Going to AGU 2017 in New Orleans? Apply to be an official LSU Science Microblogger at AGU!
Conferences! Whether you are a student or a faculty member, they provide a break from the normal school routine and a chance to learn more about the current research in your field.
But the excitement starts to wear off if you experience poster printing issues, travel delays, or arrive late to your first pre-conference meeting, review the conference agenda and discover all the relevant sessions are at the same time. That’s why we’ve gathered together some tips for attending a scientific conference, to help you rein in the craziness!
LSU Geology and Geophysics students Nicki Button (served as an official conference microblogger), Don Hood, David Susko and Krista Myers recently attended the 2017 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in The Woodlands, TX. Nicki, Don and David are part of the LSU Planetary Science Laboratory (PSL) led by Dr. Suniti Karunatillake, while Krista is a polar hydrologist working with Dr. Peter Doran. Tony Maue and Lorrie Carnes, who worked in the PSL last summer as part of the NASA Planetary Geology and Geophysics Undergraduate Research Program (PGGURP), also attended the conference.
We asked Nicki, Don, David, Krista, Tony and Lorrie, along with other out-of-this-world scientists at the conference, to share their advice for making the most of scientific conferences. As the abstract submission deadline for the 2017 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Meeting approaches (deadline is August 2), we hope you will find these tips useful!
AGU is the largest Earth and space sciences meeting in the world (23,000+ attendees) and will be held in New Orleans this year. Last year, nine students and faculty from the Department of Geology & Geophysics at LSU attended AGU in San Francisco. We hope to see an even larger LSU presence at this meeting! Be sure to stop by our hangout area.
Top 10 Tips to Make the Most of a Scientific Conference
Tips curated by Nicki Button
1. Embrace the craziness
From the moment you get to the conference, you will feel like you’re trying to sprint a marathon.
Nicki Button: Days were planned out until almost midnight with barely any breaks. I was nervous that I would miss important sessions because several sessions overlapped, and I needed time to prepare for my own presentation. I was also serving as an official microblogger for the conference. I had mapped out a media plan, but I was unsure how exactly I would implement it. Would people answer my questions, could I tweet fast enough, what was the best social media platform for the conference? Thankfully, the microblogging turned out great!
For the first two days, I focused on attending a select few sessions, networking events and preparing for my poster presentation. I will admit that I was nervous about missing some sessions to prepare for my poster, but I reminded myself that I was there primarily to present my research, learn from experts during my presentation and make connections that would hopefully turn into collaborations.
Nicki's Day at a Conference
- 9:15 – 9:45 – Morning Session: Talk on Boulder Distributions
- 12:00 – 1:15 pm – Special Session: Picking a Human Landing Site on Mars
- 1:30 – 2:30 pm – Science Communication Lunch with We Martians
- 3:45 – 4:30 pm – Block Distribution Meeting
- 4:30 – 6:00 pm – Practice for Presentation
- 6:00 – 9:00 pm – Poster Session
- 9:00 pm – 12:00 am – LPSC Party
Ultimately, I just had to let everything play out. I was there to learn and share my research, so as long as every minute at the conference somehow contributed to that (including building social connections), I was doing my job.
2. Recognize that you can’t do everything
At LPSC, there were four oral presentations occurring simultaneously each day and only two evenings with poster sessions. Unless the research you’re presenting is about cloning yourself, you can’t be everywhere at once at a research conference.
David Susko: Since this was my second time attending LPSC, I submitted two abstracts for poster presentations. My first project explored the possibility of explosive volcanism on Mars for evidence of volcanic features, which could help us understand how igneous processes have changed throughout the planet’s history (link to published paper and blog post). My second project focused on my fieldwork in Iceland (August, 2016), where I used hydrothermal sinters as analogs for features on Mars. We investigated how effectively NASA could use ground penetrating radar (GPR), one of the instruments on the Mars2020 rover, to better understand hydrothermal systems in volcanic settings.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to present two posters at the conference and thereby connect with two different groups of scientists on my research. It had its drawbacks, though. Because I was committed to spending both poster sessions presenting my research, I didn’t get to spend as much time this year exploring posters by other scientists. Still, LPSC was a great experience!
