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Behind the science: The value of diversity is not new to conservation biologists: Applying this concept to our scientific community might be. 

About the authors:


Norah Saarman attended ConGen as a student in 2017 and as an instructor in 2019 while a postdoc at Yale University. She is currently an assistant professor at Utah State University in the Biology Department and Ecology Center. Keep up with Norah’s research.





Amanda Ackiss attended ConGen 2019 while a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. She is currently using genomics to inform the conservation and restoration of ciscoes in the Laurentian Great Lakes. Follow Amanda for fishes, coregonine genomics, and wayward nonsense on Twitter.




In the latest issue of the Journal of Heredity, instructors and participants of the annual ConGen workshop write that the future success of conservation genetics requires both continual training in handling big data and a diverse group of people and approaches to tackle key issues including the global biodiversity-loss crisis (Schweizer et al. 2021). We reflect on the immense value of in-person networking and training, then consider the juxtaposed challenges of inclusion and accessibility inherent in these interactions. As we catch our breath from the sudden need in 2020 to adapt our established behaviors to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID-19, we find ourselves at a crossroads. How can we re-establish in-person programs without losing what was gained with remote learning in terms of inclusivity and accessibility?

Organizers, lecturers, and participants of the 2019 ConGen Workshop at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. Photo credit: Rachel Malison

There is nothing like a year of social-distancing, cancelled workshops, virtual conferences, and telework to bring into startling clarity the value of in-person learning and networking. Does anyone else find themselves attending a virtual conference from their home office while also attempting to work a normal telework schedule? When everything is remote, the boundaries easily blur between what we want to focus on versus what begs for our attention the loudest in the moment (whether on another browser window, on a separate device, or in our real-world surroundings). In-person workshops and conferences typically help solidify that boundary with physical distance. Indeed, a big draw of the ConGen Workshop is a dedicated week at Flathead Lake Biological Station to focus and learn in-person from leaders in the field of conservation genetics. It can be daunting as a student or early career scientist to meet researchers whose work has been foundational to a scientific discipline. But, having the opportunity at ConGen 2019 to see Gordon Luikart excitedly drop down to poke through scat and point out grizzly bear scratching trees on a hike during downtime causes the realization that these scientists share the same enthusiasm for the natural world that drives you to set a 3 am alarm while on vacation to visit a fish market or scoop poop as part of your day job, and reminds you that no matter what stage of your career you are at, you are part of a community.

Gordon Luikart examines wolf scat on a wooded trail as he leads a hike near the Flathead Lake Biological Station for ConGen 2019 participants, one of two opportunities offered to participants to ‘switch off’ after several days of hands-on bioinformatic sessions. Photo credit: Amanda Ackiss

Ensuring that this community is healthy, like the ecological communities we study, relies heavily on nurturing and supporting diversity. Diversity in the context of a scientific community crosses a number of axes including varied expertise and life experiences. Conservation genetics is a rapidly evolving field that has been heavily impacted by the technology revolution, and conservation geneticists would be quick to agree that meetings like ConGen that bring together experts with a variety of skill sets help provide the necessary training to stay up-to-date in the field. More nuanced and perhaps less appreciated are the benefits of bringing together a diversity of life experiences.

Translating scientific findings into actionable goals that are realistic within the culture and practice of a place is extremely difficult, but can make all the difference in the success of a conservation effort. My (Amanda’s) graduate research was based in the Philippines, and while I was there I had the good fortune to work with some of the top coral reef and fisheries biologists in the country. The Philippines is an island archipelago within the Coral Triangle, the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity and a region severely threatened by climate change, ocean acidification, and growing human populations. During this collaboration, I was able to observe the community-based approach scientists in this region commonly used to initiate conservation action. This focused engagement at the local government unit is one of the reasons that the Philippines hosts the largest number of managed marine protected areas in the Coral Triangle (MPAtlas), and conservation scientists are continually assessing the effectiveness of these and other approaches to preserving their reefs and resources for future generations (e.g., Aurellado et al. 2021). In North America, multi-level community engagement has led to similar successful outcomes. In the mountain west, for example, the conservation agency Flora and Fauna International has found that engaging with a community can mean the difference between frequent wolf poisonings or the celebration of wolves as a symbol of freedom and beauty. The result? A healthy wolf population and a restored ecosystem. Cultivating a community comprised of diverse life experiences not just in the planning and execution of conservation efforts, but at every level conservation science including training the newest generation of scientists, can aid in developing sustainable and long-lasting solutions. Calls for the incorporation of western and indigenous science in conservation genomics and resource management (e.g. The Fisheries Blog; FISHES) are a promising way to continue nurturing such solutions here in North America.

Lead author Rena Schweizer leads a session on target capture and exploring potential effects of variants on genes and regulatory sequences during ConGen 2019. Photo credit: Amanda Ackiss

As we become increasingly aware of the value of diversity in creative problem solving, it is important to take note of where we are as a field of science, and where we want to go. The review article notes that gains have been made in gender, especially in the numbers of instructors at ConGen that identify as female (Figure 3A; Schweizer et al. 2021). This shift was not likely accidental. We stand witness to directed efforts by ConGen leadership to initiate uncomfortable conversations about gender and science, and clear efforts to provide support. When I (Norah) was an instructor at ConGen, I started my days by nursing my four-month-old infant, fumbling with bottles, pumps, and ice-packs to ensure she had enough milk to last the day, and handing her over to my partner with a kiss and a “see you at dinner”! But, gains in other axes of diversity such as race and ethnicity remain a murkier issue. Without adequate data on past and present race, ethnicity, and disability status of ConGen students and instructors, it is difficult to answer what systemic barriers remain stubbornly in place. A first step is to begin collecting and reporting this data, as well as to open a conversation on what barriers (big and small) remain for accessibility — Is it funds for travel? Computers? Childcare? Armed with these data, we can then focus aid and problem-solving efforts in the areas of greatest need.

Figure 3A from Schweizer et al. 2021. Data on participation of self-identifying female instructors for 9 years of ConGen workshops.

Whether you are clinging to your mask like a comfort blanket (ahem) or ripping it gleefully from your face as you and your loved ones reach fully-vaccinated status, the turning tide in the pandemic looks to be on the horizon. As we wade back into normalcy, we are uniquely positioned to bring with us changes that foster increased inclusivity, especially those changes that make workshops, conferences, and other shared learning and networking experiences accessible to people with limited mobility (physical or situational). The simple act of writing this blog has already started new conversations among ConGen organizers to assess how additional changes can lead to better representation. Let’s take this opportunity to refocus our efforts to balance the immense value that comes with in-person networking with the myriad of possibilities of remote virtual platforms and ensure that we are nurturing the diversity within our scientific communities that will enhance our effectiveness in promoting diversity in the natural communities that inspire our work.



Aurellado, M. E. B., Ticzon, V. S., Nañola, C. L., Cabansag, J. B. P., Bacabac, M. M. A., Sorgon, K. E. S., … & Hilomen, V. V. (2021). Effectiveness of Philippine Nationally Managed Marine Reserves in Improving Biomass and Trophic Structure of Coral Reef Fish Communities. Coastal Management, 49(3), 293-312.

Schweizer, R. M., Saarman, N., Ramstad, K. M., Forester, B. R., Kelley, J. L., Hand, B. K., … & Luikart, G. (2021). Big data in conservation genomics: boosting skills, hedging bets, and staying current in the field. Journal of Heredity.

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