Conference Poster Pro-Tips

  • The conference website will have the required poster dimensions. As soon as you open PowerPoint, change the slide size (Design > Custom > Slide Size).
  • I highly recommend sketching out your poster on a whiteboard or giant sheet of paper before you open PowerPoint! It’ll save a ton of time. One really good way to do this is think about your “spiel”/blurb (the 1 minute talk you will give you people who visit your poster). Make sure that:
    • All of the components of your blurb are included on your poster (e.g. your background bullet points should be similar to what you want to tell the visitor)
    • The order of your poster matches the order of your blurb. You don’t want to jump around from the top of your poster to the bottom to the top to the bottom again – you’ll give your visitor motion sickness!
  • Remember that the figures are the most compelling part of the poster – they’re what entice people to stop by and learn about your research. I usually select 4-6 plots or photos I want to include, then create the poster layout based on those.
  • Always use bullet points instead of paragraphs! Every word is valuable. Choose wisely 🙂
  • Unless it’s required, don’t include an abstract. Poster abstracts always seemed silly to me because posters are essentially graphic abstracts. Save that precious space if you can.
  • Include your name and email address in big font so people know who you are and how to contact you!
  • In other countries, it’s standard to put a picture of your face on the poster. I’ve started doing this because it helps people figure out who the poster belongs to. You might also consider putting your abstract or poster number (assigned by the conference) in the top corner of your poster.
  • Make sure your background/methods/results/discussion sections are clearly separated.
  •  If you can, try to use colors strategically (e.g. keep certain groups of animals or certain methods the same color throughout your poster).
  • You can use a background image if you want, but make sure it’s not too distracting.

Here are some example posters I’ve put together for conferences. Click for full size. Hope that helps 🙂

2012_SACNAS     2013_MBNMS       2015_BIOLOGGING

2015_INBRE      2017_BIOLOGGING          2018_POLAR

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The Art of Conference Abstracts

I didn’t have a good starting point when I wrote my first conference abstract. I had read many publication abstracts but wasn’t sure how I could cram a 9,000 word research paper into just 250 words – it took me about 15 drafts to come up with something I didn’t hate. Through many years of trial-and-error, I’ve learned to summarize my research in a concise and interesting way. My resulting abstract “cookbook” has helped me, and I wanted to pass it along to others. Depending on the specific research and conference, your approach might vary a bit (e.g. if you are going to a technology-specific conference like Biologging, focus on the technical details; if you are going to a taxon-specific conference like Marine Mammals, focus on the biology background and applications; if you are going to a topic-specific conference like Animal Behavior, focus on the relevance) – but I think it’s a nice place to start.

Motivation: Why do we care? (1 broad sentence, 1 specific sentence)
Objective: Which question are you trying to answer? (1 sentence)
Approach: How did you go about answering your question? (2 sentences)
Results: What’s the answer? (3 sentences)
Conclusion: What are the implications of your answer? (1 specific sentence, 1 broad sentence)

Do include: Sample sizes, study species, study location, a cohesive story
Do not include: Citations, a million acronyms, jargon, grammar and spelling mistakes
 
Below are a handful of my proudest abstracts so far. Hope you find them useful! Next blog post will be about putting together an aesthetically pleasing conference poster. Stay tuned 🙂


Reproductive success and molt phenology affect colony attendance in Weddell seals
2018 POLAR conference, Switzerland
 
Mammalian species have been shown to shift life history event phenology in response to environmental change, but this response is highly variable across species. The replacement of hair (i.e. molt) is an intermediate life history event that may affect subsequent breeding attempts; however, the magnitude of its impact is poorly understood. Our aim was to understand the carry-over effects of molting and pupping phenology in Weddell seals. To do so, we conducted demographic surveys of 4,252 uniquely identified seals in Erebus Bay, Antarctica during the austral summers of 2013-2017. The start date of each animal’s molt was back-calculated based on hair loss progression, and pupping success and dates were obtained for the breeding season prior to and following the molt. The molt in Weddell seals lasted 29 ± 8 days. Within adult females, molt phenology was markedly different across reproductive and non-reproductive individuals, with non-reproductive seals beginning molt 16 days earlier than reproductive seals (mean start date Jan06 and Jan22, respectively, t-test p<0.0001). Animals that molted later were less likely to be seen in the breeding colonies during the following pupping period, suggesting they either did not pup that year or were deceased. By systematically manipulating estimated transition probabilities between pupping and molting categories using a simulation model, we demonstrate the importance of intermittent skipping of pupping to reset life history phenology.

