Darryl McLennan reports back from this year’s Society of Experimental Biology Annual Meeting in Florence, Italy.

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Photograph by Simon Callaghan

Every summer, experimental biologists from around the world congregate – usually in one of Europe’s many tourist hotspots – for the annual Society of Experimental Biology (SEB) meeting. I refer to the touristic hotspots because the SEB has a fine skill of selecting host cities that can sway even the most fence sitting of undecided conference attenders.

Historically, the SEB meetings were regularly held in Glasgow. However, this is something they have since moved away from, apparently due to the lower number of attendees at those meetings. While Glasgow has been my beloved home for the last six years, I can also appreciate that the dreary weather and deep fried pizzas take more than a four-day meeting to come to know and love. At least in comparison to the 35-degree weather and the non-deep fried pizzas that were on offer at this year’s meeting in Florence.

Broad science

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Photograph by Simon Callaghan

I have attended the SEB meetings for the last four years. In comparison to other more focussed scientific meetings that I attend, the extremely broad range of biological research at the SEB meeting has always come as a welcome alternative. Most topics are fair game, though usually experimentation based; from measuring hormones in exhaled whale breath, to explaining how sting winkles respond to temperature.

This year’s official SEB catchphrase was “Masters of Biology”, perhaps based on the great Masters of Italian Art, or alternatively and more light-heartedly, the Dustin Hoffman television show Masters of Florence. An earlier incarnation of this catchphrase was “Get a Pizza the Action”, which tickled a pun-lover such as myself, though mostly just confused Luca Peruzza and Stefano Marras; two Italian friends that I had met at my first SEB meeting and have enjoyed catching up with annually ever since.

 

Social Science

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Photograph by Simon Callaghan

Now that I mention SEB friends, the society strongly encourages the building of relationships between fellow biologists, and is quite successful in doing so. The notorious and always-popular SEB Wine Trail was absent at this year’s meeting; however, there were many other social opportunities for catching up with old friends, in addition to making new ones.

 

Navigating the conference

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Photograph by Simon Callaghan.

Concerning the actual science, the sessions at this meeting are divided into one of four sections – Animal, Plant, Cell and SEB+, with the latter involving topics about the teaching, learning and communication of biology. Being an early career fish ecophysiologist myself, I mainly focused on the animal section at this year’s meeting.

I still do not know how best to manoeuvre myself at larger scientific meetings such as these. Is it best to stick with one session for an entire day? Should I take breaks when tired or plough through? Should I have gone to those bars after the wine trail? At previous meetings, I have spent much of my time flitting between rooms, trying to catch the majority of talks that have caught my eye in the programme. However, this was less possible at this year meeting, since the conference rooms were more spread out, and across two buildings. Somewhat optimistically, I did attempt my old routine on the first day of this year’s meeting, though after running up three flights of stairs, then across the courtyard in 35-degree heat, then up another three flights of stairs for the 20th time, I conceded that my old routine just was not going to cut it in Florence. Instead, I based myself in particular sessions for the morning and afternoon of each day. One obvious downside to this is that I ended up missing talks that I would have ideally liked to attend. However, I can also now see the advantages of focussing on one particular session.

Less stress

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Photograph by Simon CallaghanF

For starters, focussing on a whole session was certainly more relaxing. I was able to focus more on the talks within that session, instead of wasting my energy clock watching and worrying about when best to flit. It also exposed me to talks that I would have otherwise not attended. One afternoon I based myself in the Open Animal Biology session and there was one particular talk about the generation of 3D maps using episcopic microscopy, which blew my already caffeine-fuelled mind. I would have likely missed such a talk in my old SEB routine, since there were talks that were ‘more relevant’ in other sessions.

