ASAB in Winter..

I have just returned from the Association for Animal Behaviour (ASAB) winter meeting. I’ve always enjoyed this mini-conference, which is traditionally held over two days in December, at the ZSL in London. It’s a nice way to meet up with others in your field and generally find out what people are working on. You also get to go round London Zoo for free during the lunchbreak. Over the years, London in Winter, lots of behavioural talks, walks around the zoo and meeting other behavioural ecologists in London pubs have become the main things I associate with the onset of Christmas.

B3_8-HpIEAARy89Photo from ASAB Winter 2014 twitter account

While I’d attended this meeting a few times, I’d never actually presented anything. This was to change this year. This year’s theme was “Individuals in groups” which fits my work rather well. So I applied to present a talk, and got accepted.

We got to London the night before and got to the conference bright and early for the first day of the meeting. It was great to see some familiar faces and to catch up with old friends. Getting there somewhat early was a good idea as it turned out there was a much larger turnout than anticipated, with some 250 people attending. Many ended up sitting on the floor or standing at the back.

After the first few talks one of the organisers stood up.

“The bad news is, there isn’t enough wine for everyone.”

There was a collective indrawn breath as 250 behavioural ecologists prepared to riot.

“The good news is, we have ordered some more!”

Cue cheering.

B4FXUaVIcAAloqjPhoto from ASAB Winter 2014 twitter account

On the second day, I was speaking.

This talk has evolved over the course of the year as the work came together. I first gave a sort-of prototype of it while in a haze of painkillers back at Easter ASAB. At this point I had just got the video analysis code sort of working and knew sort of where I was going in terms of the models I would use. After I returned from fieldwork later in the year I got to work refining the video analysis,building a set of tools so as to eventually analyse all the sequences I have. I also got to work on writing the code for the simulation models that I would later compare to the real data. I presented my initial results from this work, based on a selection of my video sequences at ISBE in New York.

Since then I’ve got round to analysing all the sequences I have. This took far longer than I expected, but simulations are now being compared to my complete dataset rather than a subset.

simcompareExample of comparing data from a real raft to that from a simulated raft

I also completely rebuilt the way diving and surfacing worked in the simulation. This obviously complicated matters. There are now nine different combinations of dive and surface rules to deal with, which also required rewriting the code that searches for the best fitting model.

Other bits of the talk had stayed exactly the same, such as the introduction. I should REALLY know it well by now. Nevertheless, I was still incredibly nervous on the morning I was to be speaking. I was in the middle of the morning session, so infinitely preferable to being one of the last talks of the day as I had been before.

The annoying thing about this is that when speaking, it’s generally nervousness that will cause you to slip up, mangle your words or generally forget what it is your talking about. The precise things you’re nervous about happening. It’s a self perpetuating cycle. You’re nervous about messing up due to nervousness. The anticipation is agonising as you sit there trying to enjoy the talks before yours (which was pretty easy in this case as they were great, a lovely distraction!)

tumblr_m9xr5uEXdT1rdq725o1_1280I’d been reading Dune the night before, so was probably mumbling the litany against fear to myself.

When it was my turn (12:00 on the dot) I had to do a computer change over, switching the laptop on the podium from a Mac to a PC and then plugging in the projector. Amazingly I managed not to drop anything expensive. Once I had done this, I was handed a microphone. Oh dear, something else to worry about. Especially as I rather like to wave my arms about as I talk. I was going to have to be careful not to hurl it into the crowd or deafen everyone with feedback.

Then I looked up.

The view through Julian-cam looked something like this (blurriness included no doubt)

B4A1OHvIAAAEsMf.jpg largePhoto from ASAB Winter 2014 twitter account

It was an audience of 200+ people. Admittedly I’d known this already, but standing in front of them all rather rammed the point home. I was introduced and began speaking.

10858388_10100273233232435_2563350174951693748_nMe in the middle of my talk, explaining the surfacing rules. Photo credit: Richard Woods, who also spoke

I think it went well. As I mentioned before I find it hard to judge how a talk is going while I’m actually doing it. I improvised a sort-of joke at the expense of my study species. I wasn’t thrown by the new slides I’d added. I did go “arg” at one point and start a sentence again, but everyone was too polite to notice. Results from my attempts to read the facial expression of my supervisor to see how it was going were inconclusive.

The general reception seemed positive though. The questions were fairly straight-forward, with some questions about other aspects of the study (if there was a difference between behaviour depending on whether the birds were diving over rocks or sand. I said the words “sandy bottom” but nobody smirked too much.

Later I was shown some of the live-tweeting that had gone on during my talk, which was nice (though several were from people I know). I suppressed a snigger when sandy bottoms were also retweeted.


I could now relax and enjoy the remaining talks. Afterwards several people came up and spoke to me about my talk and my work, which is always fun. Not having a microphone in my hand anymore, I could wave my hands around as much as I liked.

This was a great conference focused on one of the topics I’m most interested in, with loads of fantastic talks. Getting out of the office for a few days to mix with other people working on similar (and yet different!) things to me is always great.

Back to work now I suppose!


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