Weddell seal dives suggest a vertical ecosystem shift concurrent with seasonal phytoplankton blooms
2017 Society for Marine Mammalogy conference, Canada
Warming temperatures and associated sea ice loss are predicted to impact the availability of prey resources for polar marine mammals. One way to predict how such changes might influence predator behavioral patterns is to study their responses to seasonal fluctuations in prey availability. While the Southern Ocean is one of the most seasonally productive marine ecosystems in the world, little is known about the distributions of its many prey species. Data from our deployment of time-depth recorders on 55 adult female Weddell seals over 4 years demonstrated a remarkably consistent seasonal shift in dive depths, in which dives gradually shallowed in January from >400meters to <150meters and returned to >400meters by mid-February. To investigate feeding activity during this period, we deployed jaw-accelerometers on 5 Weddell seals. Depth, bottom time, and number of dive-depth-wiggles were quantified for individuals that showed the deep-shallow-deep pattern (n=47 seals, 135,000 dives). For dives with jaw-accelerometer data, we detected jaw motion events using a surge acceleration amplitude threshold of 0.3g. The number of depth-wiggles was a strong predictor of jaw motion events in each dive (n=519 dives, R2=0.42) and therefore provides a proxy for feeding effort. Dive metrics from 10 sequential “shallow-period” days (mid-January) and 10 sequential “deep-period” days (rest of summer) were compared within individuals using a paired t-test. Depth-wiggles were more frequent during “shallow-period” than “deep-period” dives (mean±SD 3.0±0.6 and 2.3±0.5 wiggles min-bottom-time-1 respectively; p<0.05), suggesting higher foraging efficiency. We hypothesize that the mechanism driving the pattern in seal diving depth is a vertical migration of fishes, coinciding with the seasonal phytoplankton bloom in late December. Fish distribution changes of several hundred vertical meters could strongly impact short-term ecosystem dynamics. Placing predator feeding behavior in the broader context of ecosystem dynamics allows us to track a critical yet elusive component of global change.

Reproductive effort affects the annual dive behavior of adult, female Weddell seals
2017 SCAR Biology conference, Belgium
Given forecasted changes in sea-ice cover, understanding the baseline and seasonal activities of apex predators is a scientific priority. Our objective was to characterize the annual foraging behavior of adult, female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in the Ross Sea, Antarctica during 2013-2017. We hypothesized that following the lactation period, post-parturient seals would increase diving effort to regain body mass prior to their annual molt. To test this hypothesis, we deployed time-depth recorders (TDRs) on the flippers of 57 seals during the austral summer, including seals that had produced pups in a given year (post-parturient; n=34) and seals that had not (non-parturient; n=23). The tags were recovered between 39 and 436 days later and together comprise more than 135,000 dives from 5,642 seal days. During summer, seals that pupped were active divers (mean ± standard deviation 48±11dives day-1, with dives averaging 12±2min, 177±73m) whereas seals that had not pupped spent less time foraging (22±7dives day-1, 18±5min, 158±62m). Coincident to the higher diving activity, seals that pupped gained mass over summer (0.6±0.5 kg day-1) whereas seals that had not pupped lost mass (-1.0±0.4kg day-1). Despite marked inter-annual differences in sea ice extent (range 17 to 110km from McMurdo research station to ice edge), behavioral patterns and mass change dynamics were consistent across years, suggesting the relative resilience of this species to changes in sea ice extent. In all years, seals showed a clear pattern during late summer where dive depth gradually shallowed from >400m to <150m across two weeks and subsequently returned to >400m. Because the number of dive-depth-wiggles (a proxy for prey capture events) was significantly higher during this brief period, shallow diving could correspond with altered prey dynamics following the seasonal phytoplankton bloom. In the seven over-winter records, seals dove 3x more frequently and 50% deeper than summer, although dive durations were similar. Differences in dive metrics between post-parturient and non-parturient seals were not evident in the winter records. Our utilization of flipper-tag TDRs provides the first look at year-round Weddell seal behavior. These behavioral data are crucial for understanding predator responses to Antarctic change.

