More thoughts on SVPCA 2017

October 13, 2017

This morning, I and the other 1456 attendees of SVPCA 2017 received a useful document, SVPCA report_for attendees, which collects and analyses delegates’ feedback on the meeting. It prompted me to mention a few more thoughts of my own.

First, I didn’t like the shortening of the meeting, from the usual three or even four days to two and a half (or just two if you ignore the macroevolution symposium). But it’s apparent from the gathered feedback that nearly everyone disagrees with me on this.

My position may be an artifact of my idiosyncratic status on the edge of the field: SVPCA is pretty much my only physical (non-blog) contact with the vertebrate palaeontology community, so by the time I’ve taken a week off work for it, the more of that time I can use for it, the better. By contrast, people who spend most of their work-hours with other palaeontologists don’t have that incentive, and see a longer meeting as a financial burden. I’m guessing that if the survey had specifically asked for opinions on meeting length and then compared those opinions with people’s career stage, they’d find a strong correlation between amateur and other unusual statuses, and preferring a longer meeting.

Sadly (for me), it seems pretty clear how this one is going to go: the meeting is attended overwhelmingly by professionals of various career stages. Since the majority of those prefer the shorter meeting, I imagine Birmingham’s abridged programme will become the new normal.

Second thing: a lot of people complained that the posters were only up for the dedicated two-hour session, and quite a few didn’t like having a dedicated poster session at all. Once more, I find myself in a minority here. As someone presenting a poster, I very much appreciated having time dedicated to it. And I also liked that it was restricted to a specific slot, so I didn’t feel I had to spend the whole meeting babysitting the poster. Wine was provided for this session, which made it feel like a friendly, bustling session with plenty of science going on, and time to go and physically fetch the people who I specifically wanted to discuss my poster with.

So I would definitely support a dedicated two-hour poster session with wine at future meetings; though I wouldn’t object if the posters remained up in the background for the next day, if that was logistically easy. (It wasn’t in Birmingham.)

The third thing, which I forgot to mention on my feedback form, is that lightning talks need to be all together in a single session. These talks didn’t really work at Birmingham. By tagging two or three of them on the end of a regular session, they simply came across as a lesser versions of regular talks — tail-enders with no particular merit of their own.

But I do think lightning talks can work well: I’ve been in conferences (admittedly in computer science and library science rather than palaeo) where the lightning-talk sessions have been the best in the conference. The key is keeping all of them together in a single, dedicated session, and really keeping the pace up: whizzing through each talk within a strictly enforced five-minute time limit, and leaping from subject to subject. It can be exhilarating.

(There were specific reasons why it couldn’t be done this was at this year’s meeting — paucity of lightning-talk submissions, people’s difficult schedules and unexpected withdrawals all meant that the original plan couldn’t be adhered to. But I would hate to see lightning talks dropped from the conference because of their underwhelming impact this time around.)

The fourth thing is that I was not wholly convinced by the symposium. Given the scarcity of talk slots, their limited length, and the carefully blinded abstract review process, it seems inimical to invite a special anointed class of speakers who get twice as long and don’t have to go through review.

I might have been convinced despite this, had the quality of the talks been uniformly higher. But as one respondent to the survey wrote: “I was alarmed and disappointed to hear one presenter say that they had put their talk together the night before, and it showed”. It really did. Surely if being invited to give a double-length talk is anything, it’s an honour. People in receipt of that honour should either do their job to a level that merits it; or, if they don’t have time, politely decline and let someone else have the slot.

Finally, and least important, the annual dinner. This was a curry, with a good selection and far more food than we needed. But the report says “there have been a few comments […] that more people might attend if the food was more of a meat-and-two-veg type affair, and that some people would like to see a more formal, or more ‘special’ dinner”. For whatever it’s worth, I threw my hat in partly because it was a curry. In my experience, attempts at catering “special” dinners for large groups tend to produce mediocre food tarted up, which is why my group tends to skip the dinner.

But I’m glad I went this year. I liked the sense of being part of an ongoing community, of seeing the handover to next year’s host (Rob Sansom), hearing who the winners of the prizes were, and so on.

Advertisements

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

After my short post on what to leave out of a conference talk, here are few more positive thoughts on what to include, based on some of the SVPCA talks that really stayed with me.

First, Graeme Lloyd’s talk in the macroevolution symposium did a great job of explaining very complex concepts well (different ways of mapping morphospace onto phylogeny). It was a necessarily difficult talk to follow, and I did get lost a few times. But, crucially, Graeme offered lots of jump-back-on points, so I was never out of the game for more than a minute or so.

