Reflections on the 2023 Ecological Society of America Meeting in Portland, Oregon

Sept. 5, 2023
Jia talking in front of the ESA panel

I first attended the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Annual meeting in 2005 when the conference was held in Montreal, Canada. I was a second year PhD student and was excited to present at my first big scientific conference. I walked the conference hallways with my other graduate student friends, oohing and aahing when we saw "famous" ecologists walking through the same hallways. In the evenings, we wandered through the cobblestone streets of old town Montreal, enjoying our first dining experiences with per diem rates.

Another member of the cross casc ESA panel speaking

Since that first ESA, I have attended many other ones, and at each subsequent ESA, I felt more like I belonged. I interacted with friends and colleagues who were in my research sphere and we would geek out talking about the intricacies of how plants move carbon and water. I was the Secretary of the Plant Physiological Ecology Section for three years and organized the graduate student presentation awards. This allowed me to meet even more people in my academic field. I was beginning to feel like one of the scientists that a younger version of myself would have been excited to meet.

Then this year, I attended ESA in Portland, Oregon, but instead of presenting science like I always have, I organized a special session dedicated to understanding how universities can encourage and incentivize researchers (from graduate students to faculty) to work more in the space of community engagement. How should we reward researchers who are integrating science with societal outcomes that lead to more resilient landscapes? How does cutting edge ecological research intersect with "actionable science?"

Being in the room with folks from universities and other governmental agencies (state and federal) that work on these issues brought me back to how I felt during my first ESA in Montreal. They were these "superstars" who have been bridging science and action for decades! I attended two Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) sessions that were hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey which demonstrated the incredible networks that they have established. I was blown away by the insightfulness of the panel members' experiences. As the new Host Institution Director of the Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (SW CASC), I was feeling that sense of awe that I had first felt almost two decades ago.

Wide angle picture of the ESA CASC panel

It can be easy to become jaded in one's profession. There are many day-to-day drudgeries that can take away from the exciting thing that started us in our profession. I am guilty of this, and it was magnified during COVID when I began asking myself, "what am I interested in studying in the next 10 years and why?" So when the opportunity to work with the SW CASC was presented, it set off a spark within me. Working on climate resiliency with real societal impacts? Wow - count me in!

Attending the special CASC sessions at ESA was fodder for that spark. I was getting excited again, and even though I feel new to the CASC Network, I know that the excitement will continue to grow. I know others felt it too. After I returned from the conferences, several emails went out about organizing special CASC sessions for the next ESA in Long Beach, California. I'm already looking forward to it.