Using agent-based models to predict behavioral and physiological responses of top predators to environmental change: a case study with Weddell seals
2017 International Society for Ecological Modeling, South Korea
One of the crucial scientific challenges of this century is characterizing the vulnerability of ecosystems to global change. Bioenergetic models can be used to estimate total energy requirements by extrapolating simple physiological calculations to population-level metrics; however, these models often fail to link energy deficiencies with reproductive consequences or consider behavioral plasticity, and thus cannot be used to predict population-level consequences. An alternative approach is to use agent-based models which permit unique individuals to interact with variable extrinsic conditions (e.g. weather, prey), link energy deficiencies to reproductive and survival consequences, and allow individuals to adapt their behaviors. Here, we present an agent-based, ecophysiological model that simulates the energy balance of adult, female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii). The inputs include physiological parameters and population-wide ranges for the duration and phenology of life history events. Energy intake depends on foraging effort and stochastic prey availability at each timestep, whereas energy expenditure is calculated from time- and behavior-specific demands. The simulated animals select their activities (forage, nurse pup, molt, rest) based on body condition and life history constraints (i.e. dependent pup). Following model development and validation with empirical data, we ran simulations and compared the responses of individuals under baseline conditions to scenarios with reduced prey availability. A 10% reduction in prey availability resulted in seals foraging more and resting less (from 52.2%±6.2% resting to 40.3±8.4% resting). At the end of the year-long simulations, animals in the baseline simulation were in significantly better condition than animals with reduced prey availability (T-test, t28=5.6, p<.0001). Our model successfully explored decision-based energy allocation strategies that occur under energetic stressors and elucidated how extrinsic conditions may impact individual fitness. Predicting the behavioral and physiological responses of predators is valuable for the study of global change biology and can be used to inform management decisions in polar regions.

Oceanographic drivers of foraging effort and success in the northern elephant seal
2017 Biologging Conference, Germany
Recent initiatives have facilitated extensive animal tracking efforts around the globe, resulting in efforts to explain the distributions and behaviors of animals relative to oceanographic variables. State-space models (SSMs) have been developed to estimate foraging effort (by distinguishing foraging time from transiting time) and likewise, drift rate changes provide a proxy for foraging success. While these metrics are commonly used to study at-sea behavior, they are rarely compared to each other or to oceanographic variables. Our objectives were twofold: 1) To determine how drift rate changes and proportion of time spent foraging relate to body condition gains; and 2) To determine which oceanographic metrics are correlated with condition gains. We analyzed ARGOS-linked satellite tag data from 88 northern elephant seals Mirounga angustirostris across ten years. For daily latitude and longitude positions, we used a state-space model to estimate behavioral states, a custom code to measure seven-day sum of drift rate, and the R package Xtractomatic to obtain oceanographic metrics Chlorophyll a (Chl a; productivity), sea surface temperature (SST; water masses and fronts) and sea surface height (eddies). Of the 14,600 elephant seal positions, positive drift rate changes and foraging states occurred most often near the gyre-gyre boundary. Percent time foraging and drift rate changes were positively correlated to body composition changes but varied clearly by year. Mean Chl a showed the most pronounced differences between foraging and transiting states and was significantly higher in foraging areas than transit areas for all five years (paired t-test, p<0.05 for all). Mean SST was not a good metric for distinguishing foraging from transiting state, but it was the metric with the highest correlation to drift rate change (R2=0.1). Understanding the oceanographic drivers of animal foraging effort and success will help to highlight important spatial areas.

Using agent-based models to predict behavioral and physiological responses of top predators to environmental change: a case study with Weddell seals
2016 International Statistical Ecology Conference, USA
One of the crucial scientific challenges of this century is characterizing the vulnerability of ecosystems to global change. Bioenergetic models can be used to estimate total energy requirements by extrapolating simple physiological calculations to population-level metrics; however, these models often fail to link energy deficiencies with reproductive consequences or consider behavioral plasticity, and thus cannot be used to predict population-level consequences. An alternative approach is to use agent-based models which permit unique individuals to interact with variable extrinsic conditions (e.g. weather, prey), link energy deficiencies to reproductive and survival consequences, and allow individuals to adapt their behaviors. Here, we present an agent-based, ecophysiological model that simulates the energy balance of adult, female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii). The inputs include physiological parameters and population-wide ranges for the duration and phenology of life history events. Energy intake depends on foraging effort and stochastic prey availability at each timestep, whereas energy expenditure is calculated from time- and behavior-specific demands. The simulated animals select their activities (forage, nurse pup, molt, rest) based on body condition and life history constraints (i.e. dependent pup). Following model development and validation with empirical data, we ran simulations and compared the responses of individuals under baseline conditions to scenarios with reduced prey availability. A 10% reduction in prey availability resulted in seals foraging more and resting less (from 52.2%±6.2% resting to 40.3±8.4% resting). At the end of the year-long simulations, animals in the baseline simulation were in significantly better condition than animals with reduced prey availability (T-test, t28=5.6, p<.0001). Our model successfully explored decision-based energy allocation strategies that occur under energetic stressors and elucidated how extrinsic conditions may impact individual fitness. Predicting the behavioral and physiological responses of predators is valuable for the study of global change biology and can be used to inform management decisions in polar regions.

