#ENVR2018: A Recap

It’s been a bit now, but last month from October 11 – 13, I traveled to Asheville, NC with the Hanks Lab and several other PSU statistics students to attend the 2018 ENVR Statistics for the Environment: Research, Practice and Policy Workshop. This densely packed workshop (really it was both workshop and conference…workonference? confshop?) offered a day of workshops, two days of 30 minute invited talks, and a poster session. I like that the American Statistical Association (ASA) Section on Environmental Statistics (ENVR) is a relatively small group of researchers, which allows for students to quickly meet people (future colleagues!) in this field and learn about what sort of research is happening right now.

What is ENVR?

Unless you are a statistician who does environmental/ecological related research you probably haven’t heard of this workshop. I’ve been doing this sort of work for 4 years now and it’s the first time I had really heard about it too! (Two years ago I was still taking classes and working on research so I probably didn’t have time to attend.) The Statistics for the Environment: Research, Practice and Policy is a biennial workshop of the section on Statistics and the Environment (ENVR) of the American Statistical Association. The overarching goal of the workshop is to bring together environmental statisticians working in academia, government research labs, and industry to present and discuss research ideas and methods to address important environmental and ecological problems. Funding for students, postdocs, and junior researchers within 2 years of terminal degree (travel costs + stipend) was available and easy to apply for thanks to ENVR, NSF, the North Carolina chapter of ASA, and Dr. Andrew Finley.

Typically social media is a great way to extend the conversations of conferences and workshops online. Often organizations publicize a preferred hashtags (e.g. #ESA2018, #JSM2018, #ISEC2018) to encourage posting. This workshop may be a little too small to have gotten on board with with a social media push, but I still posted a few times with #ENVR2018 just in case anyone else did too.

What did we learn?

First up for me was a short course, “Beyond the black box: applying, programming and sharing hierarchical modeling algorithms using NIMBLE” with Chris Paciorek of University of California, Berkeley. NIMBLE is an R package that builds on BUGS language for Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC), expanding so that BUGS code is converted into model objects and used for whatever algorithm you want. That’s still a bit confusing, let’s see if I can simplify. When you have a super difficult integral to compute (or actually impossible – dang Calculus) MCMC is a set of algorithms (computer code stuff) that numerically approximate the answer. This is super useful in Bayesian statistics, and if you’re interested in learning more I recommend this previous STS post or these blog posts that come with some R code! If you wanted to implement this approach in your own work you could code up your own algorithm OR use the BUGS or NIMBLE R packages to build it for you. The key is being able to write out whatever hierarchical (fun fact, I have the hardest time saying this word and whyyyyyy do I have to use it so often in my work!?) model you’re working with and which of its variables you are hoping to estimate through MCMC.

I had previously attempted to use NIMBLE in my own work. There’s a good amount of resources available online and I think it’s particularly easy to transition into if you already have experience with the BUGS language. This previous experience was so useful for making the most of this workshop. I already knew where my limitations were and what sort of questions I had about potential future uses. In fact, if my manuscript that is currently in review gets rejected (::ehem:: again #normalizefailure), I will attempt to re-code my analysis using NIMBLE so things go faster/smoother when I try running alternative models. Currently my DIY code runs super slowly!  

The rest of the conference was two days densely packed with 30 minute invited talks. These talks covered a wide range of topics from climate monitoring to spatial population processes. Most of these talks were presented by professors and researchers (i.e. not graduate students) and varied in technical difficulty. I certainly didn’t retain much of the information presented in these talks, but it was useful to get a feel for the current state of research and think about what sort of path Future Meridith might take after finishing her PhD. Check out a few of my favorite slides! 

The poster session for graduate students was held after the first long day of talks. Gonna be honest, I think this was terrible timing and I felt pretty zombie-like during the session. I was presenting some relatively new work and was way intimidated to have to switch back over to communicator mode and talk about my work. When you get overwhelmed like this it can help to take a step back and remember what you want to get out of the conference or interaction. Rachel’s post, Winning Your First Professional Conference, is a great resource for figuring out some of the tougher to navigate parts of conferences. I decided to focus more on networking than poster sharing and ended up having an amazing chat with some women that also had various backgrounds in biology!

Staying Eco-Friendly

As much as I love traveling around the world and the science that allows me to do so, I also worry about my carbon footprint. The biggest contributor in my life to this measure will always be the flights I take for personal and professional travel. Since Asheville is not terribly far from State College, PA and several people were traveling from my department, I made sure to convince as many people as I could to split a rental car with me rather than opting for flights. The 9 hour drive split up with three drivers went by quickly and it was such a beautiful time of year to drive through the mountains. If you choose to drive to a conference instead of flying in the future be sure to check with your university to see if they offer discounts on rental cars.

Some other ways I try to approach travel with an environmental mindset include:

  • packing my own reusable water bottle
  • bringing a mason jar for leftovers/compost (works on short trips where I can keep it in the hotel fridge and compost when I’m back home)
  • bringing my own reused plastic name tag holder
  • refusing any extraneous conference swag/handouts
  • buying carbon offsets

Exploring Asheville

I had never been to Asheville before and was feeling hesitant about a workshop held in a state that still has discriminatory practices in their law books. In fact, the University of California, where Rachel currently studies, has travel restrictions to states like North Carolina with discriminatory LGBT laws.  Making sure everyone feels comfortable and welcome at conferences is important to creating a STEM environment that is truly supportive of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Ecological Society of America conference next year will be held in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, another state on California’s banned travel list. I don’t have an answer or a solution to offer.  Here are some thoughtful discussions (Twitter threads) on this topic.

Big thanks to Kelley, Abigail, and Tyler for their amazing Asheville recommendations (including two ALL CAPS recommendations for Biscuit Head!) . Asheville seemed to understand the importance of good beers, good food, and ALL THE DOGS. My labmate, Liz Eisenhauer, and I were able to hit up so many vegen/vegetarian restaurants that really impressed us. If State College had this manylevel of options, our wallets would be much lighter. My favorites were Plant and Rosetta’s Kitchen (the kombucha flight here was inspirational!). I loved all of the Belgian style beers to be had. Between a flight of farmhouse ales at Wicked Weed Brewing Pub, and all the amazing options at Thirsty Monk, plus some bluegrass bands playing, I was in heaven.

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The conference also organized a hike for those of us that didn’t need to rush off to the airport. Having rented a car gave us more flexibility in our travel plans and allowed us lots of time to enjoy our hike. We went to Triple Falls in Dupont State Park and were really enjoyed a few miles of very well maintained trails that allowed for an amazing amount of accessibility to all of the different waterfalls!

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If you ever have any questions about going to a workshop/conference please feel free to reach out to Rachel and me. We love sharing our experiences and getting new people excited about nerding out about research. I would like to add a special thanks to Dr. Colby Ford for sending me some links to his own conference recap blog posts! They were great reads and very helpful for guiding the flow of this blog post. We hope to continue to write conference and workshop recaps.  If you’re itchen’ for more conference talk, Rachel has written one in the past that you can peek at.  

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