I think that concept of jumping-back-on points is important (albeit clumsily named). It’s easy, if someone is describing for example a detailed osteological point about a bone in basal tetrapods that doesn’t even exist in the animals we know and love, to tune out and lose the thread of the rest of the talk. There is an art in making it easy for people in this situation to tune back in. I’m not sure how it’s done: it might be more a matter of style than of content. I’ll think more on this one.

Also: several times as I watched Graeme’s talk, I internally raised an objection (such as low explanation-of-variation values of PC1 and PC2 in the plots he was showing) only for him to immediately go on to note the issue, and then explain how he deals with it. This should not be too difficult to emulate: anticipate possible objections and meet them in advance. This is something to have in mind when rehearsing your talk.

It was a talk that had obviously had a lot of work put into it. Another talk, which I shall not attribute, had very obviously been thrown together in 24 hours, which I think is flatly unacceptable. When you know you’re going to have a hundred professionals gathered in a room to listen to you, do the work to make it worth the audience’s while. Putting a talk together at the last minute is not a ninja move, or a mark of experience. It’s simple unprofessionalism.

Neil Brocklehurt’s talk was based on a taxon that was of very little interest to me: Milosaurus, and the pelycosaur-grade synapsid group to which it belongs. But his presentation was a textbook example of how to efficiently introduce a taxon and make it interesting before launching into details. There is almost certainly video out there somewhere — the SVPCA talks were filmed — and I recommend it highly when it becomes available. For fifteen glorious minutes, I was tricked into thinking that Carboniferous synapsids are fascinating. And it’s left me thinking that, hey, maybe they are interesting.

 

Revising a poster

September 14, 2017

Yesterday, Matt and I showed our posters in a two-hour session at SVPCA, as two of about thirty. It was actually a hugely positive experience, and it’s left me wondering whether to prefer posters to talks at future conferences — one of us will write about it separately

My poster (left) and Matt’s (right), in their natural environment. Phil Mannion (Mammalia: PrimatesHomoninae) for scale.

But it was eye-opening to road-test what I’d thought was a pretty good poster with real visitors. I quickly realised that the “Biconcavoposeidon” poster was missing two important things.

First, there’s an insert that shows schematic views of amphiplatyan, opisthocoelous, procoelous and amphicoelous vertebra. But it should show two or three of each kind of vertebra, in articulation, so that the insert shows not only the isolated shapes, but how they fit together (or how, in the case of biconcave centra, they do not fit together.)

The second problem: another insert shows — again in schematic form — how vertebrae articulate in amphibians and mammals. But I really needed a third part of that figure showing how the articulation works in birds. I kept needing to point to such an illustration, and I didn’t have one.

But all is not lost: I am not bound to an imperfect poster for all time. The poster is published as part of a PeerJ Preprint, and I can revise that preprint as often as I like. Which means I can revise the poster.

And that is what I plan to do. I’ll make both of the changes described above, and update the published version. The question then becomes: in my publications list, where the poster is explicitly tied to the presentation at SVPCA 2017, should I continue to point to the version that I actually used at the meeting? I am inclined to think so.

But wait: there’s more.

It turned out at the conference that Matt was right when he advised me that I should have made the anaglyph bigger, and placed it at the top of the poster, at eye-level. Instead, I had a sequence of visitors who had to painfully kneel down and peer myopically at the small, low-down version that I used. (Or, more often, they didn’t bother looking at the anaglyph at all — which is a shame, because it’s really informative.)

(Seriously, folks: buy yourself some dirt-cheap red/cyan glasses, and start making use of these incredibly useful, and very simple-to-make, visuals. Everyone who looked at the anaglyph, without exception, was startled at how much more informative it was than the regular image.)

But I am not going to re-organise the poster along those lines in the forthcoming revision. Why not? Because I don’t expect to present the new version at a conference, where eye-level is an issue. Instead, I expect it to stand as a research artefact in its own right, to be viewed on screens or printouts — and for those purposes, the present composition is better. That’s true especially because most people downloading the poster won’t have the red/cyan glasses necessary to view what would be centrepiece of the putative revision; but when presenting the poster at a conference, I can provide the glasses (and I did).

So I think I have now landed on the notion that a poster as a research artefact is a fundamentally different thing from a poster for presentation at a conference. I didn’t see that coming.

If you don’t get to give a talk at a meeting, you get bumped down to a poster. That’s what’s happened to Matt, Darren and me at this year’s SVPCA, which is coming up next week. My poster is about a weird specimen that Matt and I have been informally calling “Biconcavoposeidon” (which I remind you is not a formal taxonomic name).