Whisker growth dynamics:  a validated approach for assigning timescales to stable isotope analyses
2013 Society for Marine Mammalogy conference, New Zealand
The extensive foraging migrations of many pinniped species discourage the use of traditional methodologies (e.g. scat analysis) for dietary reconstruction. Stable isotope analysis (SIA) of serially sub-sampled vibrissae (whiskers) is a common method to investigate pinniped foraging ecology; however, knowledge of tissue synthesis is required to assign accurate timelines to past foraging activity. In some species, whisker synthesis rates slow as the length asymptotes, so equally-sized subsamples for SIA represent differing time-scales.  Applying linear growth values to tissues exhibiting non-linear growth would lead to severe misinterpretations of temporal scales represented by serial isotope data. Photogrammetric analysis allows for non-invasive documentation of vibrissae growth and molting patterns in living animals. In this study, we used photogrammetric methods to obtain length measurements of 93 vibrissae over 18 months in a trained, captive northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris). Vibrissae exhibited consistent asymptotic growth that was regulated by three von Bertalanffy growth function parameters: (1) initial time of growth, (2) asymptotic length and (3) a species-specific curvature constant. Unfortunately, photogrammetry does not account for the portion of vibrissae contained within the follicle. To correct for this photogrammetric underestimation, we constructed a linear correction model by correlating photogrammetric estimates to direct vibrissae measurements in three deceased northern elephant seals. Lastly, we quantified δ 13C and δ 15N ratios in archived blood, vibrissae, and prey samples from the captive seal. δ 13C and δ 15N ratios fluctuated along the length of each analyzed vibrissae, but exhibited similar values when matched to appropriate time scales based on length-specific curvature values. The vibrissae growth rates calculated from this captive seal are a key component in placing SIA data from vibrissae of wild pinnipeds within appropriate time frames. This study is the first to use vibrissae growth dynamics for appropriate interpretation of isotopic ratios in the northern elephant seal.

Communicating Science – One story at a time.

What do ice cores, ocean gliders, frozen soil, and seal whiskers have in common? A group of scientists who travel to the ends of the Earth to understand them.

Communicating Arctic and Antarctic science is many things: On one hand, it is a unique opportunity to bring people into a corner of the world so remote and extreme that most shiver at the thought of visiting. On the other hand, it is a delicate interface between social and political issues. From any perspective, science communication is tricky.

Last weekend I had the privilege of spending three days at a science communication workshop with 31 peers. On the first morning, we nervously stood around the coffee table, unsure of the road ahead. Over the next 72 hours, we talked. We listened. We laughed.  We ranted.  We took risks. We revised. We came to realizations. Of importance to me was the recognition that we all wear many hats, some dustier than others, but if you take enough time to get to know someone, you’ll be surprised by the number of hats you have in common. Whether we are interacting with scientists, policy makers, elementary school students, journalists, or people tuning into the morning news, I guarantee we can connect on many levels:

  1. We enjoy learning. No one can deny those joy-filled, brain-rattling “Aha!” moments. But sometimes understanding tricky scientific topics can be like navigating a backcountry trail. Without a map. In the dark. (If you want to know what that’s like, think of the seals that regularly dive 3,000 feet underwater! Their whiskers are handy for finding fish). A scientist with good communication skills can be your map, and a few vivid stories can be your metaphorical flashlight. Learning can be an exciting adventure.
  2. We love a good story. Scientific storytelling is a way to hook an audience so that the message sticks. No matter who we are, or what we do, we can all relate to the frustration of a hurdle and the satisfaction of soaring over it. Sometimes we like to learn without knowing that we are learning.
  3. We have limits to our comfort zones. The media interview is a particularly daunting situation — an unchoreographed dance, with an unspecified leader and loads of people watching. Until that lightbulb goes off in your interviewer’s eyes, it’s hard to feel like you are communicating. Remember that a bit of predictability, consistency, and empathy can go a long way. We are human, after all.
  4. We are obsessed with “getting it right”. As scientists, we pour years and years of dedication into our science – how do we distill that down into a 7 second sound bite? It will take practice. I’m guessing you wouldn’t sample a 60,000 year-old ice core without first testing the method on a practice core. Treat science communication the same way you treat irreplaceable samples. It will be worth your time.
  5. We care, deeply, about humanity and our future on this planet. It’s the reason polar researchers spend thanksgiving at remote field camps instead of with their families. It’s the reason journalists pull all-nighters to meet deadlines. It’s the reason 2nd graders ask questions with reckless abandon. And it’s the reason I’m writing this blogpost on a late-night flight instead of getting some sleep.

