Belated Musings From My First Conference

My experience at the 2016 International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu was overwhelmingly, and a little surprisingly, wonderful!

This post will not be a thorough recap of the ICRS conference, rather it will be a wrap-up of the whole experience through the eyes of a newbie researcher and first-time conference goer, me. Admittedly, I have been a little slow to post this. For more detailed summaries of the conference proceedings check out these great blog posts by fellow attendees Chris Brown, Maarten de Brauwer and Megan Barnes. Also, of a typically unrelenting scientist nature, Kirsty Nash provided an incredible summary of all the twitter action at the conference. Turns out we really like our tweets, and we’re also quite positive. #OceanOptimism

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Ala Wai Canal, and the Hawaii Convention Centre in the right foreground.

The official theme of the conference was ‘Bridging Science to Policy’, to tackle the age-old conundrum of combining the powers of science, management, policy and community to deal with environmental and human issues. The unofficial theme of the conference was something along the lines of: ‘Coral reefs are in serious trouble, lets get to work, together’.

As previously mentioned, such a dense aggregation of coral reef scientists only happens once every four years, and in 2016 it could not have come at a more critical time. ICRS brought together all ranks of scientists and acted as a central point of discussion from which we have left with a greater understanding not only of the current problems, but more importantly, the network of solutions that we can use to solve these problems.

ICRS was my first conference, and I was starting with a big one, so in the weeks leading up to the event I asked everyone I could about what to expect and how to get the most out of the experience. The most common response (including that of my supervisor) was ‘just have fun’. Nothing else, no frills, no expectations. Just have fun. While I was pleased that there were no other instructions, it made me ever so slightly anxious that the ‘easy’ thing that my supervisor was suggesting I do is something I’m actually not very good at, socialising.

The unofficial theme of the conference was ‘Coral reefs are in serious trouble, so lets get to work… together’

I quickly found out that my lingering social anxiety was unwarranted. The conference informally began on a balmy Sunday evening, with a social event on the roof of the conference centre. The rooftop terrace filled slowly, people adorned with their recently collected conference name tags looking around for famililar faces. Surveying the crowd, my perception of the event was of old friends reconnecting, of formal introductions between distance acquaintances and of friendly exchanges between strangers.

Seeing so many happy scientists in one place was an unusual phenomenon. The mood was infectious. Not everyone would have seen this through my rose-tinted glasses, but I just chose to let myself be swept up in the positive atmosphere. It was my first conference after all, so I had no standard with which the expensive drinks and meagre food could be compared.

Whether it was coincidence or not I will never know, but somehow that first evening, I managed to be introduced to two of the few non-coral reef people at the conference. An anthropology student studying coral reef ecologists and conservation, and an airline pilot studying aerial incident avoidence and presenting a talk on how his recent research could be applied to the shipping industry. Both of their perspectives on the current state of coral reef research were unexpected and refreshing.

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Any grumbles became irrelevant with a morning view like this.

In return for my social media services for @CoralCoE I was provided with a media pass. I was giddy with the prospect of daily press conferences, meeting science journalists and experiencing a different side to the conference. Given the urgency of the problems facing coral reefs, I had expected the conference to be buzzing with local and international media. It was a great disappointment to discover that not only was the media contigent scarce, but that no effort had been made by organisers to alert the global media to this event. This insight came from the conference media officer, who was hired a whopping four days before the conference.

In the end, positivity won out over all our sad stories of sick reefs.

Only a couple of months ago I was seriously considering missing the conference. Now, a month after the conference, I feel so profoundly grateful to the people who gently nudged me towards attending. Within hours of the conference starting I had met new people, many of whom offerred fascinating perspectives on the conference, coral reef scientists, and indeed my current choice of career path.

I met a freelance science writer and a communications manager who spoke about the importance of accurate and interesting science communication. Throughout the conference scientists and communication pros alike emphasised the value of engaging people from all walks of life, of all ages and across all forms of media. A key message emanating out of the media room was the need to embrace this digital age, and harness its power to the advantage of scientists, and in turn, coral reefs themselves.

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Scientists from NOAA talk to the scant media about the current global bleaching event.

It may seem strange to some, but scientists absolutely love social media. In particular Twitter. People sometimes recoil when I say I use, and enjoy Twitter. It’s an incredible platform on which we can make our research accessible to others, interact with other scientists all over the world and share important information. It’s at conferences, however, where Twitter really shines. At ICRS many people spent their time tweeting the key points from presentations, and then during the short intervals ravenously trawling twitter to catch up on concurrent presentations they missed. This was my life in Hawaii. Live tweeting from conferences is so hot right now.

While I didn’t leave the conference with any tangible successes – no job offers or internship placements – the overall experience was energising. ICRS affirmed my passion for science communication and I left feeling substantially more positive than when I arrived.

In the end positivity won out over all our sad stories of sick reefs. The buzzing atmosphere reflected the burning desire of thousands of scientists to put a stop to global coral reef decline. Unfortunately the closing address failed to capitalise on a successful week of collaboration. But it didnt really matter, the message to take with us was clear. The next ICRS conference will be in the year 2020. But, if by 2020 we are still asking the same questions about the same problems, it will be too late. The time is now and ICRS was the perfect call to action.




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