparent in the coming years as the negative effects of climate change affect more and more areas.  Food security, a peaceful way of life, and economic vitality (not just in Montana or the United States, but globally), were contingent upon supporting agricultural production under adverse events.  He assured agricultural stakeholders that he continues to support production, research, and education, including the work we do in the laboratory as well as out in the field to promote agriculture.

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Montana Senator Jon Tester

Next, we heard from three professors from Montana State University.  Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a Professor of Earth Sciences, who is also the Director for the MSU Institute on Ecosystems, and a Lead Coordinator for the Montana Climate Assessment.  The Montana Climate Assessment seeks to assemble past and current research on Montana climate in order to assess trends, make predictions about the future, and help both researchers and producers to tailor their efforts based on what is happening at the regional level.  The Assessment is scheduled for release in August, 2017, and will allow for faster dissemination of research information online.

Dr. Whitlock’s introduction to the MCA was continued by  Dr. Bruce Maxwell, a Professor of Agroecology, as well as the Agriculture Sector Lead for the Montana Climate Assessment.  He summarized current research on the present water availability in Montana, as well as what we might see in the future.  He warned that drier summers were likely, and while winters may get wetter, if they continue to get warmer that snow runoff will flow into rivers before the ground has thawed.  This means snow melt will flow out of the region more quickly and not be added to local ground water sources for use here.  To paraphrase Bruce, a longer growing season does you no good if you don’t have any water.

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Dr. Bruce Maxwell, Montana State University

We also heard from my current post-doctoral advisor, Dr. Fabian Menalled, Professor of Weed Ecology Management and Cropland Weed Specialist (Extension).  He presented some of the results from our ongoing project at Fort Ellis on the interactions between climate change (hot and dry conditions), farm management system (conventional or organic), disease status, and weed competition on wheat production.  Increased temperatures and decreased moisture reduced wheat production but increased the amount of cheatgrass (downy brome), a weed which competes with wheat and can reduce wheat growth.  My work on the soil bacterial diversity under these conditions didn’t make it into the final presentation, though.  I have only just begun the data analysis, which will take me several months due to the complexity of our treatments, but here is a teaser: we know very little about soil bacteria, and the effects we are seeing are not exactly what we predicted!

Here is the video of Dr. Menalled’s presentation (just under 9 minutes):

Lastly, we heard from a local producer who spoke to his experience with ranching on a farm that had been run continuously for well over 100 years.  His talk reflected the prevailing sentiment of the presentations: that farm practices had changed over the last few decades and people in agriculture were already responding to climate change, even if previously they wouldn’t put a name to it.  The presentations concluded with a question and answer session with the entire panel, as well as a reminder that we all have the right and the obligation to be invested in our food system.  Whether we grow produce or raise livestock for ourselves or others, whether we research these biological interactions, whether we set the policy that affects an entire industry, or whether we are just a consumer, we owe it to ourselves to get involved and make sure our voice is heard.  To that end, I wrote a letter to my legislators (pictured below), and in the next few weeks I’ll be writing posts about how I participate in science (and agriculture) on the local and national level.

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Make your voice heard.

Counting seedlings

Today I went to the MSU Post Farm, one of the several agricultural farms affiliated with MSU Bozeman, along with several other members of the Menalled lab. We were going to count seedlings of the agricultural crop winter wheat, and a competitive weed, cheat grass.

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The plots are left out in the field for ambient rain and temperature conditions, or put into one of two treatments, or both combined, to mimic climate change: increased temperatures and reduced rainfall. This is similar to the project I will be working on, so it’s good job training. And, those study cards that my mentee made me last week really did come in handy!

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