In this post People and Nature Associate Editor Josh Galperin discusses being a non-ecologist at an ecology conference.

ESA Conference

I have been teaching in a law school for six years, longer if you include teaching first year law students as part of my alma mater’s legal research and writing program, back when I was in my final year of law school. So would you believe that I have never, not once, been to the largest, most important, professional conference of law teachers? I have, however, been to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America a half dozen times. I have not just been, I have presented research at ESA as many times. (Full disclosure: I am also perhaps the only person ever to have a submission (on this subject) rejected from ESA).

As regular ESA attendees know, attending your own discipline’s largest professional gathering is an exhausting experience. Networking, searching for students, advisors, or postdocs, side meetings with collaborators, catching up with former classmates and colleagues, even the ubiquitous cocktails can be a little overwhelming. Then there is the substance, the presentations and posters: First you have to sort through the hundreds of choices, mark down the ones you are obligated to attend for collegiality reasons, followed by the ones you need to attend for substantive reasons, and then, finally, the ones that actually seem interesting. Having carefully mapped out a schedule, the typical ESA attendee also needs to get from one presentation, one mixer, one section meeting, to another without the almost certain interference of running in to a student, advisor, postdoc, collaborator, classmate, or colleague.

Thus is the lovingly fitted equipoise fiercely undone.

The Benefit of Having Nothing to Do

Imagine attending ESA and calmly enjoying your time. Imagine casually leafing through the talks to find those that just seem the most interesting. Imagine raising your hand to ask a question without any fear that somebody in the audience, who might someday be on a hiring committee or writing a tenure letter, thinks your question is naive. Imagine, in other words, attending ESA without the pressure of ESA. What you are now imagining is exactly what it is like for a law professor to attend.

I began attending ESA because my wife—Professor Sara Kuebbing—is an ecologist. I accompanied her to a meeting in Austin, or Portland, or some other lovely city and (don’t tell) I snuck in to a few talks. Being an environmental law professor I found the material, from new measures of biodiversity to green building, interesting and sometimes even useful in my own work. Interesting and useful enough that the following year, the following five years in fact, I actually paid the ungodly fee to register for the conference.

It is worthwhile.

An ecologist typically studies a somewhat esoteric area of ecology. For instance, my wife studies the impacts and processes of co-occurring invasive species. You could call this conservation biology, or restoration ecology, or ecosystem ecology, or community ecology (I admit to still not understanding why ecologists have so many names for what seems like the same thing. “Ecosystem ecology” and “community ecology” strike me as each internally redundant and redundant as to each other). Regardless, she ends up in the same one or two subject-area oral sessions over and over again. A law professor, on the other hand, I have presented on indexing national-level environmental performance, local governance of hydraulic fracturing, and NGO strategies for species conservation, as a few examples. It is hard to place this sort of tangentially relevant work, and it is my sense that, as a result, I, and a few other oddballs, end up in the most eclectic hodgepodge of contributed sessions.

The Benefit of Finding Something to Do

Two or three years ago one of the attendees who saw my presentation asked me to if I’d be interested in workshopping some research with her advisor’s lab. I gladly accepted the invitation and having discussed some difficult points of my work, was able to polish off my manuscript which has since been published by a top journal in my field.

People and Nature Conference Stand

I had a similar experience this past year. I had the pleasure of presenting in the same section as one of my wife’s former professors, Paul Armsworth. Besides asking a really thoughtful question at the conclusion of my presentation, later in the day Dr. Armsworth introduced me to Professor Kevin Gaston and Emilie Aimé. Both, I hope, familiar to readers of this blog. The former is Editor-in-Chief of People and Nature, the latter its managing editor.

Because I had the flexibility not to plan my schedule as tightly as the ecologists at ESA, I was able to sit down with Kevin and Emilie the following day. It was a delight to talk with both. We talked about the distressingly dissimilar process of submitting articles in law and in sciences journals (perhaps a subject worthy of another post on this blog), the way that ecological information makes its way to law professors and the legal literature, and, ultimately, Kevin and Emilie invited me to become the first and so far only law professor to serve as an associate editor of People and Nature.

My first official act as an associate editor was to tape a postcard advertising the journal on my office door. My second official act was to take a picture of that postcard and tweet it. This blog post marks my third official act.

As this post is written for the ecologists who surely make up the vast majority of this blog’s readership, I should conclude with an important note to my law colleagues, if they made it this far. I do plan to attend the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) annual meeting for the first time this year. (And what a coincidence, like ESA, it will be in New Orleans. Unlike ESA, the law professors parted with a bit more money in order to hold the gathering in the pleasant New Orleans winter, when the weather will be somewhere below 40 degrees C.) I presume that given all the burdens of attending a conference in my own field, I will not find AALS nearly as fruitful as ESA.