The American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting: Advice from a Newcomer

EarthzineEarth Observation, Original

Arriving at AGU. Image Credit: ECO

Arriving at AGU. Image Credit: ECO

Just a few weeks ago, I visited San Francisco to join the condensation of scientific knowledge found at an American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference. It was a fascinating experience. The AGU Fall Meeting is a bit comparable to the city in which it’s held. It is exciting, fast-paced and weird, and you have to see it for yourself to realize its scope.
The AGU Fall Meeting had been enticingly described to me as “20,000 nerds all in the same place.” The 2013 event certainly lived up to that description. Colleagues clogged the halls in clumps of earnest conversation. Scientists and teachers and learners filled the sidewalks and overflowed the crosswalk boundaries when the light turned, and conversing in a babel of multi-national languages, they shared an air of people anticipating a treat. But woe betide the local who tried to grab a quick lunch near Howard Street at noon.
Held from Dec.9-13, the 2013 gathering represented AGU’s 46th annual Fall Meeting. It drew more than 22,000 participants, thousands of posters (some of which are still available online), and hundreds of oral sessions. On the second day of the conference alone, there were more than 430 sessions to choose from. Beyond the sessions themselves, there also were posters to view, videos to soak in, and cohorts to converse with. For those interested in following a specific topic, the conference was further divided into Swirls, which identified sets of sessions associated with a given topic, such as “CO2 Sequestration” or “Characterizing Uncertainty.” Swirl was an appropriate name, considering that exiting a building at the end of a session felt like being caught up in a powerful eddy.
The AGU Fall Meeting is a networker’s dream, but an introvert’s nightmare, and carried along in this maelstrom of knowledge are young-professional newcomers plagued by the question, “Did I just miss the most important session of the day?”
I am still concerned by the thought that I may have missed something vital, and I cannot answer the question of what single session would be most valuable to anyone in a given field. What I can offer to pay forward are few words of advice that carried me through my first conference and a few observations of my own.
1. Try to relax  
Climate Literacy Workshop 2013. Image Credit: ECO.

Climate Literacy Workshop 2013. Image Credit: ECO.

If you have made it to the meeting with your wits intact, you would have to make an effort not to learn something useful or meet a worthwhile contact. Rather than trying to seek out every single presentation that is remotely related to your own work, let your interests guide you to a few key oral presentations. With this much information at hand, you will undoubtedly find a mixture of the very useful and the irrelevant or incomprehensible. Rather than focusing on missed opportunities, key your attention to facts or acquaintances that are valuable. To make the most of your time, linger at the end of good oral sessions, and try to have a short conversation with presenters whose work intrigued you.
2. Attend at least one workshop
Most of the oral sessions are divided into individual 12-minute talks that fall into an overarching category. Although this format allows for a broad overview of what is being done in a given topic, the limited time allows only for a cursory understanding of research that may greatly interest you. I often found myself frustrated by how few details could be included in the short time.
Workshops can help to alleviate this type of frustration. Generally the workshops involve just two or three speakers, and they cover a topic in-depth, usually including audience participation, focus groups or brainstorming sessions. Not only did they allow for deeper contemplation of a topic, the workshops I attended were also where I made my most valuable contacts. Because you are interacting with your fellow attendees and spend several hours with them, you get to know them better than the silent compatriots of an oral session, and it is easier to discover shared interests and exchange information.
gate crashers

Waiting to hear Dr. Hansen. Image Credit: ECO.

3. Attend at least one keynote speaker
The keynote speakers will give you a sense of topics of key concern in the geoscience community. Admittedly, the topics are filtered through the perspective of a single individual, but those individuals were selected by a committee and would not have been chosen if their topics were not considered relevant. Furthermore, thousands of other people will have been present at the same lecture. Being one of them gives you a common talking point for the rest of the conference.
On a side note, get there early if you want a seat. This year’s speakers were U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Dr. James (Jim) Hansen. Both lectures drew large crowds, even when Jim Hansen’s lecture had to be rescheduled for a following day. If anything, the delay of Hansen’s talk seemed to boost numbers. On Day 2, gate-crashers were waiting for the door to open, lining the wall with computers, sharing their laps with sandwiches or milling about near the closed doors. It seems that the fire marshal took a disapproving note of the standing-room-only situation at the first, aborted lecture. When it was rescheduled the second day, conference staff stopped letting people in once the room reached a capacity.  Luckily, I was among the early-arrivers and managed to secure a seat.
4. Talk to presenters in the poster hall
First Test: Tack your poster on the proper divider. Image Credit: ECO.

