With great power comes great responsibility…

Words: Samantha Ward

Images: Words: Samantha Ward & Marianne Coquilleau

Flying the flag for the PEARG lab! [Photo credit: Marianne Coquilleau]

I am a scientist. A taxonomist, to be more specific.

Taxonomy is the study of naming, defining, and categorising organisms. There’s a job for that?! Actually, we still have no idea how many species are on Earth! There could be between 5.3 million and 1 trillion… many of which have not been identified. Some species may have already gone extinct without us realising, with the last few individuals left pinned in natural history collections.

The last of their kind? [Photo credit: Author’s own]

Taxonomists are not the Hollywood-style hermits hidden amongst the endless corridors of museum specimens you may be led to believe. As a matter of fact, on occasion, we can be social butterflies (or so we like to think).

“Hollywood-style hermit” … not quite the taxonomist of today! [Picture credit: Author’s own]

Today, we are expected to present our work to the general public (via “outreach” programs) and to fellow researchers (via “inreach” programs). To inform and educate, to share and discuss, and, most importantly, to listen. Science communication is an ever-growing field, raising awareness of science-related topics, enabling collaborations and assisting with ethical and political decision-making. With great power comes great responsibility…

You may or may not have read our blog “An adventure in Alice at the AES conference 2018”, published in January. Another year has passed, and another conference has come around. This time the Australian Entomological Society teamed up, for its 50th AGM and scientific conference, with the Society of Australian Systematic Biologists and the Australasian Arachnological Society, for a conference entitled: “Understanding the Australian biota in a changing world”.

Ok, so that’s a lot of ‘…ological(s)’ and societies. Just imagine a group of people getting together with common interests in Australian creepy crawlies (both 6- and 8-legged!), their classification and their evolution. It’s a party like no other!

Partying science-style (off the clock, of course!) [Photo credit: Marianne Coquilleau]

Day 1

Unlike the never-ending, nightmare expedition that was involved traveling between Alice Springs and Melbourne in 2018, this year’s venue was in Queensland’s capital, Brisbane. A stress-free, two-hour flight, complete with a free inflight cuppa and a tasty snack awaited us. Fellow student Marianne Coquilleau and I set out on our holiday *ehem* work trip to the ‘Sunshine State’.

Brisbane…our holiday *ehem* conference destination [Photo credit: Author’s own]

We settled into our accommodation a short walk from the Queensland Museum, where the programme began with a conference opening mixer. The draw of free food and drinks makes for a good turnout at these events, particularly for students! I was able to reconnect with some friendly faces, some of whom I hadn’t seen since the 48th AES conference in Terrigal, NSW in 2017, when I was a mere first year PhD student. One friendly face there, who has since left our lab group to pastures new was Oliver Stuart, my fellow author on the previous AES blog. Several hours passed of networking, story-swapping and meeting new (and old) faces. The staff kindly allowed us to explore the exhibits, and even the stick insects put on a show for us by moulting from their old skins. It couldn’t have been planned better!

Putting on a show! [Photo credit: Author’s own]

Day 2

The conference officially opened on Monday 2nd December with a Welcome to Country and a beautiful piece played on the didgeridoo. This was followed by invited and keynote presentations, before the general talks got underway. A wide array of topics was covered, from pest management, to invasive ants, to behaviour, to evolution, and to the hotly debated “insect declines”. The latter symposium was attended by the recently retired Chief Editor of Austral Entomology who spoke on the topic “Are insects and other invertebrates in decline in Australia?”, based on his editorial of the same title.

Between the thought-provoking talks, we would gather up our pages of scribbled notes and convene in the foyer to enjoy the delightful spreads laid out for us. Morning teas, lunches, afternoon teas, and even the poster session were catered with scones, cakes, sandwiches, curries, salads… One delegate said, “We’ll return home several kilos heavier!” Sadly, he was not wrong!


Even the possums got in on the feeding frenzy! [Photo credit: Author’s own]

During the evening session many attendants, the majority of which were students, stood up to present rapid-fire talks. This is always one of my favourite activities, as each talk provides a snapshot into the presenter’s research within a three-minute period. Having participated in the Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT) at the University of Melbourne last year, I can corroborate that it is a very tricky task to convey enough information in such a short time without overwhelming listeners.

