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Conservation genetics training in a virtual world: a reflection on ConGen 2021

About the blog authors: Annie Guillaume is a PhD candidate working in the Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG) at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. She is interested in using genomic data to pursue conservation outcomes. During her PhD with Dr Stéphane Joost, she is using species distribution models and landscape genomic models to investigate the spatial scale of local adaptation in alpine plants and coral. Following her undergraduate studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, she worked as a research assistant in Australian and Swiss lab groups, investigating questions relating to marine evolutionary ecology, network ecology of parasitoid insects, and lake fish development. Follow her on Twitter at @annie_guillaume.

Lauren Schiebelhut is a Project Scientist at the University of California, Merced (USA). As an evolutionary ecologist she’s interested in studying how marine species’ traits, demography, and microevolutionary mechanisms together shape the spatial and temporal distribution of genomic diversity. She is particularly interested in using multi-year ecological and genetic monitoring to capture species’ short-term evolutionary responses to ecological and environmental change and better mitigate anthropogenic impacts through genetically informed conservation actions. Learn more about her at or follow her on Twitter @LMSchiebelhut.







Over the past two years, we have all had to adapt to a “new normal”: spontaneous in-person coffee breaks have become scheduled zoom calls, procrastination is Googling home-office desk chairs, and annual scientific conferences and workshops are now all held over Zoom.

The annual ConGen course held in 2021 shared the same remote fate. The course—usually held in-person at Flathead Lake Biological Station in Montana, USA—was again moved online for the second year in a row (Figure 1). Despite initial disappointments at missing an opportunity to mingle directly with leaders in the field of conservation biology and population genetics (and to visit a cool research station), the benefits of an online course eclipsed the drawbacks such that the course became more inclusive and accessible globally. This has important consequences for the future of biodiversity conservation and management.

Figure 1: ConGen was again virtual in 2021. (Photo by A. Guillaume)

Since it began in 2006, the goal of ConGen has been to provide the next generation of population genetic researchers with conceptual and applied training necessary to successfully undertake conservation genetic research programs using big data (discussed in the ConGen 2019 review by Schweizer et al. 2021). As in past years, ConGen 2021 focused on the theoretical basis of commonly-used statistics, including coalescent theory, Bayesian and likelihood-based approaches, as well as how to appropriately acquire, filter, and apply next-generation sequencing data to achieve conservation goals. Themes included choosing the correct marker for studies, assembling genomes, detecting signatures of selection, identifying conservation units, and communicating findings with managers and decision-makers. Hands-on activities using R, Linux and simulation software complemented lectures. This time though, ConGen spanned two weeks and was supplemented with pre-course reading materials, video tutorials, and an introduction to command line and BASH. This slight shift gave attendees time to digest information and avoid the inevitable Zoom fatigue.

A unique advantage to moving online was that ConGen 2021 became more accessible for researchers globally, leading to more diversity in attendees and instructors. ConGen 2021 hosted 40 students from 15 countries across North America, Europe, Australasia and the Middle East—one of the most diverse workshops to date (Figure 4, Schweizer et al. 2021). Feedback from participants in Europe and Australasia indicated that the remote offering allowed them to attend the course, which they would not have otherwise due to family and work commitments, limited funding or environmental considerations. Recorded lectures and hands-on tutorials increased flexibility in following along, while the use of a virtual server helped level the playing field for students without access to computational resources.

Over the coming decades, international collaborations will be key to coordinating and managing biodiversity and mitigating the effects of anthropogenic-induced environmental changes globally, particularly in developing countries. Though the pandemic has isolated us in many ways, the online format of ConGen 2021 has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to bring together conservation researchers from around the world who otherwise might not have been able to participate, which will only help to further advance our field and make training accessible to researchers and managers globally.



Schweizer RM, Saarman N, Ramstad KM, Forester BR, Kelley JL, Hand BK, Malison RL, Ackiss AS, Watsa M, Nelson TC, Beja-Pereira A, Waples RS, Funk WC, Luikart C (2021) Big Data in Conservation Genomics: Boosting Skills, Hedging Bets, and Staying Current in the Field. Journal of Heredity. 112: 313–327.

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