Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC)

Last week I attended SETAC's annual conference, which took place in Milwaukee. I gave a talk about toxistoichiometry, and attended the whole meeting.

There's a lot to talk about with SETAC, so I think I'm just going to hit the memorable stuff for now:

1. SETAC's annual conference is riddled with extremely poor talks. The 2nd talk of the Green Chemistry session was by an EPA scientist who didn't really give a talk at all. He simply recited a list of criteria for what makes a chemical 'environmentally friendly.' No justification, no explanation, nothing but a recitation of conditions. I wish this were unusual, but in fact, SETAC appears plagued by talks from people who don't really seem to care about producing a quality talk. That's extremely disappointing, especially when the titles and/or abstracts sound so promising. By comparison, the annual conference for the North American Benthological Society (NABS) typically contains a slew of extremely well-done talks.

2. The heavy metals story is overwhelming. There were multiple sessions and hundreds of posters detailing the toxicity and effects of heavy metals. This was encouraging to me, since I've been working to stop a project by an energy company to dump heavy metals into the Kansas river. The sheer volume of evidence in support of the hazards of heavy metals makes my job easier.

3. Ecotoxicologists at SETAC need to get better, and that's all there is to it. One speaker used a tennis-shoe metaphor/literary device to get her point across ( the "Just do it." approach or a "New Balance"), without ever explaining what either meant. Another speaker referred to a 24 hr toxicity test on crustaceans as 'Chronic.' A third speaker (actually the chair of my session) gave a talk that consisted entirely of him recounting an unsuccessful survey for hellbender salamanders and then showing us pictures he took while he was doing the survey.
These are unacceptable, and we should expect better from scientists giving talks at major conferences. If you don't have any results or data, don't try to amuse me by showing me your pretty underwater photographs of a bluegill. A talk at a scientific conference should include, at minimum, a complete story of some research, along with necessary background info and some kind of data.

4. The good talks: While the "Ecotoxicology" sessions were mostly awful, the "Wildlife Ecotoxicology" session was amazing. I didn't agree with all of the science (particularly one speaker's assumption-laden justification for his qualitative interpretation of his data) in almost every talk we got an introduction, a compelling methodology, and a insightful synthesis. This peaked with Nico van den Brink and Frouke Vermeulen's separate talks demonstrating the importance of taking into account foraging on heavy metal uptake from both a theoretical and experimental basis. That whole session was stellar, and has to rank as the overall highlight of the conference.

5. Tyrone Hayes. This guy gave the best scientific talk I have ever seen in my life. You can read about him online here, here, and here. He made a compelling case that Syngenta has bought out the integrity of several researchers and may be unfairly influencing the EPA. Apparently this fight has been going on for awhile, although I hadn't been fully aware of it. I do know that corporate interests certainly seem able to "buy" whatever results they want from unscrupulous researchers.

6. My talk. I thought my talk went fairly well. I had a lot of good questions, mostly on a more general front, but also a few that made me think. When people see this research, they start thinking up lots of intuitive ideas about how to go forward, and for some reason, a lot of these ideas are pretty obvious. I had multiple questions that paralleled my own thoughts, and the thoughts others have offered. One of my hopes during this conference was to interact with some profs who might be interested in doing some toxi-stoich research in their own labs. I don't know if that is going to happen.

There was a lot more that happened, and I'll try to recount some of it here, along with my thoughts on how to improve scientific conferences.

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