BugBitten A Tale of Two Conferences

Attending conferences is fun! You get to hear about topics that are inherently interesting to you, spend time with people who share your interests, meet up with old friends, but also meet new people and learn new things, and perhaps even develop new collaborations! It is with these hopes that I planned out to attend two very different conferences this summer, and here I report on how my experiences fulfilled my expectations.

The first conference I attended was the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The Ecological Society of America (or ESA) is the premier organization of ecologists in the United States. This year, they held their Annual Meeting, lasting the entire week of August 6-11, with several thousand participants, in Portland, OR, which is only 5 and a half hours by car from where I live in Spokane, WA. I really wanted to attend the conference in person, but eventually I chose to attend virtually to fulfill family obligations. While the Annual Meeting features presentations and posters across the entire spectrum of ecology, there is a Disease Ecology section of ESA which I’m a member of. The section organized 7 different sessions focused on “Disease and Epidemiology”, on Wednesday and Thursday of the conference, each 1 hour and 30 minutes long, with a total of 39 talks. There were also additional talks in other sessions, focused on various aspects of disease, for a total of about 150 talks, as well as about 60 posters.

I was very excited to learn about all these studies, even if virtually, and created a schedule for myself of the most interesting talks in the many concurrent sessions using the conference website. Looking through the speakers and topics presented, I was surprised to see many of the same people I met (or worked with) during my postdoctoral studies 10-15 years ago. For example, the Best Student Paper Award in the Disease Ecology section went to Annakate Schatz, who is a graduate student in the lab of Andrew Park at the University of Georgia (UGA), who was one of my postdoc mentors when I worked there. The Best Student Poster Award went to Katie Tseng, who is a graduate student of Maria del Pilar Fernandez at Washington State University, who I collaborate with in Washington State on ticks. And just to show how small the disease ecology world is, I found a presentation by Andrew Kramer, who was a postdoc in the lab of John Drake at UGA when I was also working there, co-authored by none other than Christina Faust who was our editor at Bugbitten previously! Many of the topics dealt with non-vector-borne wildlife diseases that we rarely cover here in Bugbitten, such as chytridiomycosis or snake fungal disease, but there were quite a few talks on vector-borne diseases. For example, Mercedes Pascual and her students presented on how partial cross-immunity and antigenic complexity in Plasmodium falciparum results in a threshold level of intervention intensity above which malaria can resurge, but below which it will go extinct following the cessation of intervention. While I wasn’t able to present personally, I was proud that one of my graduate students, Sarah Flores, presented her poster on her investigations of a nematode found in stickleback fish at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

Unfortunately, unlike for conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of these presentations were not recorded, or streamed over a Zoom session, so I was left with only reading the abstracts of these talks and posters, same as you can. There were both 6 Virtual and 42 Hybrid sessions organized, some of which I was able to view and participate in and learn from. Their recordings are also available to me with my remote conference registration, but unfortunately none of them were focused specifically on diseases, so I will omit them here. There were also 5 plenary sessions, which were also recorded, with one of them having connections to diseases through ecological and national security perspectives. Attending the conference virtually, I had the usual issues with at-home priorities making it difficult to even attend the available virtual and hybrid sessions, or plenary sessions that I did find interesting. Of course, I was not meeting old friends, or meeting new people, or developing collaborations. All in all, I wish I would have been able to attend the conference in person, and given the limited access to talks and sessions virtually, I’m not planning on attending ESA virtually in the future. While virtual attendance was substantially cheaper than I would have spent to attend in person, I’d rather aim to make the trip next year to Long Beach, CA for the next Annual Meeting.

