Thursday, September 08, 2011

Seattle, Days Three through Five

The Conference of the American Fisheries Society is now officially over, and I am exhausted.  It has been a long but intellectually stimulating time, and I am thankful that I came.  I saw numerous good, some remarkably bad, and a few outstanding talks over the past few days, ranging from topics as diverse as plasticity in maximum critical temperatures for salmonids, to the negative role played by the media when it comes to reporting on overfishing (and where scientists go wrong when they create press releases); from mortality associated with catch-and-release bluefin fisheries, to how the Marine Stewardship Council's anonymous pre-assessment  for MSC certification has changed the state of the fishing industry.

I'm too tired to get into much detail about these talks, but in the next week I will post info from the three or four most interesting talks that I heard.

To give you an idea of the intensity of these meetings, each presenter was given fifteen minutes to present their work and answer questions.  Talks occurred simultaneously in 20-30 rooms, and went from 8 am to 5:15 pm, with a one hour and fifteen minute break for lunch, and two thirty minute coffee breaks.  Spanning from Monday to Thursday, that is a lot of talks to listen to, and it is a lot of information to take in.

On Wednesday morning, I had the pleasure of presenting my own work in a symposium dedicated to phenotypic plasticity and adaptation in fishes, moderated by my former supervisor, Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings.  At the beginning of the conference I saw the size of the rooms (fairly small) and thought that this was going to be a piece of cake.  On Monday night I decided to check out my room.

It was not small.

Whereas most of the other rooms were cozy living room + kitchen sort of rooms, my room could have likely fit two or three entire houses.  Chairs stretched back seemingly to infinity.  That was when I felt my first flutter of panic.

I knew there was no way the room would fill up for any talk, but the sheer size of it filled me with two opposing fears:

a. It would fill up, and I would have several hundred pairs of keen scientific eyes studying my every word; or (and perhaps worse)

b. The room would be nearly empty, with a few people scattered here and there throughout the room's immensity, leaving me alone behind the podium while those unfortunates checked their watches and flipped through the schedule to see what else was playing.

Fortunately for me, on game day I had option c: the room was filled up enough to appear full, with enough empty space to not be intimidating.

That did not prevent every word from leaving my mind seconds before I began, but once I got going (and struggled through a bad joke involving Canadian piracy of American movies) things went quite well.

And then I was done.  And, in a way thankfully, there was no time for questions - I had taken up exactly all the time I had been allotted.

For the most part, at the other talks the questioners (if there were any) were polite, but I did sit in on a talk where the questioner delivered more of a rant than a question.  The topic of the talk was very similar to my own project, and when she said that 'this is a view she has heard elsewhere in this conference,' she was, I am sure, referring to me.  The speaker did not know how to respond, which was unfortunate.  Now part of me wished she had been able to ask me.  Because her question was insightful, but also misguided.  She was confused about how gene expression could be plasticity, because in her mind diseased organisms may alter their gene expression, and it is this very alteration that makes them susceptible to the disease such that they die.  She was equating plasticity with adaptation, which it simply is not.  There is such a thing as maladaptive plasticity as well.

After the talks, there was a social.  Monday night was the poster show.  Tuesday night we had access to the Seattle Aquarium.  At first I thought it would be a nice private affair; but 4000 people privacy does not make.  I was able to enjoy the mammals section though before too many people crowded me out, and I saw some amazing cuttlefish change colour before my very eyes.

Wednesday night was the best of the socials, in my mind.  We were treated to a gala outdoor meal in the park by the Space Needle.  There was a seemingly unlimited supply of food, of Pacific sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, potato salad, coleslaw, remarkably sweet corn on the cob, free drinks (including lemonade) and a very nice berry-pie type dessert.  The day, like every day during this conference, was sunny and warm; it was quite amazing.  We were then given free passes to both the Space Needle and some Music and Sci Fi Museum (yes, both music and science fiction, together in one building).  I started off in the museum, where there were four main exhibits: Nirvana, Jimmy Hendrix, Avatar (with several props from the movie, and some pretty cool interactive displays where you could create an avatar of yourself) and, my personal favourite, Battlestar Galactica.

I had a major geek-out moment, and spent 1.5 hours there at least, watching every documentary, reading every sign, playing every game.  They had costumes worn by Starbuck and Baltar, Saul's eyepatch, a mini replica of the actual battleship and, the best part of all, one each of the actual Viper Mark VII and Mark II, and a Cylon raider with a Cylon from the original series.

I so very much wish that I had had my camera.

Viper Mark II

Cylon raider

After the nearly-emotional geektasticness of the Battlestar display, I then headed up to the top of the Space Needle, where I had a breathtaking 360 degree view of Seattle at night.

I did not take the above picture, it came from

And that's that.  I fly back home tomorrow morning.  Next year, it will be in the Twin Cities!  Thanks, Seattle, for a great time.

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