Reflections on the International Biogeography Society Meeting in Tucson: Celebrating diversity and deep time

Reflections on the International Biogeography Society Meeting in Tucson: Celebrating diversity and deep time

This post was initially written as a guest blog for the International Biogeography Society blog

The International Biogeography Society Biennial Conference is one of my favorite meetings to attend. These conferences consistently profile outstanding and cutting edge science, opportunities to interact with a set of colleagues that I don’t have the opportunity to see at my paleontology-centric conferences, and interesting destinations to explore. This year’s conference in Tucson hit the mark in all areas.

A key strength of IBS conferences is that they are fundamentally a celebration of diversity in many ways: diversity of approaches ranging from molecular to big data and ecological to phylogenetic frameworks; diversity of focal ecosystems and taxa; diversity of temporal lens from modern to deep time; diversity of nationalities and cultures; diversity of genders and identities. This diversity makes the scientific contributions and opportunities so much stronger. Developing such a diverse conference is not a coincidence, the IBS board and meeting organizers actively work to promote scientific and culture diversity. And the dedication and hard work pays off. For example, someone like me, who studies paleobiogeography of marine life from 400 million years ago feels at home with colleagues studying geographic structure of genetic variation in modern tree species.

From my perspective, two aspects of this year’s IBS conference particularly struck me: the increasing inclusion of a deep time perspective and fossil data and increasing recognition and participation of women in biogeography.

Each of the symposia featured at least one talk involving paleodata. The “Modeling large-scale ecological and evolutionary dynamics” symposium featured paleo data in nearly every talk and showcased a wide range of paleo data from historical records to the Pleistocene. Contributed sessions, posters, and mini-talks also prominently focused on the relevance of paleodata, including analyses that employed Paleozoic data to address questions relevant to modern biodiversity concerns (abstract book here).

Geologic and paleontological data, particularly the breakup of Pangaea and the waxing and waning of the Pleistocene ice sheets, have long been incorporated in biogeographic analyses. What was exciting about this meeting is the fact that paleodata beyond those two cases are being employed and being employed broadly within the field in many different contexts ranging from species distribution models, quantifying community functioning and species richness processes, and calibrating projections of biotic impacts of future climate changes.

Rising above this pervasive paleontological mist was the fact that the winners of the MacArthur & Wilson and the Alfred Russell Wallace Awards, Jessica Blois and Margaret Davis, are paleobiogeographers, which further underscores the significance that the field ascribes to research emphasizing fossil data.

Both awardees are also women, which leads to my second point. This meeting celebrated the accomplishments of outstanding women in biogeography, like Jessica and Margaret, and at the same time acknowledged and celebrated the additional hurdles and barriers that were (and still are) faced by women in science. Steve Jackson, in his citation of Margaret Davis, provided a wonderful discussion that contextualized some of the hurdles that Margaret faced as the sole women in pollen analysis, the significance of her indomitable spirit, and the inspiration she has provided to others.

Today, women are not usually alone in our departments or subdisciplines, but we and members of other underrepresented groups still face obstacles, additional requests on our time as token representatives, and implicit bias in reviews and in other contexts. But meetings like IBS, where a group of women met at 7:30 am over coffee to discuss shared issues and plan a support group and where we have lunch mentoring groups that discuss early career issues, provide clear and positive steps forward.

Women have been leaders in biogeography for many years, as evidenced by the Margaret Davis’s well deserved Wallace award, and women are poised to continue leading and innovating, as evidenced by female students winning 3 of 5 poster awards.

I ended the conference by raising my glass with a group of a dozen female paleobiogeographers. For me it was a fitting end to a conference that celebrated diversity of science, of timescales, and of individuals.