Why is only one of fifteen speakers a woman when the environmental biologists of St. Louis meet?

It’s a great idea to get together with our sister institutions. Collaborations can be international, but local ones have rich rewards. One of them is that the students can get together, compare notes, get a broader idea of the process of academics than their own institution. Sometimes we don’t even know what is going on in our own city. For example, it took a meeting in Scotland for us to meet our wonderful Dictyostelium collaborators, Adam Kuspa and Gadi Shaulsky, who are a ten minute walk away (or were before we left Houston).

Somehow, local meetings have a tendency to rise and fall. Many years ago, the Houston Area Ecologists met monthly. Then there was the Social Amoeba Society of Houston, also long since defunct. I liked these meetings, but we all get busy, and things outside our immediate to-do list get ignored. But you never know where new ideas might come from, so I was delighted to hear there was going to be a retreat of the St. Louis area environmental biologists, a resurrection of a defunct meeting. They call themselves the St. Louis BEES, for Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, and we met yesterday, 24 September 2011, at Tyson Research Center from breakfast through dinner. Tyson is a dream field station only 18 miles from Wash U’s main campus. Besides those trees, it has glades, hills, valleys, a view over the Meremac river, and a whole bunch of abandoned bunkers full of salamanders. It has a carbon neutral building complete with composting toilets, and a meeting room with glass garage doors opening to a lovely deck.

There were more than a hundred students, postdocs, and professors crammed into the room, eager to hear what our colleagues had to say. We were fed well for three meals and appropriately medicated with either caffeine or ethanol. I was impressed with the rich attendance of Latin Americans and also with all of the research being done in Latin America, mostly by people at universities other than my own.

Before I get to the science, I need to discuss one huge flaw with the meeting. Why was there only one woman out of 15 speakers? Let me put it another way. Out of four and a half hours of formal talks, only fifteen minutes were delivered by a woman. Why? After all, there was a balance among institutions, with four talks each coming from WUStl, and UMSL, and three talks each coming from SLU and MoBot. Is that where the problem lies? Do people feel comfortable picking four men when they wouldn’t feel comfortable picking fourteen of fifteen men?

Oh, how could I be so silly. Clearly it must be that there were simply no qualified female speakers. The choosers did their best to entertain and inform, so it would have been irresponsible to waste our time with the women available. Is that it? Of course not. I know the most likely answer, but it is so tiresome to repeat it over and over again. It could be inadvertent bias, that women simply didn’t come to mind. It could be that they asked for volunteers and the males volunteered more readily. These are all very well documented patterns. So why don’t organizers think about them? This isn’t just the boys either. I don’t know who the choosers were, but I’m guessing there were girls involved too. We have plenty of female leadership in environmental biology in St. Louis. OK, I’ll stop this rant, but I won’t forget it. The ONLY solution is to have the ENTIRE caste of speakers, including the Keynote speaker, to be female next year.

At least the sole woman was a fabulous one, my old friend, Patty Parker. Parasites and diseases have major impacts on life. These hitchhikers and blood suckers can wear you down, until you adapt to them so completely, you can’t live without them, as we are finding with our farming Dictyostelium clones. But understanding the exact history of the relationships between parasites and their hosts can be challenging, or impossible. That is, unless you work somewhere where there are isolated species whose arrival times are known. Patty’s group uses the Galapagos as their laboratory, and studies birds and their parasites, focusing on the Galapagos Hawk, related to Swainson’s Hawk. The parasites on the hawk, the dove, and other birds could be classified into three different arrival types. They could have come with the first colonizing birds. They could have come in with one native species of bird, and jumped to another in the Galapagos. Or they could have come with birds brought in by humans and then jumped to another species. She had a nice spread of parasites, and birds that came 2.3 million years ago, the finches, and birds than came only about 120,000 years ago, the hawk.

The dove parasite story was particularly interesting. The only dove in the islands is the Galapagos dove, and it is widely distributed, without significant population structure. But it has a blood parasite called Hemoproteus multipigmentata. The puzzling thing is that the closest relatives of this blood parasite are found all over the place, from Ecuador to Mexico and Venezuela. It has not diverged much from those various ancestor forms. How can it come from three places? The answer is that at some mad hatter time in the past, the people of the Galapagos missed city pigeons, and imported them. They came from a variety of populations, and brought their parasites. The city pigeons have been removed, but their parasites remain in the blood of the native pigeon.

The third parasite that Patty discussed was the avian pox virus. This causes terrible lesions on legs that can even be seen on museum specimens. To tease out this story, Patty and her team looked at birds in collections totaling over a thousand and identified when the pox came in. The talk was great, well organized, easy to remember, clear. Check out the papers from her group to learn more.

Well, what did those boys have to say? Their talks were mostly fine, of course. I loved the ones that have clear null models, and show exactly what responses they get. Jonathan Myers had some sobering information on beta diversity, and the challenge of understanding why diversity is higher in the tropics. Sebastian Tello addressed this same topic, looking at edge effects in particular. Diego Salazar looked at herbivory in a tropical gradient, and included work at my favorite field station, Jatun Sacha, in Ecuador. Morphology had a larger role that usual, with talks on fish forms by Matt Michel, and Losos. Bruce Carlson had some morphology and a lot of electric fish talk and cross-talk in a fascinating and clear presentation. Jonathan Losos wrapped it up with a great keynote talk reviewing his vintage work on island anoles, including crown giants, and specialists in grass-bush, trunk-crown, and twig. Why these forms evolved repeatedly from different ancestors on Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica is one of the great stories of evolution. The mainland is equally fun, it appears, but more challenging. There the pattterns are more complex, perhaps because of predators.

Was it worth going? Yes. Will I go next year? Maybe. Now it is time to get outside and enjoy the sunny day!


The lovely Tyson Research Center forest.


The carbon neutral Living Learning Center.


Our wonderful directors, Barbara Schaal, and Kevin Smith.


Talking over lunch.


Doug Berg, who has been wonderful at making microbial connections for us, and paramo researcher, Mauricio Diazgranados..


Sitting or standing, the students meet each other.


Our Keynote speaker, Jonathan Losos, home from Harvard, and Bruce Carlson who gave a great talk on weakly electric fish.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department, Scientific meetings, Social interactions. Bookmark the permalink.

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