If you are a policy maker, student, journalist, or person tuning into the morning news, thank you. Thank you for giving us the chance to tell stories about our science. And thank you for asking the questions that give our science a fresh perspective. Next time you find yourself face to face with a scientist – please, ask them to tell a story about their work. If you’re lucky, they won’t even use metric units!

dsc06151.jpg


The workshop was organized by the United States Association for Polar Early Career Scientists. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs. Workshops on oral communication were facilitated by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Workshops on written communication were facilitated by the University of Colorado Boulder Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences Education and Outreach Program. 

To see just how human I am:

The Wonderful Language of R Programming

Want to make compelling figures with your undoubtedly awesome data, but don’t know where to start? Don’t worry – I’ll help you get there in no time! 🙂

All.PNG

I have put together an interactive tutorial on using R for statistics and plotting, including an .r file (that contains the script) and several comma-separated data files (.csv) that contain data. Please download all files from the Google Drive folder below, and put them in a single folder that you can easily find them (e.g. on your desktop):

Google Drive Files – R Tutorial

In addition to those files, please download both “R” and “RStudio Desktop” programs before the tutorial. R studio is a more user-friendly version of R, but requires that R also be downloaded on your computer. Downloading these files should be pretty quick, but please do it a couple days before our session so you have time to troubleshoot any problems.

R can be downloaded at https://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/
RStudio can be downloaded at https://www.rstudio.com/products/rstudio/download/

After downloading both, you should be able to open RStudio and it will look like this (except not blue – you can change the colors under “settings”):

RStudio.PNG
Let me know if you have any questions or issues downloading the data or programs. I look forward to getting you excited about using R!

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in Ecology

If you are interested in applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in the field of Ecology, you’re in the right place! The fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to financially support your graduate school endeavors; however, the application can be a bit tricky to navigate. I’ve worked with several graduate student fellows to compile some tips that we found useful during our application process:

  • Be overly explicit about Broader Impacts in both the personal essay and in the proposal. In my final year, I actually had over a page of my personal essay under a “Broader Impacts” heading because in the previous years reviewers kept saying I was vague about them.
  • For the proposal, pick simple enough methods that they can be explained clearly and concisely! Biting off too much makes the methods section muddled, rushed, and too long.
  • Remember that NSF is funding YOU – not your project. In the research proposal, they want to see you carefully craft a hypothesis and then clearly outline the appropriate methodologies. In the personal essay, they want to find out why you are qualified to undertake high quality science.

Below are some example essays from graduate students who have been funded. I have included both successful and unsuccessful applications for students who were not funded the first time. Please remember that all materials are property of the original author and cannot be reproduced or copied without permission. A huge thanks to all of the graduate students who contributed essays and tips!

Evolution of embryo behavior: heterochrony of cued hatching mechanisms (Funded in 2016)

Effects of topographic complexity from crustose coralline algae to kelp forests (Funded in 2015)

Bioenergetics model of Weddell seals (Not Funded in 2014, Funded in 2015)

Effects of ocean acidification on the acorn barnacle (Funded in 2014)

Mule Deer/Bears (Not Funded in 2010, Honorable Mention in 2011, Funded in 2012)

Climate change and marine mammal behavior (Funded in 2008)

Importance of sea mounts to species of conservation concern (Not Funded in 2005, Funded in 2006)

Elephant seal lactation efficiency (Funded in 2001)


In addition to the proposal essays above, I have found the following materials, put together by James Faghmous (University of Minnesota) and Doug Causey (University of Alaska Anchorage) to be extremely helpful (and very concise):

Here are some links for websites that discuss the application process in much more detail:

And a couple websites that give very helpful tips:

Feel free to email me (roxanne.beltran@gmail.com) with questions that you have – I’m happy to help in any way that I can. Good luck with your NSF GRFP application this year!

Research Experience for Undergraduates – 2015

This summer, I had the pleasure of mentoring an undergraduate student through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Clara Woolner, who is now a senior at Bard College in New York, spent the summer learning how to run stable isotope analysis, calculate whisker growth rates, run myoglobin assays, and determine blood volume using Evans Blue methods. Her final project was titled “Stable isotope analysis reveals variation in the summer feeding behavior of female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) with different reproductive histories”. Clara was a fantastic addition to the lab, and we are very grateful for all of her hard-work a dedication. Good luck with your senior year, Clara!

A high-resolution version of Clara’s final poster can be seen by clicking on the picture below:

Clara REU Poster_Final