BEACON 2012 Congress Recap

The annual BEACON Congress took place this week at Michigan State University. In addition to talks and posters about ongoing research and education progress, one of the most important kinds of sessions held at BEACON Congresses are “Sandbox Sessions.” Each of these sessions is organized around one topic, often a kind of “Grand Challenge” in evolutionary science that BEACONites are interested in pursuing. The format of these sessions is informal and collaborative, with one or two moderators encouraging input from all attendees, with the goal of generating ideas and new collaborations for BEACON research. This year’s Congress featured nine Sandbox Sessions on a variety of topics, described below.

Epigenetics, led by Joseph Graves (faculty, NCAT). This session started with a discussion of the definition of epigenetics – what it is, and what it is not. Many broad phenomena are often called “epigenetics” without any rigorous testing to test that hypothesis, and may simply be polymorphisms. Participants also considered how BEACON is well-suited to push this research forward.

Techniques for Visualizing Evolution, led by Heather Goldsby (postdoc, UW). In this session, participants identified the biggest challenges faced when trying to visualize evolution, including dealing with large amounts of data and representing multidimensional concepts like fitness landscapes. A variety of potential tools were discussed.

Evolution in Action and Global Change, led by Jeff Morris (postdoc, MSU). Participants discussed how understanding evolution is important for making predictions about the effects of climate change and other global phenomena. A variety of methods for studying this topic were also discussed.

Considerations for Next Generation Sequencing, led by Jeff Barrick (faculty, UT). Jeff Barrick gave an introduction to the various kinds of data available and best practices for handling them, and also shared the variety of courses and workshops available at BEACON institutions. Participants shared some new techniques, and discussed the challenges inherent in analyzing certain parts of genomes.

Dynamics of Predator-Prey Systems, led by Aaron Wagner (postdoc, MSU). This session was heavily attended by both biologists and engineers, who were interested in the topic for very different reasons. Predator-prey dynamics are extremely useful for developing search functions, particularly because one is less likely to get locked into a single solution due to the coevolution between predator and prey. Participants discussed ways to improve communication between biologists and engineers in this domain, especially because certain terms were not always used in the same way.

Collaborating with Minority-Serving Institutions, led by Judi Brown Clarke (Diversity Director, MSU). In addition to our partners at North Carolina A&T State University, our Congress was joined by faculty from two other minority-serving institutions: Dr. Aditi Pai from Spelman College, and Dr. Joseph Onyilagha from University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The group discussed the challenges of teaching evolutionary biology at minority-serving institutions, the need for mentoring to ensure a smooth transition between college and graduate school, and ways in which BEACON could reach out to these institutions with the goal of increasing diversity in evolutionary science.

Evolution of Sex, led by Barry Williams (faculty, MSU) and Ben Kerr (faculty, UW). Participants in this session discussed the ways in which sexual reproduction may have evolved, and the difficulties in designing experimental research to test these hypotheses. Digital evolution experiments have demonstrated that even though sexual reproduction has enormous benefits, it does not always evolve in experimental systems.

Evolution of Social Interactions, led by Arend Hintze (postdoc, MSU, who, by the way, is looking for a job!). This session addressed questions such as: What is the definition of “social”? Is there a continuum between social and non-social tasks? Does the brain use abilities acquired to solve non-social tasks to solve social tasks, or do social tasks require higher-order solutions? How essential is communication for social interactions?

Harnessing Evolution, led by Betty Cheng (faculty, MSU). This session focused on the huge range of evolutionary computation techniques currently being used in engineering, and the challenges involved in applying these techniques. Finally, the outreach potential of evolutionary computation was discussed – for example, the hands-on experience provided by robots.

This year’s Congress was the best-attended yet, and we look forward to seeing the products of all this dynamic interaction!

BEACONites: do you have photos of Congress that you’d like to share? Please send them to me at djwhitta at msu dot edu.

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