American Ornithology 2017 – Some Words

Last week (1 August – 3 August), I attended American Ornithology 2017 in East Lansing, MI. It was my first time at a conference of that size, and I hope it was my first of many. There are many words that I think can be used to sum up my experience at this conference. I originally intended for this post to be about the applications of agent-based modelling to Piping Plovers (a follow-up of my last post – an introduction to agent-based models). However, I thought I might share a few words about my experience at American Ornithology 2017 and how it has shaped my future in combining my passions of computer science and ornithology. Warning, things are going to get cheesy.

Excitement

The majority of the time between getting accepted to present a poster at this conference and actually leaving to go to the conference was spent stressing about how I was going to get there, how I was going to pay for it, and whether I would have a poster worth presenting. Once all that was sorted out (pretty much up to the day before I left for the conference), all that was left was excitement.

First, excitement for a road trip. Though travelling isn’t a predominant thing in my life, I do enjoy being able to go to new places. I had been to Michigan before, but I hadn’t been to East Lansing. I was excited for the trip there, I was excited to see what Michigan State University was like, and I was excited to be able to do some birdwatching in another country.

Then, excitement for the conference topic; that, of course, being birds. I was going to be in rooms with hundreds of people, all with a common interest of birds. There were going to be people who may have seen thousands of different birds in their lifetime. There were also going to be people who have travelled to extreme northern, southern, eastern, and western areas of the world just to study a certain bird. And I was going to be with these people.

Finally, excitement for the science and research. The goal of conferences like these is to showcase the advances in research in the field. I was going to be listening to scientists from all over North America (some even from across the ocean) share what they’ve found out about birds in their studies. I was going to be seeing what advances they’ve made in migration models, what more we know about conservation, and what new things we’ve learned about behaviour. Most exciting, I was going to have a share in the research by presenting what I’ve learned about piping plovers.

The excitement lasted well into arriving at the conference and is still present as I type this out.

Overwhelmed

So. Many. People. I was excited about how many amazing minds all focused on the conservation of birds was in one room, but I soon realized my worst nightmare of being in a room of hundreds of people and not knowing a single one. I did, however, know OF some people that I had connected with on Twitter prior to the conference, and my mind was soon put to ease as I slowly met them in person.

So. Much. Science. Each day consisted of symposia and general sessions in which fellow scientists presented a 12-15 minute presentation on their research. I was so amazed with what people are doing, but I was also so overwhelmed and so humbled about how much I DON’T know about ornithology, computer science, and statistics. Of course, this just gives me motivation to go and learn it, so that’s the next step in my journey.

Inspired

I think this is the key emotion that I’m feeling after attending this conference. I didn’t expect to be necessarily “inspired” from this conference per say. I expected to gain some information in the field of ornithology, make some new friends in the field, and that was it.

But what I gained was so much more.

I gained a sense of belonging. The whole reason I started this blog was to showcase my “journey” in trying to combine my passion for computer science with my passion for ornithology. I thought it might be a unique thing. As it turns out, it’s not as unique as I thought. And that is 100% okay with me. Data science, data management, and the use of statistical models are becoming increasingly useful in the field of ornithology. Heck, I even went to a whole session on the use of computer modelling in ornithology. And not once did I feel a sense of dismay that “someone else has done computer science and ornithology first”. Instead, I now felt like I belonged. I felt like I had a place in the world of ornithology, and that my thoughts on ornithology, even as a computer scientist, mattered.

I also gained a sense of purpose. I admit, I know how cheesy that sounds. I’m dying a bit on the inside just writing that out. But I think it fits. I was inspired from the very first day when I listened to Deborah Cramer’s keynote speech. In her speech, Cramer talked about her journey in writing her book, “The Narrow Edge”. I admit, I have not read the book yet, but it has absolutely moved to the top of my “to-read” list. She describes the increasing troubles that the Red Knot has in its yearly migration from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic breeding grounds. It obviously saddened me to hear the new struggles the Red Knot faces, and the new struggles that so many birds are starting to face, due to the rapidly changing climate. But a quote from Cramer has stuck with me ever since she said it, and it’s what sparked the explosion of inspiration that I gained from this conference. In her keynote speech, and I believe in her book, she said:

“Who hears the birds when they cry? You do.”

She was right. Every single scientist in that room are hearing the birds cry. Those scientists are seeing bird species drop in numbers year-to-year. Those scientists are seeing migration patterns change in response to the ever changing world in the Anthropocene. Those scientists are seeing the habitat loss in birds created by deforestation and development. Those scientists recognize birds as ecological indicators of the world. And by doing the research they are doing, those scientists are giving a voice to the birds.

Listening to that quote, I realized that I was, in fact, one of those scientists.

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