Visit to Phil Ward's Lab (UC Davis) and the ESA meeting

Kate Sparks

Late last year I travelled to the US to visit the Ant Systematics Lab headed up by Professor Phil Ward at the University of California at Davis. I also attend the annual meetings of the Entomological Collections Network (ECN) and the Entomological Society of America (ESA). The trip was partly funded by the Environmental Futures Network which is an ARC research network set up to help understand and manage Australia's biodiversity (http://www.adelaide.edu.au/efn/).

Despite being a "small town university" the UC Davis campus seems very large by Australian standards. The wide open streets and broadly spaced buildings give the campus a very spacious feel and the absence of cars on campus only adds to this impression. Bikes are the main mode of transport and the rush of students moving between classes on two wheels can make for some rather hairy road crossings at times!

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The Ward lab is part of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, a large and active research department recently ranked as No. 1 in Entomology n the US. Phil and his students undertake a broad range of ant systematics and phylogenetics research spanning several geographic regions. The visit provided a great opportunity for me to get to know a dynamic group of ant researchers. Some of his current students include Andrea Lucky who is finalising her PhD? on Australasian Leptomyrmex, Michael Branstetter who is working on the systematic of Stenamma of Mesoamerica and Bonnie Blaimer (pictured) who is focussing on a systematic revision of Crematogaster of the Malagasy region . In addition to getting to know some interesting people and hear about their research I was able to observe and discuss research protocols used by the group and to see their DNA lab work in action.

One of the added benefits of visiting Phil's lab was the large ant collection he has on site. When I wasn't occupied with molecular work I immersed myself in the drawers of ants he has accumulated over many years of field work in places near and far. It was great to see genera that are not found in Australia and to study the characters on which ant systematics is currently based.

While visiting the group I took the opportunity to present a short talk on my PhD? research which proved to be one of the most valuable activities of the visit. The talk was attended by both Phil's group and Penny Gullan and Pete Cranston's research group, and I received some great feedback and ideas from members of both groups. The impromptu discussion that followed on the challenges of defining species boundaries was particularly interesting and helpful, not only to me but to other early career researchers in the group.

My final day in the Ward lab was spent looking through Phil's meticulous field notes (a learning experience in itself!) for specimens that may be useful to include in my own research. Although I was able to bring only small number back with me I am sure they will be a useful addition to my work.

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From Davis I travelled to Nevada and the casino resort city of Reno to meet up with Andy Austin and attend the ECN and ESA conferences. Being a casino town the accommodation was fairly biased towards the neon filled-all night pokies-scantily clad drinks waitresses kind, but the fantastic breakfast buffet almost made up for these less desirable aspects. The ECN conference held over the weekend was attended by around 150 delegates and covered a fairly broad range of topics. The presentations on capturing and sharing collections information were particularly interesting as was Lyubomir Penev's talk on the new electronic systematics journal ZooKeys (http://pensoftonline.net/zookeys/index.php/journal).

As the main annual gathering of American entomologists the ESA conference was big, both in terms of the number of attendees, which was around 2300, and in the number symposia that provided a fantastic overview of the diversity of entomological research across North America and beyond. Of particular interest and value to me were the Systematics and Biodiversity symposia and two special symposia on Phylogenomics and Non-traditional Web-based Scientific Publication. I had the opportunity to attend an informal conference of the International Society of Hymenopterists and to meet some of the other ant researchers in North America including Brian Fisher and John Longino. The ESA meeting also marked my conference debut with the presentation of a poster detailing my Monomorium research.

Two and half weeks passed very quickly but I arrived home armed with a wealth of new information, ideas and contacts from both the Ward lab visit and the two conferences which will no doubt have a lasting impact on my current and future research interests.

-- KateSparks - 29 Jan 2009

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Poster.jpgjpg Poster.jpg manage 269 K 2009-02-06 - 16:09 KateSparks  
Wardlab.jpgjpg Wardlab.jpg manage 287 K 2009-02-06 - 15:12 KateSparks