The Advantages of Not Being a Wallflower at Workshops

 Dec 7, 2015    by Clay Tucker

Here in the South Central region of the United States we are confronted with a slough of climate issues. The annual workshop for our regional Climate Science Center (SC CSC) was held this past November in Fort Worth, Texas. Annual workshops are designed to encourage collaboration among scientists and stakeholders within the South Central Climate Science Center. Participants are split into discussion groups where ideas are ironed out and the first steps for a research proposal are started. As a student among many well-respected scientists, I expected to learn as much as possible about the projects happening at Universities across the SC CSC, how to write proposals, and in general learn what it means to ‘do good science’. I expected to mostly listen and speak very little, being an early career at  a meeting with advanced level scientists and experts, but I’m glad that is not what ended up happening.

The South Central region is comprised of a large ecotone divided in part by a precipitation gradient where the western portion is comparatively dry to the eastern portion. Often at LSU, we consider ourselves a part of the southeastern U.S., especially with regard to climate and ecology. At first, I thought that this was a hindrance for providing similarities on which we could form scientific proposals. I could not have been more wrong. As a dendrochronologist and biogeographer, most of the discussion groups I attended at the meeting considered the effects of climate change on complicated and dynamic ecosystems; for example, the importance of indicator species (e.g., cypress swamps in the east and prairie chickens in the west) along the South Central ecotone in understanding the effects of changing precipitation and temperature regimes. The complications of the South Central ecotone offered opportunities for intense collaboration and knowledge sharing about complicated ecological systems.

Cypress Trees in a Louisiana swamp Photo:

Another discussion group I attended sought to link climate, biogeography, and human health. Again, throwing these three topics together was potentially divisive, but we quickly learned that the collective knowledge of everyone at the table could be used to make linkages and connections across the different disciplines. Folks from Texas Tech University and the Chickasaw Nation quickly ironed out some ideas and relevant datasets. I joined with others in our group to discuss climate effects on the ecosystem and geomorphology. It was especially interesting that we had people from each spectrum of the South Central ecotone from New Mexico to Louisiana. It was a wonderful experience.

The final group I attended was a much more narrowly-focused discussion group compared to the prior two. John Zak from Texas Tech has completed numerous studies on soil temperature range (maximum – minimum daily temperature) and how that affects microbial activity in the soil. Victor Rivera-Monroy from LSU added his expertise on wetland biochemistry to our group as well. For the most part, I watched as they furiously diagrammed ideas, while I attempted to add as much knowledge as I could. This discussion group was particularly exciting because as a result, a promise was made to send me additional needed field equipment (soil thermometers) for my study site in Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (GBNERR) in Mississippi. It was incredibly humbling to have such a great experience talking and sharing ideas with these two well-respected scientists.

Though project formation was the goal of these discussion groups, meeting new people in my field of study was also exciting. I was happy to learn that many of the people I met, live and work just down the street from me! One researcher, who works at the USGS Wetlands Center in Lafayette, Louisiana is studying the impacts of hurricanes on trees, which is very similar to a topic area of my Master’s Thesis. Another researcher who works at Louisiana Sea Grant, a building located less than 400 yards from my office on LSU’s campus, is focusing a portion of his work at GBNERR, which also happens to be my research site. It’s a small world…

Large conferences like the American Meteorological Society and Association of American Geographers annual meetings are important for sharing your research with a large audience, getting to know new people, and for adding a line to the CV; however, I found these smaller workshops especially important for not only meeting people, but forming relationships and partnerships. I would recommend that if you are a student and are offered to attend a workshop like this one, to jump on the opportunity! I certainly received great ideas for future research, and I learned what it means to ‘do good science’. In the smaller group setting, I was comfortable and encouraged to speak up and add my thoughts. I met people that will be beneficial to my future research, I formed relationships where I can inform and be informed, and I even went home with a research project to do.

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Nice writeup! That last paragraph about learning how to engage with "advanced level scientists and experts" is huge. As an undergrad I always thought networking meant, like, business cards or something, yeah?

Networking is really just a form of socializing in a professional setting. Meet people, look for common interests. You'll always have a few aloof or downright hostile encounters, but by and large most folks tend to be friendly to newcomers if you approach respectfully and with an open mind.

And seriously, it is OKAY to talk up and ask questions. That's how we learn, and honestly some of the old guard could stand to learn a thing or two from us up-and-comers. I recently commented to a high-level NatureServe employee that her use of the ambiguous term scale was troublesome and she appreciated it (I will say, be certain you know what you're talking about but don't be afraid to defend it).

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The lesser prairie chicken of Oklahoma and Texas. Photo: USGS