Tony Maue, University of Tennessee Knoxville graduate student and former NASA PGGURP summer intern at LSU: Last summer, my internship at LSU focused on the sedimentology of Gale Crater, Mars. I worked with a semi-automated image processing algorithm to determine grain size from images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). I presented my LSU research at AGU this past December. I'd suggest that students coming to their first conference take time to relax! Trying to do/see everything can lead to burning out. Coffee can only get you so far. :)
Sergio Parra, Georgia Institute of Technology undergraduate student: LPSC is very much go, go, go... After sitting for hours listening to talks, your brain needs a bit of rest to further absorb the information. Some of the talks discuss past literature, and a break lets you follow up on that.
3. Network as much as possible
The Planetary Science Laboratory students attended a Martian lunch on the first day of LPSC. More than 30 students and early career scientists attended. Daniel Lo, a University of Arizona graduate student and organizer of the Martian student lunch, said that the motivation for the lunch was to meet up with colleagues from other schools, especially as he considered which schools to apply to next.
Daniel Lo: I spent an afternoon going through the abstracts for the Mars sessions, determining if the first authors were grad students, and cold emailing them. I emailed more than 60 people, and about 35 showed up. A pretty good response! I was most proud that I only knew four people before the lunch. I was able to meet so many new Martians.
Alexandra Matiella Novak, John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory researcher: I try to make the most of a conference by spending the entire day in sessions and knowing ahead of time which posters I'm interested in seeing. I also recommend finding people you don’t always have access to, by attending social mixers or their presentations.
I'm not a social butterfly, so I know it can be hard to just walk up to someone and introduce yourself, but that's why it's good to take advantage of those times at conferences when you can talk to someone about their research and interests. Make sure to trade contact information and follow up with the person. The best thing is to send them some of your work and use it as an opportunity to keep the conversation going. For future conferences, invite them to your presentation (both poster and oral). Getting feedback on the research you are presenting is also very important, so make sure you are asking for feedback, especially from people you'd like to collaborate with.
4. Step out of your comfort zone
Don Hood: If you are perfectly comfortable, you aren’t growing. There is nothing wrong with confidence in yourself and your work, but some discomfort is great. Push your comfort zone in social situations and in giving presentations at conferences. In social situations, scientists tend to be the introverted-anxious type. If you feel a little uncomfortable, you are in good company. You might feel uncomfortable giving oral presentations of your work, but discomfort also sharpens your senses, helps you improve yourself, and makes you step up your game.
Lorrie Carnes, Arizona State University graduate student and former NASA PGGURP summer intern at LSU: I stepped out of my comfort zone last summer and applied to a planetary geology summer internship at LSU. My undergraduate institute was solely earth and environmental sciences (with a geology focus) so I never had the opportunity to take planetary/space courses.
My first day in the Planetary Science Lab at LSU, I realized that I was in way over my head. My project focused on characterizing the geochemical composition of Arabia Terra on Mars with remote sensing techniques. I quite literally googled “Mars” that first day and began taking notes. I relied on the graduate students in the lab as well as my fellow intern to help me with the steep learning curve of conducting research in a new field. But, as I was frequently reminded, you have to start from somewhere. I learned how to be comfortable asking (endless) questions, how to apply general research skills and tools in a new field, and how to make meaningful observations even without fully understanding the implications.
I attended LPSC to present the project I worked on while at LSU. It was an intimidating yet rewarding experience. I don’t consider myself a planetary scientist so I constantly felt the “imposter syndrome” when asked about my research. But I had the wonderful opportunity to learn more about paleomagnetism and geomorphology in lunar and martian contexts, as well as to connect with other young scientists. The friendships I made at LPSC have extended beyond the academic setting - I went backpacking on the Appalachian Trail with two friends I made at LPSC!
Although I will be attending graduate school at ASU for terrestrial geomorphology, my planetary experiences at LSU and LPSC made me more comfortable exploring new research fields and networking with a diverse group of scientists. I have no doubt that these valuable skills will help me be successful in graduate school and beyond.
5. Practice your presentation
Practice makes perfect. But here are some additional tips for preparing for your conference presentation.
Steven Sholes, University of Wisconsin graduate student: Even if you are very familiar with your project, you may jumble your words if you talk too quickly. Give yourself ample time to practice, to work out kinks ahead of time. Practice giving your presentation to both people familiar with your field and people outside of your field. Hopefully you can get a diverse array of ideas on how to improve your talk.
Nicki Button: Poster presentations at first seem easier than oral presentations. But they provide the opportunity for one-on-one conversations, which can either be extremely beneficial for advancing your research or extremely stressful (or both!)