The other conference I attended, the One Health Conference in Washington State, organized by the Washington State Department of Health (WADOH) at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA on August 16, was of a very different kind. First of all, I was able to attend this conference is person, while there was also a virtual attendance option available. There were about a 100 people attending in person, across various Local Health Jurisdictions, state and federal agencies, and universities, with another 150 attending virtually. There was only a single session going, instead of the many concurrent sessions at ESA, so one did not have to choose which session to attend. The conference started with the organizers, as well as Umair Shah, the Washington State Secretary of Health welcoming us. WADOH has recently unveiled a new Transformational Plan, which includes Global and One Health as one of it’s priorities. We heard an update on the results of the One Health Needs Assessment I participated in this Spring, with a report due to be published soon, followed by a manuscript. In addition, we heard from a number of speakers from different agencies, and public health students at the University of Washington, across a range of topics such as the relationship between animal and human health; indigenous perspectives on One Health; the implementation of One Health at the Local Health Jurisdiction level; the role of wildlife rehabilitators in disease surveillance; antimicrobial resistance patterns and antimicrobial stewardship practices in our State; SARS-CoV-2 infections in dogs; and many others. As at previous such conferences, which regularly occured before 2020, I was most fascinated by the reports of case investigations, such as the story of how Rickettsia felis was identified in a patient in Seattle, King County; or how the British Columbia Center for Disease Control identified highly pathogenic avian influenza in skunks found dead or dying in the Vancouver area, with unique mutations making these viruses more adapted to infect mammals. We also heard about the use of wastewater surveillance not just for COVID-19 but for anti-microbial resistance; how extreme heat can lead to a surge in Vibrio parahaemolyticus infections; and how large-scale climate patterns such as ENSO can be potentially used to predict Harmful Algal Blooms and associated toxin levels. Finally, we heard about the importance of an integrated water resource management, and how to correctly use the CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Toolkit. During the lunchbreak, we also had the opportunity to learn from several posters, one of them created by students in my Disease Ecology Senior Capstone class this spring on tick repellents. Several of those posters were presented by graduate students, including by one of the students in Maria del Pilar Fernandez’s lab (again, small world!), giving me an opportunity to meet her.

As I mentioned above, conferences ideally provide you with the opportunity to get to know new people and develop new collaborations. Coming in slightly late to the conference hall in the morning, I happened to sit down at an empty chair at the table closest to the door, and it turns out that two of my table-mates were epidemiologists working at the Spokane Regional Health District who I never met before. Sometimes you have to go to a conference in a different town to meet the people you can work with in your own town! After introductions, it turned out that there was an opportunity to collaborate on identifying an actionable threshold for COVID-19 wastewater levels in Spokane County, and we developed some ideas on that during the conference.

The second day of the conference was an optional, in-person only affair, developed as a follow-up to the One Health Needs Assessment I participated in before. Here, we had to choose between three topics each in two different sessions, and had to think about and discuss how to move the particular topics forward. I chose the topic of “data optimization” first, where we quickly realized that there are very many data sources out there, some of which were completely new to most of us (for example, the Washington Open Data Platform)  but identifying the relevant datasets, their ownership, governance, quality and provenance, and connecting them to other relevant datasets, is a daunting challenge. The facilitators did a good job following the 1-2-4-All approach, where we had to think about a question (e.g. what would an ‘ideal’ data world look like for One Health), write down our responses, and share them with our neighbor, then with the next pair of people, and finally with the entire group. It was interesting to see the many differing perspectives, from the staff at mosquito control districts to the people doing legislative work, and how all of them could use datasets that were much more integrated. Issues with data access also surfaced in the afternoon discussion I participated in on Climate Change, specifically the lack of our connections with the State Climatologist and the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group.

Our discussions looped back more and more to the need for coordinated funding, at least as a seed fund, to move the needle on many of the topics raised. All proposals for funding need a specific plan, and a budget, and need to be based on a solid narrative on why the request is important and what impact it will achieve. Paradoxically, in order to obtain funding, we need to demonstrate that the One Health approach we’re proposing is effective in protecting people, ideally with specific case studies, such as the integrated approach to dealing with avian influenza in both animals and people, or with the combination of mosquito surveillance and control, and public messaging in terms of West Nile virus. Of course, public health is a field where if you’re successful, nothing bad happens, and it is difficult to quantify how much harm could have occured had a One Health approach not been applied. However, this might be a way forward to generate funding to push One Health in Washington State to the next level. I’m looking forward to participating in these efforts, and hopefully reporting them to you here as well in the future.

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