After a long first day of talks, the programme continued with the student quiz night. Small groups gathered and walked over together to the venue; a pub situated 15-minutes walk from the Convention Centre. Brock Hedges, the newly appointed student representative, organised a wonderful evening of games, trivia, yet more food and free drinks! Better still, our team won first place in the trivia (for the second year running!) and were awarded an extremely generous prize donated by Australian Entomology Supplies Pty Ltd. It made for an interesting return journey when the sweep net (or butterfly net, as you may know it) did not fit into my suitcase. Somehow, though, it made it back in one (actually two) piece/s.

A work of art! [Photo credit: author’s own]

Day 3

The next couple of days continued in a similar fashion. We enjoyed more keynote and invited presentations and the Phil Carne Student Prize, which was won by Braxton Jones, from Macquarie University, who presented some wonderful videos demonstrating the spraying behaviour of peppermint stick insects.

During the afternoon session I presented my PhD work thus far, entitled ‘Understanding and incorporating aphid parasitoids within IPM strategies in Australian grain crops’. With the usual reference to Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ as a comparison to the behaviour of wasps parasitising aphids – see my earlier blog, “Biology of the babushkas” for more information if you find yourself scratching your head. Discussions followed with fellow scientists around my work on the effects of seed treatments on beneficial insects. Suggestions were made about further analyses that could be undertaken, and stories were swapped over observations made in the field. These interactions are the reason we attend such conferences because, as they say, “two heads are better than one”.


Presenting my research [Photo credit: Marianne Coquilleau]

That evening was the long-awaited conference dinner, which never disappoints. Yet more food was devoured; this time at the wonderfully located ‘Rivershed Room’, overlooking Story Bridge. Sat around large circular tables, enjoying a three-course meal. We were able to discuss our interests and work with other researchers in a relaxed environment. The excitement and long days meant most of us were in bed at a reasonable hour. That said I left several delegates twirling on the dancefloor to Abba, so I cannot speak for all.

Our view from the restaurant – the festively lit Story Bridge! [Photo credit: Marianne Coquilleau]

Day 4

The Pat Marks Medal presented in honour of Dr Elizabeth “Pat” Marks, the Society’s first Vice President and Chairman of the Executive was awarded to the “father figure of Australian entomology”, Dr Murray Fletcher, the society’s Director of communications.

It was Marianne’s turn to present in the afternoon, (after pulling the short straw and being one of the last to speak) She did a fantastic job, further flying the flag for the use of parasitoids to control pests.

Marianne in full swing! [Photo credit: Author’s own]

Concluding the conference, the winners of each competition were announced, with the illustration prize awarded to Marianne whose work will, for two years running, adorn the front cover of Myrmecia.

Museum visit

One of the sights of Brisbane [Photo credit: Author’s own]

I was lucky enough to have a behind-the-scenes visit pre-arranged for the Queensland Museum insect collection, courtesy of Susan Wright, Karin Koch, and Chris Burwell. During this appointment, after an interim day of sight-seeing and resting, I went through the collections in search of wasps relevant to my studies. A concurrent conference on Australian native bees meant the museum was swarming with fellow hymenopterists (‘specialists in ants, bees or wasps’). The smell of the collections is something you either love or hate. For me, it reminds me of home and my time volunteering at the British Natural History Museum. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of those endless corridors of museum specimens, but managed to drag myself away to visit the brand-new exhibition, ‘Spiders – the exhibition’ on, you guessed it, spiders. Sadly, I have to confess, my love for invertebrates does not stretch to these 8-legged creatures and so I decided to face my fear. I can honestly say, though still not a super fan of arachnids, I would definitely recommend a visit to see this wonderfully curated exhibition.

Facing my fear [Photo credit: Author’s own]

Heading home

After an early morning rise at 4am I spread my wings back to Melbourne. During my flight I had time to reflect upon the week his was, most likely, my last conference as a student (as I am due to hand in my thesis in 2020). I will certainly look back at all those I’ve attended with fond memories. As an international student these events have enabled me to travel around Australia to regions I may never have thought to visit. I am hopeful I will be able to attend the next year’s AES conference in Mount Gambier, South Australia, a beautiful spot between Melbourne and Adelaide. Perhaps with plenty more information to convey.

But for now, it is time to get back to the office and write my thesis. Wish me luck!

Spreading my wings [Photo credit: Author’s own]