Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Return of SVP (2014)

So last week marked the return of my favourite conference, hosted this year in Berlin (albeit a little outside of the centre in the Estrel Hotel). The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology holds its annual meeting on a rotating basis in cities around the world allowing the members to present the results of their research. As the name suggests the topics cover vertebrate palaeontology and this year was no different with everything from fish, dinosaurs, mammals, macroevolutionary trends, taphonomy and even preparation of fossils covered.

My first SVP was in Las Vegas in 2011, and I have been hooked ever since. Ironically a lot of people didn't like the conference in Vegas as it was held in the Paris hotel in all of its twilight glory (as are all Vegas hotels to keep people in perpetual time naivety and thus constantly gambling). Also based on many of the stories of what palaeontologists get up to at conferences, Vegas may have just been a city that overhyped itself and was no crazier than any of the others and somehow disappointed the rest. For the city of sin, it actually was fairly tame for me. I had just started my 2nd year of my PhD and was presenting work from the first year of work. Whilst not ground-breaking I was proud to present a poster on a finite element validation (an engineering technique for studying how structures function) on an ostrich skull. At the time it was the first ones carried out on a bird skull, and I subsequently presented a talk on it at SICB (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology) in San Francisco early in 2012. As with much science that project went through much work and effort, but unfortunately got stuck and with comments from the conferences and eventually peer-review (to be discussed at another point) has died in its current format (and hopefully a postdoc grant for next year will take the initial results and improve on the methods to turn it into the great project/paper it deserves to be).

I digress from the topic of the post, so back to SVP. Having attended the University of Bristol (which has one of the largest palaeontology departments in the world) for 7 years (MSci and PhD), there are always many people I know at the conference so its a fun place to catch up with old friends and colleagues. Not to mention brushing elbows with all of the higher ups from around the world including some I've been lucky enough to be taught by, and even a few I've been digging in the field with. This year was a bit different however as I was competing for the Romer Prize, an award to the top student talk from the society. Each year the 16 best abstracts from current students, and those within a year after finishing their PhD (how I qualified) are selected and they compete. I can safely say I have never spent longer preparing for a talk (first draft was shown 4 weeks before the conference), and I hope the results showed. I was complimented on the talk by several people and my PhD supervisor said it was the best talk she'd seen me give.

Despite this it was not enough to win, and sadly a Bristol colleague, an ex-Bristol PhD, and 2 other students based in Europe failed to overturn the status quo of US universities winning the prize (although a British student in the US did win, so half moral victory). It must be said I really enjoyed the Romer talk session as all of the talks are of high quality and obviously very polished, a sign of how seriously everyone takes it.

The conference presented much opportunity to peruse posters and listen to a range of talks in everything from dinosaurs (my old passion and topic of my talk), to research applicable to my new job (studying the evolution of biomechanics in felid postcrania). However, it wasn't just all work. One thing you may have guessed from earlier comments was that palaeontologists are a social bunch who enjoy a drink or two (ish). There were many drinks had, over which many of the best academic ideas have been derived (and probably more that weren't so good). Indeed there are the usual mix of food and drinks at the first social/mixer held at the German Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) with all its cool sauropods and also the famous Archaeopteryx.

(Shamefully stolen from Wikipedia as I don't have a photo)

Then there was the auction which always provides an interesting way for the society to make money to fund various projects and scholarships with the auctioneers this year dressed as 1920s Americans flappers/mobsters (I think). A funny story happened back in 2012 when the conference was in Raleigh where a friend from the US airforce joined me for the auction night and I was explaining the conference. He asked if the conference was a bit like Comicon for us, to which I rapidly denied we were that sort of nerdy, only to walk into the auction and all of the auctioneers were dressed as Avengers characters... Suffice it to say I have yet to hear the end of that one.

The favourite thing for most is normally the big award dinner and afterparty that follows on. This year was no different with a large group of people gathering for the dinner to honour people who have given so much to the science and the society. After the dinner, the formal atmosphere quickly vapourises with the tradition of people swapping name badges (I believe it was originally a way for students to meet high ups and discuss things before attaining their new name/rank), whilst people enjoy drinks, conversations, music and dancing late into the night (indeed if you youtube the 54th annual meeting dancing: http://youtu.be/5sJJ-hfRYIs you can see how even the highest academics can enjoy letting their hair down). With me having to call it an early night to attempt to catch an early flight (which I did manage to do with a fair bit of prompting to wake up after sleeping through alarms), it signalled the end of my SVP for another year. I fear this may be my last one for a while whilst I work on mainly modern material for the remainder of my postdoc, but I'm certain it wont be my last.

SVP I look forward to meeting you again soon!

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