Post report on the Tetrapod Zoology Conference and PEP update.
Hi. I’m Steve (Owen), the project manager for/of (?) the Phylogeny Explorer (Project) – you know, that big web of string that Aron has created, with little knots in it that all have strange Latin names, that he somehow thinks people might be interested in looking at. Yes, that’s the one!
But seriously, lots is happening and it’s going to take some time to update you on everything.
It was a great success and there are multiple reasons for that. Aron Ra, obviously. His presentation was flawless and did everything I wanted it to do and it is a great 30 minute promotional video on its own for us to use, and I won’t be wasting that opportunity. There were gasps at some stages, as he explained the project and its scale. This was my own favourite presentation, (and I knew what was coming!). He had the best introduction, best attendance, best applause and most follow up interest.
In the U.K., we have a programme called, ‘Dragon’s Den’. Here’s a random episode: People come to a plain, cold looking building to pitch their idea for a company in order to get financed, to a competitive team of rich (wise, greedy and experienced) entrepreneurs. Most do not meet their standards and are rejected and struggle to find any dragon to invest in her/him/them. Some try to bargain. On a rare occasion, the tables are turned, and the dragons are fighting to win the individual, because they are blown away, and can’t believe the idea or business has not already been snapped up. This is how it seemed with Aron’s presentation on the PEP. The conference were, in my view, very fortunate to have the PEP represented. I managed to opportunely place one of our wonderful and beautiful business cards (thanks, Emily!) on each and every seat during the break, leading into his talk.
People you may not know.
During Aron’s presentation, he had the opportunity to highlight the contribution of Charles Buchan. Charles has helped finance the building of the project for several years and dwarfs my own contribution by 100 fold. Without Aron, there would be no project, but without Charles, it might just still be a dream and a few lists on Aron’s computer. Charles saw Aron doing a presentation on what he wanted to do – create the Phylogeny Explorer Project, which just existed, largely as a compilation of images on his computer. Charles (like an altruistic version of one of the Dragons, mentioned above) whilst not a biologist, was impressed and saw the potential and need for this and wanted to help. It was great that he was able to attend the conference and take the recognition, and I hope I can keep growing the vision and potential that Aron and Charles saw, and make it come to pass – and some.
Thanks to the leadership team.
I work closely with Aron on the project, and he likes to ensure I am happy, and I insisted that, at this event, he mention the PEP leadership team who I work with, at the conference, which I feel is the least I can do for such important, skilled, professional and dedicated voluntary work over such a long time. So pleased he obliged (as you’ll see when the video is ready). I boast about you guys all the time, and I know how grateful he is to you all, plus all the wider team who commit in various ways.
Some biology for those new to systematics.
The Tetrapod Zoology Conference began, is run and is hosted by Darren Naish – world famous and leading expert in tetrapod zoology. What did you say? What is a tetrapod? Isn’t it a four footed or legged animal? Actually, that’s a quadruped, which needs to have four legs. A quadruped is a physical or mobility term (like we are bipedal). A tetrapod is a cladistical term coined in 1930 for a category of hierarchy with a non-return valve. Once you’re in, you’re in for good. The group began with the emergence of 4 limbs in vertebrates. The time in evolution where fish turned into amphibians and anything else. So, examples are amphibians (e.g. frogs), reptiles (e.g. crocodiles), mammals (e.g. elephants), birds (e.g……. ? birds???). Yes, birds; and snakes and whales and bats. So how are these latter things tetrapods, if they don’t have 4, or even any legs? Well, a tetrapod is defined by the group (Tetrapoda) to which it belongs, which STARTED with 4 limbs. A quadruped is defined by the number of limbs. Remember I said that you cannot ever leave your group? Well, in evolution, an animal can grow more or lose some (or even all of its) limbs, and it still belongs to that group. This is called the law of monophyly. A similar example (and which shows the different apple vs orange comparison) is a group of human friends. Human’s have 2 legs and are partly defined or grouped as such. But if, through defect or accident, an amputation occurs, clearly we do not lose our humanity. NOTHING can lose our humanity, from a biological perspective. We are, in a hierarchical group, forever humans, monkeys, apes, primates, eutherian mammals, tetrapods, chordates, animals, eukaryotes (and many clades in between). We will ALWAYS be ALL of these, because you can’t lose/grow out of/disown your ancestry. It’s forever a part of what you are, and at some stage, we are related to all other life on earth at various points back in time, which of course is just one of many things that the Phylogeny Explorer Project will show.
PEP member speakers. Yes, TWO!
Now, it isn’t often (/ever?) that a conference has two speakers from one organisation. And a significant one like this, and with many esteemed speakers and attendees. Well, two members of the Phylogeny Explorer Project (PEP) were presenting. Aron of course, and Albert Chen (digitally aka Alberta Claw), who is a member on our Facebook group and has been a consultant and one of our biology experts.
Albert is a doctoral candidate, studying the evolution of birds at Bath University in England, and he did an excellent presentation on his area of research and expertise. I thought Albert did a great job, with clear graphics and presented in a very understandable way. My next favourite presentation.
