About the Blog Author: Emily Cavill is a PhD fellow in the Gilbert Research Group at the GLOBE Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her PhD focuses on hologenomics in the context of applied conservation for the Seychelles Magpie Robins, while her research interests include many topics surrounding conservation of endangered species, mostly genomics but also encompassing on-the-ground conservation and genetics for a more holistic approach to conservation. Her wider research involves lots of different winged species (and a couple without wings) where she works with modern samples: blood, skin swabs, and poop, as well as historic specimens donated for research from museums across the world, to answer questions in conservation and evolutionary biology. Follow her on Twitter at @birdiestofnerds.
I cannot even begin to fathom the amount of extra work that went into making this meeting happen, so seamlessly, in person in Utah and virtually across the world. Organizing anything during this pandemic has been challenging, and it was nice to feel the humor in the hiccups from both the speakers and the audience. I imagine over the coming years more and more of these events are going to be in a hybrid format, due to COVID but also due to the wider accessibility (now we’re all used to it!). I guess my own experience of this format was that – given I’ve been had to watch on-screen characters so much over the last 18 months – when we Zoom in my body tries to zone out. This was especially challenging on the second day with a back-to-back recorded presentation session. But it just requires a little more focus to keep the momentum going, and I’m so glad the Zoom speakers were still able to share their research with us.
Queens of the conservation genomics age
I work in a very male-dominated environment, so I found hearing these influential women, all in different stages of their careers, talking about all of the ways in which they have shaped the world, particularly inspiring. A strong start to the whole event with Lisette Waits talking about the vast subjects and reach of her work and the work of her research group throughout her career and really set the stage for the rest of the conference. Followed in the afternoon by an especially powerful part of this conference, for me, which was the genomic monitoring and genetic rescue section. It is so refreshing, and reassuring, to have women role models carrying out work that I dream to. So, Avril Harder (@AvrilMHarder), Brenna Forester (@BrennaRForester), Lara Urban (@LaraUrban42), Mariah Meek (@mhmeek), and Sarah Fitzpatrick (@SarahFitz) – thank you so much, both for the work you do and for sharing it with us.
Traveling in the pandemic pandemonium
My PhD started at pretty much the same time as the pandemic, so I spent my first month in complete lockdown in Denmark. Of course, like the rest of us, any conferences I have attended up until now have been online. No matter how interesting someone’s research is, staring at the screen watching these videos for 3 consecutive days is hard to focus on, and it’s easy to get distracted with other work tasks. This, coupled with the fact this was my first opportunity to share my own work with like-minded researchers, is why it was so important to me to attend this conference in person, to surround myself with other researchers in conservation genomics, to be inspired. It wasn’t easy to get here, as I couldn’t enter the US directly, so had to ‘quarantine’ in Mexico. My ESTA was revoked. US-approved COVID tests proved hard to get without speaking any Spanish. It was so hard to get to Utah. But once I was sat in that conference room, it was worth every second of drama.
Walking in a winter wonderland
What more perfect place is there to hold a conference than in a Winter wonderland?! Apparent from the name and the fact this is a ski resort, Snowbird expects snow, but this year it was a little early and for me that feels like a blessing. I grew up in the UK and live in Denmark. We tend to have an inch of snow that generally turns to slush before it can even settle. Walking around snowbird after the first day I felt like I was walking like an astronaut, taking these huge steps with my feet sinking in the inches and inches of settled snow! The backdrop of these gorgeous mountains and huge falling snowflakes against the speakers was mesmerizing. We could have probably had done with a cozy fire inside, for perfection!
The power of the poster
I had put my name down for a chance to be selected as one of the speakers. I was a little disappointed when I wasn’t chosen, but being part of the poster session was a real privilege too. I hadn’t ever presented my work before – in any capacity – and this was such an exciting opportunity to do so. The poster session hours were chaotic, so many people in such a small space talking about their work, having to shout to be heard, and asking questions, but amidst the chaos it was super exciting to be able to have the chance to talk to so many fellow researchers (and PhD students!) and to have the opportunity to share my research with others! This was definitely the least COVID-friendly event of the meeting since there was no way of not stepping on each other’s toes, but masks and mandatory vaccines made me feel safe enough.
We all read papers, but actually hearing the people who are working on these projects talk with such passion about what they are doing, and being able to ask questions to a human being, to be able to delve deeper into the used or the aim for application, or whatever aspect interests you the most, is such a privilege. List the particularly world-changing conservation actions. Shaping policy, changing law, making a real difference for our planet’s biodiversity. From identifying a single protein responsible for disease and studying a species’ susceptibility to it, to sequencing genomes of every species in a state – every single person attending this conference demonstrated so perfectly the current applications and future directions of conservation genomics.
The amazing AGA
Not only did I learn more about conservation genomics through speakers and posters, but through speaking with the managers/editors/team and listening (well, also eavesdropping) around the event, I learned more about the AGA and Heredity. I learned about how the association tries to make its resources available to students who might not have a lot of funding, I learned about connectivity, inclusiveness, and I learned how much the AGA team really care about scientific research and those who produce it. Another reason I signed up to present at this conference is because it was described as ‘friendly’, and well, it really was! For months, Anjanette Baker was exceptionally responsive and helpful, even before I signed up for the symposium, right through to my arrival where she welcomed me so warmly – I felt like I was the only person attending alone, and she really made me feel like I wasn’t.
Adapt and overcome
Studying adaptive variation and potential is arguably one of the biggest conservation focuses given the anthropogenic impact on habitat and climate, and how this should be considered from a conservation perspective. Hearing Nathaniel Edelman, Sarah Davies, Sally Aitken (@SallyNAitken), and Shane Campbell-Staton (@SCampbellstaton) talk about such exciting and important research into adaptive variation and how it can be applied in conservation, and actually even further than the featured speakers for this topic, because everything kind of overlaps in some way: adaptation, adaptive potential, and risk of extinction is something we will all come up against, (particularly in this fast-changing climate/environment) when working in conservation genomics. insightful topics that I have only just began to scratch the surface of in my own research which have enlightened me to all of the possibilities that lay ahead of me.
From flora to fauna
The most exciting thing about this conference was the diversity in backgrounds, species, methods, career position, and then covering 4 topics spanning different aspects of conservation genomics. Of course, I try to keep my eye out for ‘applied conservation genomics for endangered birds that live on islands’ but that’s a little too specific, and it is natural to wonder whether the talks about plants are going to be relevant to you. But oh, my goodness, I was watching Sally Aitken talk about conifers and thinking ‘wow, these methods are so applicable to the bird that I’m studying’ and taking away so many great ideas. And of course, it is always super interesting to branch out (pun absolutely intended) and see what else is happening in this world, outside of one’s own research bubble.
“Two years of ideas”
I remember, maybe half way through the second day, feeling so overwhelmed with all of this new information and having so many thoughts about how each of these things could be applied to my own research, and thinking maybe this is because I’m early in my career, and have so much to learn… But then I overheard someone say ‘the great thing about intense conferences like this is that you leave it with 2 years of ideas for your own research’ and I thought ‘wow, at least’. I have taken so many new ideas away from this, the desire to diverge a little away from only studying the aspect of this I know so well, I have taken inspiration for my own work, as well as having a chance to help others who saw what I was doing and wanted to apply it to their own research. I have taken inspiration for my PhD and beyond, enthusiasm for potential collaborations, and gained confidence to ask questions.