First Test: Tack your poster on the proper divider. Image Credit: ECO.

One of the mistakes that I made at AGU was appearing in the football field-sized poster hall whenever I had time to kill and vainly hoping that there would be someone to talk to by the posters that grabbed my eye. It was a hit-and-miss tactic.
The lesson I learned is that best use of your time can be achieved by arriving in the hall in the morning (wearing stout, practical walking shoes) and scoping out the posters. Most presenters leave a sheet of paper indicating when they will be available for questions. Mark down categories of interest before entering the hall to help you navigate. Then hunt down posters of interest within those categories, and mark down when their authors will be present so you can return at those times.
As for the posters, if I were to find fault with the ones I read at AGU, it would be that many of them focused too heavily on unexplained datasets and science-laden jargon. Few offered a clear explanation of the importance of the research they had chosen to share.
Speaking with an author in person inevitably clarified the one detail that most engaged me: what was the goal of the research? My favorite poster presentation was on wind-borne transport of nitrogen from the Front Range of Colorado. Although I do have a soft spot for the nitrogen cycle, what made this poster memorable to me was that Aaron Piña, the Ph.D. candidate attending it, explained why the research had interested him and the next step beyond the research: working with feedlot owners and ranchers to create best practices and diminish the ammonia being carried into the mountains.
The second reason for talking to poster authors is because, with a few exceptions, they are probably lonely. I stood by my poster (right click then ‘save as’ to download) for about 2 hours, and in the gaps between visitors I felt awkward.
I confess, at one point I sank to obliging uninterested passers-by stop by making eye-contact with them and asking sweetly, “Do you have any questions?” when I knew they had not even read the poster. Not an ideal tactic, but it was effective.
Although I was situated with the education posters, I trapped a Scottish glaciologist and, later, an atmospheric scientist that way. The glaciologist even gave me some helpful feedback.
“Too many words, just tell me what it says,” he said. He was right. I did have too many words. The fewer sentences you can condense your research into, the more likely a broad audience will be willing to read about it on a poster.
5. Be flexible, but also plan ahead 
Whether you are addressing a personal matter, such as a meal, or trying to spread the word about your project, begin the day with an action plan. With so much going on, it is important to maintain a sense of direction, literally and figuratively.
For example:

•If you are heading toward the ocean and can clearly see the water, you are probably heading the wrong direction for the conference.
•Plan which sessions you want to attend well in advance, but also pick up a copy of the newspaper of options each morning.
•Always eat lunch early, late or at least three blocks away.
•Don’t let a colleague you are hoping to converse with walk away without setting a specific time and place to meet. They will vanish into the crowd and only reappear again at a maddeningly inaccessible distance.
•Flexibility is worthwhile, but sometimes a last-minute deviation from plans can lead to the most rewarding moments of your visit.

6. Final notes and observations
Scientists and educators should make an effort to each attend at least one session from the other’s discipline. Both would benefit.

•Scientists and educators should make an effort to each attend at least one session from the other’s discipline. Both would benefit.
•Business cards are a must.
•Take the time to visit the sea lions at Pier 39.

Year-round Sea lion Convention. Image Credit: ECO.

Year-round Sea Lion Convention. Image Credit: ECO.

Overall, I found the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting to be a valuable learning experience. The people who attend the meeting come from a variety of backgrounds, believe in widely different approaches — sometimes to the same problem — and have distinct personalities and interests. There was one trait, however, that they all hold in common. These people are deeply earnest about their work and passionate about making a positive impact on society and the natural world.
There were times (many) when I found the AGU meeting to be overwhelming. I conversed with other newcomers, and I know I was not alone in this sentiment. But the AGU Fall Meeting is an event worth attending. Its organization and structure are not perfect. Its size is daunting. But aside from the factual value, meetings such as this provide tangible evidence that science is an endeavor powered not by microscopes or computations, but by people. Tools enable us to do the work that we do, but passion and wonder provide the drive that carries us forward.
The next AGU meeting will be the Chapman Meeting on Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Solar System, held from Feb. 9-14, 2014 in Yosemite, California.