Here it is, for those of you who won’t be at the meeting (or who just want a preview):

But wait — there’s more. The poster is now also formally published (Taylor and Wedel 2017) as part of the PeerJ preprint containing the conference abstract. It has a DOI and everything. I’m happy enough about it that I’m now citing it in my CV.

Do scientific posters usually get published? Well, no. But why not? I can’t offhand think of a single example of a published poster, though there must be some out there. They are, after all, legitimate research artifacts, and typically contain more information than published abstracts. So I’m happy to violate that norm.

Folks: it’s 2017. Publish your posters.

References

  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2017. A unique Morrison-Formation sauropod specimen with biconcave dorsal vertebrae. p. 78 in: Abstract Volume: The 65th Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy & The 26th Symposium on Palaeontological Preparation and Conservation. University of Birmingham: 12th–15th September 2017. 79 pp. PeerJ preprint 3144v2. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.3144v2/supp-1

 

Or, how a single lateral fossa becomes two foramina: through a finely graded series of intermediate forms. Darwin would approve. The ‘oblique lamina’ that separates the paired lateral foramina in C6 starts is absent in C2, but C3 through C5 show how it grows outward from the median septum. How do I know it grows outward, instead of being left behind during the pneumatization of the more posterior cervicals? Because with very few exceptions, all neosauropod cervicals start out with a single lateral fossa on each side, as illustrated in this post. But many of them end up with two or more foramina. Diplodocus is a nice example of this (from Hatcher 1901: plate 3):

I should clarify that the vertebrae above show that character transformation in this individual, at this point in its ontogeny. The vertebrae of CM 555 are about two-thirds the size of those of CM 3018, the holotype of A. louisae. In CM 3018, even C4 and C5 have completely divided lateral fossae, corresponding to the condition in C6 of CM 555.

As Mike and I discussed in our 2013 neural spine bifurcation paper, isolated sauropod cervicals require cautious interpretation because the morphology of the vertebrae changes so much along the series. The simple morphology of anterior cervicals reflects both earlier ontogenetic stages and more primitive character states. As Mike says, in sauropod necks, serial position recapitulates both ontogeny and phylogeny. So if you have a complete series, you can do something pretty cool: see the intermediate stages by which simple structures become complex.

If you’re thinking this might have something to do with my impending SVPCA poster, you’re right. Here’s the abstract.

For more on serially increasing complexity in sauropodomorph cervicals, see this post.

“Biconcavoposeidon”

August 15, 2017

Here is a fascinating sequence of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebra — AMNH FARB 291 from the”Big Bone Room” at the AMNH:

AMNH FARB 291, five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in right lateral view. The vertebrae are embedded in a plaster block, which has been desaturated in this image.

Matt and I first saw this specimen back in February 2009, when we were mostly there to look at Apatosarusminimus (and then again in 2012). As soon as our eyes lit on it, we couldn’t help but be captivated by its bizarre biconcave centra. We immediately started flippantly referring to it as “Biconcavoposeidon” — the ugliest name we could come up with — and in our subsequent discussions the name has stuck (often abbreviated to “BCP”).

  • Taxonomic note: for avoidance of doubt, “Biconcavoposeidon” is not and will never be a formal taxonomic name, only an informal specimen nickname. If at some future point we conclude that this specimen represents a new taxon, and name it, we will definitely not use the name “Biconcavoposeidon”. If you ever use the name, please do not set it in italics.

As you can see in this front view, the specimen is sheared: the upper part of the vertebrae have been displaced to their left (which is the right as we see it in this image):

AMNH FARB 291, most anterior of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in anterior view.

Apart from the shearing, though, and the truncation of the neural spines shortly above the transverse processes, the specimen is in pretty good nick. Crucially, it’s not been “restored” in plaster to conceal what is and is not real bone — unlike many specimens of that era. It came out of the Bone Cabin quarry in 1898, back when scientific information was routinely discarded in order to obtain a more beautiful-looking specimen.

This is the specimen that I’ll be presenting at SVPCA this year — though only as a poster, unfortunately: there’s no talk for me, Matt or Darren this year. We’ve posted our abstract (including the illustration above) to the nascent PeerJ collection for SVPCA 2017, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the materials from that conference — abstracts, then manuscripts, then papers — appearing in the collection.

So far as we know, there’s no other sauropod specimen with biconcave posterior dorsal vertebrae. (And, no, Amphicoelias is not an exception, despite its name.) But have we missed any?