Aron and Lilandra (Lilandra is also a member of the project, plus an educator, occasional speaker and currently doing a master’s degree in business writing at Johns Hopkins. She just happens to be married to Aron and hopefully will be coming more on board with expertise in funding. Charles and his son, William, had to leave before Darren’s talk. After the speakers (well, reversed and before Darren Naish’s speech, due to sound problems) there was the tetrapod quiz which Darren presented. Who would show to a be a dunce and who would be the brainiest at TZC? There were 30 questions. This is just the sort of thing I present regularly on the Facebook group, so, obviously I expected to do well. Sadly, I have misread my paper and I also seem to have forgotten my score, and the names of anyone who knew or saw it (?!). But, with 26/30, our very own Albert Chen won. Albert also attended the last two annual events, coming second both times. It was actually a tie break, and the final question was to see who was the closest, by stating the genome size of the Axolotl. So, winner of brightest person and best presentation – the PEP!
But the PEP presence doesn’t stop there! Our esteemed member and part of the leadership team, significant contributor, Consultant and the primary thorn in my side when it comes to keeping standards high and everything above board, Renato Santos, was also in attendance, flying over from Portugal specifically for the event and as a representative of the PEP. He also achieved one of the highest marks in the quiz, and I was educated to go to the Natural History museum with him on the Friday. Have you ever wondered if some brainy people do a quick google search before speaking? Well Renato doesn’t!
It is always a pleasure to meet people in person, that you have never met before. It gives a new perspective. And it was a double pleasure to meet both Albert and Renato for the first time in the flesh, and not just reading their words. It offered some ironies too. Albert is an American, of Taiwanese descent, studying in England. Renato’s English took me a little while to adjust to with his Portuguese accent, yet in the PEP, I also struggle with his English, but because his vocabulary is so vast, I need my dictionary on hand!
I hand numbered 220 business cards. I gave out 155 to delegates and stall holders or put on chairs and re-collected 34 unused ones, so 121 were taken home. I love the design. Very slick, upmarket, professional, biology-ey and simple. With just the name/logo on a dark, shiny background on one side and a white backside (no pun intended) just showing the code and our website, it is very intriguing and forces you to want to go and see what it’s all about.
Strange bed companions.
Part of the conference was dedicated to paleo-art. I was discussing with Renato, the strange phenomenon that exists between palaeontology and art (which doesn’t tend to exist, e.g. at conferences for other things, like botany, history or train spotting etc.). Renato liked this and is a bit of an artist himself.
I spoke with all the stall holders, who were mainly artists (and very good ones), and discussed how we may be able to work together. Some authors and publishers were there too.
I spoke with one presenter, Mark O’shea (professor of Herpetology at the University of Wolverhampton) the famous snake guy and TV personality, who is very interested in helping us, as is his colleague, who specialises more in the genetic side, and I will be in touch soon. He gave an excellent presentation and showed how rigorous a scientist needs to be to get to the truth, (Mark himself had to become a historian, checking ship travel journeys and dates etc.) and how easy, certainly as you go further back in time, it was to make mistakes. Mark has discovered many species himself, and I want to talk more about this another time and how YOU could discover a new species on your own doorstep.
Darren Naish bought a copy of Aron’s book.
I also spoke to a representative from, ‘Nature’ magazine, who was really interested in us, and wants to help in multiple and significant ways (e.g. getting research to us and, although not her department, as a biologist too, she will speak to her contacts about a possible article on us). More another time. I’ll be speaking to her again soon too.
On the Saturday evening, Charles (Buchan) had invited/hosted any PEP team members out to dinner, and Aron, Lilandra, Renato and myself (and Charles’ son William – a great young man, studying engineering, but wise and intelligent beyond his age) went to Chinatown and had great food and fantastic company. (Thanks Charles!). Albert had another appointment, so couldn’t make it, but Renato, Albert and I got together with Darren and many others at a local pub after the conference on Sunday.
Other TZC side-ventures.
On Friday evening, any interested delegates were invited to an evening opening at the British Museum, and on Monday. Ditto for the Dinosaur Park in Crystal Palace. I attended neither and have seen them both before, but I know Renato attended the British museum and Aron attended Crystal Palace (again) and will be updating on what he did there.
As I write, Renato is flying back to Portugal. Aron is presenting the project in Manchester university later this week, before returning to Texas via Iceland, where he has, after many attempts, still failed to see the Northern lights.
So, with Charles from Scotland, Aron and Lilandra from the US, Renato from Portugal, myself from England and Albert from… England/US/Taiwan, it was a true international tour de force, with no fewer than 6 PEP members in the same room together at the same time, although we only got a maximum of five in pictures at any one time. I’ll certainly be exploiting any and all of this in any way I can, e.g. on the Website. Albert has agreed for us to have the video of his presentation as part of the Explorer too, and I want Aron’s systematic classification series linked on the Website and of course his presentation at TZC.
Other matters. The PEP.
More news and details another time and important announcements soon, but please go and check out the new Website (phylogenyexplorerproject.com), which has links to the forums, Explorer and Facebook. It will be updated, but is professional looking, branded and ready for people to go to and see.
I need your help.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, criticisms, want to help, know a person who might or have a contact/lead we might be able to use/speak to, let me know, and or please do donate if you can.
Thanks for helping to bring this project to fruition and to the world.