I enjoyed many other sessions throughout the week. For example, one session focused on the Pace of Life Syndrome hypothesis, or in other words, do individuals that live fast also die young? Some of the talks found no support for such a hypothesis, while other studies did. For example, there was an interesting talk about a garter snake population that had a “fast” and “slow” ecotype. The “fast” snakes were indeed more active and invested much more in reproduction, but all at the cost of having a shorter life. The rock ‘n’ roll ecotype, perhaps.

I also very much enjoyed the Advances in Non-Invasive Monitoring of Stress session. The use of non-invasive sampling is something that I regularly consider in my own research, as I am sure most other animal biologists do. Not only is it of the utmost importance in an animal welfare context, but also has many implications for experimental design i.e. by allowing repeated measures. A common theme in this session was the possibility of measuring stress in aquatic organisms (e.g. fish and amphibians) by quantifying stress hormone levels in the surrounding water. A number of presentations had successfully applied this technique, suggesting that this may soon become the golden standard method for stress measurement in aquatic species.

More from mitochondria?

Attendee looking at a poster during SEB 2018's poster session
Photograph by Simon Callaghan

Over the years, the SEB meetings have also been good at identifying the current hot topics within the field. At this year’s meeting, there were two separate sessions on mitochondria, unsurprisingly confirming that this is currently an area of much research activity. While the two sessions focussed on different aspects of mitochondrial biology, both sessions discussed how environmental factors affect mitochondrial functioning, and how this may affect individuals as a whole. Therefore, in the context of global change, it is likely that mitochondrial research will deservedly continue to be a prominent presence at these meetings in the coming years.

 

See you next year?

SEB's Conference Dinner. Photo by Simon Callaghan.
SEB’s Conference Dinner. Photograph by Simon Callaghan

The SEB meetings are always closed by the Conference Dinner, allowing everyone to unwind after four days of scientific sessions, as well the chance to say ‘see you next year’ to all the SEB friends, old and new. This year was somewhat bittersweet for me, since I will be moving into a slightly different field of biology in the coming year, meaning that my ‘see you next year’ was less certain. However, I certainly hope to return to the SEB meetings as soon as I can. Who knows, the next SEB meeting I attend might even take me back to Glasgow. That being the case, I look forward to getting a deep fried pizza the action.

Next year’s SEB conference will be on the 2nd-5th July 2019, in Seville, Spain. Thank you to Simon Callaghan for use of the photos.

 

Missed the conference? Try these papers below:

Non‐invasive physiological markers demonstrate link between habitat quality, adult sex ratio and poor population growth rate in a vulnerable species, the Cape mountain zebra – Jessica M. D. Lea, Susan L. Walker, Graham I. H. Kerley John Jackson, Shelby C. Matevich, Susanne Shultz

Quantifying hormones in exhaled breath for physiological assessment of large whales at sea – Elizabeth A. Burgess, Kathleen E. Hunt, Scott D. Kraus & Rosalind M. Rolland

Considering aspects of the 3Rs principles within experimental animal biology – Lynne U. Sneddon, Lewis G. Halsey, Nic R. Bury

Shorter juvenile telomere length is associated with higher survival to spawning in migratory Atlantic salmon – Darryl McLennan, John D. Armstrong, David C. Stewart, Simon Mckelvey, Winnie Boner, Pat Monaghan & Neil B. Metcalfe

 

Decreased mitochondrial metabolic requirements in fasting animals carry an oxidative cost – Karine Salin, Eugenia M. Villasevil, Graeme J. Anderson, Sonya K. Auer, Colin Selman, Richard C. Hartley, William Mullen, Christos Chinopoulos & Neil B. Metcalfe

Integrating behaviour into the pace-of-life continuum: Divergent levels of activity and information gathering in fast- and slow-living snakes – Eric J. Gangloff, Melinda Chow, Vianey Leos-Barajas, Stephanie Hynes, Brooke Hobbs, Amanda M. Sparkman

City life on fast lanes: urbanization induces an evolutionary shift towards a faster life style in the water flea Daphnia– Kristien I. Brans & Luc De Meester