Embrace poster presentations as opportunities to learn from experts in your field. Pick their brains for suggestions and invite them to collaborate on your research. To prepare for your poster presentation, practice an elevator pitch and write out and answer all possible questions that someone might ask you. Practice in front of your lab group and non-scientists. Even though this isn’t a formal presentation and you might not ever present your pitch exactly how you prepared it, it is still fundamentally a presentation.
Remember to breathe! Even if you mess up or forget a key fact, this is all a learning experience.
Ryan Anderson, United States Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center planetary scientist: Learn to communicate. A lot of emphasis in scientific training is put on technical (science and math-related) skills, but you know what we spend a lot of our time doing? Writing. Emailing, writing papers, writing proposals, writing abstracts, etc. Being able to express yourself clearly and concisely is extremely valuable. Likewise, knowing how to make figures, posters and presentation slides that other people can easily understand is extremely important. Public speaking skills are very important too. If people can’t understand your work, then you’re doing them and yourself a disservice.
6. Balance your meetings
Ryan Watkins, Washington University in St. Louis and the Planetary Science Institute postdoctoral researcher: When attending a conference, I highly recommend not hanging out with your friends all the time. I spent my first few conferences basically attached to my advisor's hip, and he introduced me to so many great scientists and helped me network with people I now collaborate with. Don't be afraid to be bold in talking to people or asking for help. It can really take you far in the long run!
7. Explore beyond your main research focus
Allen Prince, University of Tennessee undergraduate student: I attended the conference purely out of interest. I’m interested in moving from earth science research to planetary research. I wanted to learn about various aspects of planetary research, what’s going on currently, and how I could fit into that.
Krista Myers, LSU Geology and Geophysics graduate student: I’m a polar hydrologist with a passion for space. I work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, which have a rich history of being used as planetary analogs. One of my current research projects involves studying paleodeltas in the Dry Valleys in order to better understand similar depositional features seen on Mars. Deltas form in the presence of liquid water, and as we have seen on Earth, where there is water there is life. Understanding how deltas can preserve biosignatures or signs of life is particularly relevant for future Martian exploration. This is my first time at LPSC, and it has been a great opportunity to get involved in the planetary community!
Ryan Watkins, Washington University in St. Louis and the Planetary Science Institute postdoctoral researcher: Attend talks outside of your main focus area. You'll be amazed at all of the great science you can learn about!
8. There will always be someone better than you. Don’t compare!
If you are a student, you are in school and at the conference to learn. You have your own path and research that is different than anyone else’s. This makes you unique and not necessarily comparable to others.
Ryan Anderson, United States Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center planetary scientist: Impostor syndrome is normal. There will be times when you feel like you’re just faking it and everyone else is smarter than you. When you are successful it may be undercut by the feeling that you “got away with it” and that at any moment someone is going to see that you have no idea what you’re doing. I cannot emphasize this enough: everyone else feels the exact same way. Being a scientist is an instant recipe for impostor syndrome, because you will forever be surrounded by other incredibly hard-working and intelligent people. Just remember that they all have their own self-doubts, you just can’t see them. Likewise, when they look at you, they don’t see you self-doubt – they see you doing cool work and being smart!
9. Take advantage of the freebies (and learning about the companies)
David Susko: It’s always important to try to make connections at the vendor tables during poster sessions. This is your opportunity to learn more about the technical side of your field and see some of what takes place in the background behind the research to make it all possible.
At the 2017 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this year, I stopped at booths run by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team and the team from ASU who put together the JMARS GIS software for planetary mapping. It was important to me to introduce myself to them, and in the process they provided me a lot of free stuff. I received high quality maps and posters of both the Moon and Mars. I also got a very nice laser pointer from the JMARS booth when I explained to them that I had used their software in the research I was presenting at the conference1
10. Make new friends and have fun!
Don Hood: We hosted a "Martian party" the first year I went to the LPSC as a way to meet other graduate students. It was a great way to break the ice of meeting new people at conferences. This year, we more than doubled the size of the party (about 20 people!) Now I have a small circle of about 20 graduate students from four different universities that I am fairly close with. No matter what professional event I go to, including future conferences, I usually run into one of them at least. Having those relationships can mean a lot when you are nervous or just dealing with the stress of a professional situation at a conference.
Attending the 2017 AGU Conference? Apply to be an official microblogger for the LSU College of Science, and get a complimentary student conference registration!