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SMBE Fitch Symposium goes online – and the future of digital academic meetings

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in many different ways this year. For academics, one of those ways has been the cancellation of all in-person international conferences for 2020. In the face of lingering global uncertainty, some 2021 conferences have already been cancelled too.

Although cancelling was completely necessary, it was a little sad to realise that my next 12 months would no longer include Québec City, Cleveland, Ohio, and Anchorage, Alaska. Travelling to unexpected, exciting locations for international conferences every ‘summer’ (Australian winter!) has been one of the greatest pleasures of my last five years.

On the flip side, these cancellations have forced parts of our annual events to go digital for the first time. This is very positive. I am keenly aware of both the environmental consequences, and the underlying inequity, of holding annual professional events that require expensive, long-distance travel. Despite initiatives to fund travel for those who need it (especially by my favourite society, SMBE), sometimes getting to the US, or Europe, or wherever we are meeting that year, is simply out of reach for practical or financial reasons.

For all these reasons, it was exciting that the SMBE Walter Fitch Symposium went ahead online this year. Perhaps I’m slightly biased as a finalist, because it meant I was still able to deliver my talk. But I do think that this set a fantastic precedent for the practicality of holding parts of academic conferences online, both in the short-term COVID-19 world, and in the longer term. As we think more about the importance of environmental impact and global inclusion in science, a move towards at least partially digital conferences seems essential.

As always, the Fitch Symposium showcased postgraduate research from current or recent PhD graduates. This year, via YouTube. You can catch up on the talks here; Fitch Symposium YouTube playlist, or (excuse the self-promotion), you can watch my talk below!


The talented Alex Cagan also sketched this fabulous visual summary of my talk, which captures the main points in an instant!

PhD accepted, and new position!

Thrilled that my PhD was accepted without revision two weeks ago! Grateful to the two examiners for their very kind feedback. The remaining chapters should be coming out as papers over the next year, but in the meantime – please let me know if you would like a copy.

Another little belated update; I am excited to have started a new position as a postdoc with Craig Moritz at ANU in Canberra. I’ll be continuing to work on population genomics of native Australian reptiles and mammals, and on the genomics of Gehyra geckos!

New paper on the cover of Evolution

On the cover

Roycroft EJ, Nations JA, Rowe KC. 2020. Environment predicts repeated body size shifts in a recent radiation of Australian mammals, Evolution 74:3, 694-695.

Our new paper made the cover of the March issue of Evolution! This lovely little Notomys is part of Melbourne Museum’s Live Exhibits. Photo by David Paul.

Closely related species that occur across steep environmental gradients often show clear body size differences. Generally, species living in colder habitats or environments tend to be larger, while species in hotter habitats are smaller. This pattern is predicted by a biogeographic principle called ‘Bergmann’s Rule’.

We were interested in looking at this pattern in the Australian endemic Pseudomys Division, a recent radiation of small mammals that live across a diverse range of habitats in Australia – from the arid central desert to wet forest in mountains!

In our new paper we collated body size data and occurrence records for 31 species in the Pseudomys Division and used Bayesian phylogenetic models to test whether the biome and environmental conditions each species lives in can predict their body size.

Our results show that body size in these species predictably increases in the mesic biome and decreases in arid and monsoon biomes, in concordance with Bergmann’s rule. It is possible that we see this pattern due to the thermoregulatory benefits for species that live in cold environments – i.e., being larger helps to keep you warm in the cold, while being smaller helps to dissipate heat in the hot! There are also more resources available in colder, wetter forest habitats than in the arid desert; which also likely contributes to this pattern.

Check out the paper here: https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.13859

You can also see the nice ‘Digest’ write up by El-Deeb et al. on our article here: https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.13909

Royal Society of Victoria Young Scientist Research Prize

I was honoured to receive the 2019 Young Scientist Research Prize from the Royal Society of Victoria, for research in Biological Sciences.

It was a great privilege to be among an amazing lineup of finalists, who competed by presenting talks in a public forum at the Royal Society on the 15th of August. The talks were also live-streamed online!

A big thank you to the Royal Society for a fantastic night highlighting the amazing research being done by Victoria’s early career researchers, and to the wonderful Priya Mohandoss, who wrote a feature article on my research in the Royal Society’s newsletter this month: https://rsv.org.au/wp-content/uploads/December-2019-Newsletter.pdf

New paper out in Conservation Genetics!

This week, my honours work (and 1st first author paper!) went online in Conservation Genetics (you can find it here!). Very excited to finally share this research that was done under the wonderful supervision of Dr. Agnès Le Port and Dr. Shane Lavery, during my time at the University of Auckland.

collage_SBD_new

Using nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from short-tail stingrays, we determined their population genetic structure across the southern hemisphere and showed strong evidence for male-biased dispersal within New Zealand.

We reported stronger mitochondrial DNA structure compared to nuclear DNA structure at a local scale (within New Zealand), as well as stronger structure among female individuals compared to males for both marker types. We also found that male individuals were significantly more likely than females to be migrants to the populations in which they were sampled from, suggesting that males tend to disperse a lot more than females. Our estimates suggest that male-mediated gene flow is at least five times that of female-mediated gene flow.

This pattern of ‘male-biased dispersal’ is well-described in mammals, and may be linked to the benefits that females experience by remaining in safe, known habitats for bringing up their offspring, as opposed to males, who benefit from spreading their genes. Recent studies in sharks have also reported male-biased dispersal, and our new paper adds to this growing body of research by providing evidence for the pattern in rays.

You can find a free, read-only copy here

Or you can request a downloadable .pdf copy here (via ResearchGate), and I will happily provide it!