ESA 2018: A biogeochemist’s first ESA

by Avni Malhotra

MalhotraI am not sure why, but until this year, I had not attended the Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. I suspect that some subconscious sense of loyalty to the American Geophysical Union was at play. In any case, excited by my passion for ecology and love of New Orleans, I headed to the 2018 ESA meeting. As soon as I entered the conference center, I noticed a high incidence of plant- and fungi-based tattoo art- I knew I was among friends!

Ecology from the sky

mississippi river
Mississippi river, near the conference center

On the first day of the conference, David Schimel’s keynote started off my meeting with the right tone. He began by highlighting his own imposter syndrome for being at an ecology conference, but proceeded to seamlessly tie functional trait ecology to remotely-sensed Earth system observations. It was inspiring to hear his perspective that we have a long way to go before we understand and fully capture functional trait diversity in ecosystems and link in situ measurements to remotely sensed proxies. He also highlighted the geographical mismatch between locations where the most in situ trait data are collected (temperate zones) and where the maximum trait diversity exists (tropics). Addressing these knowledge gaps is crucial to understand the biosphere’s role in mediating increased carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Shining light on the black box

After ecology from the sky, I headed to where I feel most at ease: belowground. The session on demystifying paradigms of soil organic matter (SOM) formation was part crash course in SOM dynamics and part paving the way forward in the exciting and rapidly advancing field of soil microbial ecology. The speaker line-up was excellent and included several rockstar women scientists! One of the key take-home messages was that not only is soil carbon root carbon (as highlighted by several recent papers), but it is also microbial carbon. Microbial trait and soil carbon linkages are the next frontier for soil ecology and we are only starting to unravel these linkages with omics-based approaches. I echo the sentiment that Deborah Neher expressed in her ESA Soil Ecology Career Award speech: we are beginning to shine light on the black box!

Big data

Big (trait) data: Colleen Iversen describes the Fine-root Ecology Database (FRED) in a session on plant-soil interactions under climate change.
Big (trait) data: Colleen Iversen describes the Fine-root Ecology Database (FRED) in a session on plant-soil interactions under climate change.

Several sessions touched upon big data in ecology in one way or the other. On the one hand, speakers shared worries regarding long tails of ecological data and provided insights on navigating the human component in open science. On the other hand, applications of open-source trait databases like FRED and TRY highlighted why synthesizing big and open data is worth the effort! Remote sensing sessions had applications of ‘really big data’, to link ecosystem structure and function. I also enjoyed the session on effects of rising CO2 on ecosystems, where a range of long-term datasets and experiments were discussed including data from 25 years of FACE experiments and lessons learned.


NOLA colours
NOLA colors

I was heartened to see numerous sessions addressing diversity, issues related to women in science and harassment in science. Sessions included a Diversity forum and 500 Women Scientist discussion. On diversity, ESA recently faced member concerns regarding diversity and inclusion at the next ESA meeting location. The main concern was that LGBTQ+ and other members would not feel safe travelling to Louisville due to exclusionary laws such as SB17 in the state of Kentucky. In the end, the ESA leadership had to make a difficult decision and were unable to change the location of the 2019 meeting. Undoubtedly, this decision will further charge the ESA community to focus on diversity issues in ESA2019 sessions.

Abrupt ecological change in the future

I ended my conference with a session on abrupt changes in ecology, which brought together several of the conference themes into a big-picture and global change context. Are abrupt ecosystem changes becoming more common? What abrupt changes will characterize future ecosystems? How do socio-economic interactions co-create abrupt changes? These were some of the burning future questions put forth for the community by Steve Carpenter after the session summarized cross-cutting concepts from abrupt changes in a range of ecosystems.

Nola makes for unique networking

Conference fuel- beignets (sugar to scale)
Conference fuel- beignets (sugar to scale)

The setting of a conference has a big impact on the day-to-day experience and networking. Rapidly becoming my favorite American city (aided by back-to-back AGU and ESA), New Orleans is unlike any other place I have ever been to. Where else can you ‘network’ effectively while silently taking in cocktails and incredible music on Frenchmen street until the wee hours of the morning? It was also easy to bond with colleagues and new friends over exceptional New Orleans food. I made it a point to indulge in a beignet or three (minimum unit of beignet) to fuel my conference energy almost everyday. In the end, both the size of ESA and the friendliness of Nola made for great networking and an ideal conference environment. I look forward to my next ESA!

Missed the conference? Catch up some reading here:

Root carbon is soil carbon:

Robert B. Jackson, Kate Lajtha, Susan E. Crow, Gustaf Hugelius, Marc G. Kramer, Gervasio Piñeiro (2017), The Ecology of Soil Carbon: Pools, Vulnerabilities, and Biotic and Abiotic Controls, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 2017 48:1, 419-445

Sokol, N. W., Kuebbing, S. E., Karlsen‐Ayala, E. and Bradford, M. A. (2018), Evidence for the primacy of living root inputs, not root or shoot litter, in forming soil organic carbon. New Phytol. . doi:10.1111/nph.15361

Trait open source data:

Iversen, C. M., McCormack, M. L., Powell, A. S., Blackwood, C. B., Freschet, G. T., Kattge, J. , Roumet, C. , Stover, D. B., Soudzilovskaia, N. A., Valverde‐Barrantes, O. J., Bodegom, P. M. and Violle, C. (2017), A global Fine‐Root Ecology Database to address below‐ground challenges in plant ecology. New Phytol, 215: 15-26. doi:10.1111/nph.14486

and its applications:

Butler, EE, Datta, A, Flores-moreno, H, Cheng, M, Wythers, KR, Fazayeli, F, Banerjee, A, Atkin, OK, Kattge, J, Amiaud, B, Blonder, B, Boenisch, G, Bond-Lamberty, B, Brown, KA, Byun, C, Campetella, G, Cerabolini, BEL, Cornelissen, JHC, Craine, JM, Craven, D, de Vries, F, Diaz, S, Domingues, T, Forey, S, Gonzalez, A, Gross, N, Han, W, Hattingh, WN, Hickler, T, Jansen, S, Kramer, K, Kraft, NJB, Kurokawa, H, Laughlin, DC, Meir, P, Minden, V, Niinemets, Ü, Onoda, Y, Penuelas, J, Read, Q, Ros, FV, Sack, L, Schamp, B, Soudzilovskaia, NA, Spasojevic, MJ, Sosinski, E, Thornton, P, van Bodegom, PM, Williams, M, Wirth, C & Reich, PB 2017, ‘Mapping local and global variability in plant trait distributionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1708984114

Abrupt ecological changes:

Ratajczak, Zak & Carpenter, Stephen & Ives, Anthony & Kucharik, Christopher & Ramiadantsoa, Tanjona & Stegner, M & W. Williams, John & Zhang, Jien & Turner, Monica. (2018). Abrupt Change in Ecological Systems: Inference and Diagnosis. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 33. 10.1016/j.tree.2018.04.013.

And from the BES…

A recent Methods in Ecology & Evolution Special Feature: Improving biodiversity monitoring using satellite remote sensing

Recent paper from Functional ecology: Soil microbes promote complementarity effects among co‐existing trees through soil nitrogen partitioning

And a report from the Ecology of Soil Microorganisms conference in Helsinki:


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