Happy 2018! Here on the LSU College of Science blog, we are kicking off the new year with a look back on one of our big events from 2017, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall 2017 meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. LSU researchers joined thousands of other scientists at the conference to present research they've been conducting in labs and at field sites the world over, from Antarctica, to Louisiana, to the Himalayas, to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. LSU faculty and students presented 192 posters, talks, chaired sessions and events at AGU. As a part of our new LSU CoS Student Microblogger program, geology Ph.D. student Don Hood covered his AGU experience for us on social media! Read on for a first-hand one-of-a-kind experience of one of the largest scientific conferences in the world.
Guest post by Don Hood
In December, 2017, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall meeting came to Louisiana, in New Orleans. The AGU Fall meeting is one of the biggest scientific conferences in the world, and certainly the biggest in the geosciences. Some 20,000 people descended upon the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for the meeting, inundating nearby restaurants and hotels. I am no stranger to conferences, but I’ve mostly attended smaller, topically focused meetings with closer to 1,500 people. This was my first AGU experience, and it was an experience!
For my first AGU meeting, I had the typical docket of things to do: attend talks, present my poster, network with colleagues and future employers, and see and support my graduate student peers. Added to this, however, were two more unique events. Prior to AGU, I planned to participate in fieldwork here in Louisiana to look for evidence of an impact crater near Greensburg, LA. And near the end of the week at AGU, I was invited to share a personal story on the Story Collider stage for a special AGU show. Collectively it made for a long but exciting week.
Back in March 2017, I met with a colleague from Baylor, Peter James, who told me that there was possibly an impact crater here in Louisiana that he wanted to examine. I had never heard of the crater, but after reading papers investigating the geology of the area, I too became convinced that this was worth examining. Could there really be an impact crater here in Louisiana?
I helped organize the trip, which included working with the Louisiana Geologic Survey and landowners and getting gear together for the trip. I went out in July 2017 with a few summer interns to scope out the site and make plans for our formal survey. Here on earth, there aren’t many craters left that look like the ones we see on the Moon or on Mars. On Earth, weathering and erosion rapidly degrade the surface expression of craters, but we can look in the subsurface to find evidence of them. One of the things that can signify an impact crater is a hole in the sedimentary layering. When an impact happens, material is ejected, reworked, and sometimes just destroyed, but whatever layering was present is disturbed in a predictable way. For the Louisiana field site, we planned to use a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to look for layering in the upper few meters of sediment where we might be able to see a hole in the sedimentary layers. We planned to go into the field on December 9, the Saturday before AGU. Everyone from out of town was traveling in for the conference, so it was the perfect time.
I prepped food and water, packed the camera and GPS, and helped pack up our GPR instrument for the near-surface survey we were planning. I was ready. I was even planning on bringing hot coffee in a thermos since it was going to be quite cold that day. But anyone in Baton Rouge can tell you what happened unexpectedly on December 8, 2017. An unthinkable wonderful winter surprise: snow! We awoke Friday morning to several inches of snow on lawns and rooftops, and all I could think was, “I didn’t even consider snow, will we be able to make it out tomorrow?” It really was the last thing I had considered a possibility here in warm, humid Louisiana, but there it was on the roads and in the trees, throwing a very large wrench in our plans. Luckily, come Saturday morning, the roads weren’t icy, and we made it out to the field without issue, although one of our teams couldn’t do their measurements due to the snow.
We arrived with our small team at the field site and there was yet another factor I had not considered – it was raining in the woods. Not raining exactly, but the snow had piled up in the trees, and with the sun out it was melting quickly, especially on the highest branches. This made the road through the woods a very wet one, and one where large globs of snow would slip off a branch and land on your head. But our instrument was waterproof enough to work in those conditions, so we were able to start without issue, pushing our GPR along on what looks like an oversized baby carriage. A few fallen trees, muddy ruts, and deep puddles later, we finished our survey of most of the structure, and our teammates weren’t far behind. We went to the gate of the property to wait for them, listening to our radio to see if they had any issues.
About 10 minutes after they were supposed to meet us, we heard the radio give a half-hearted crackle. Assuming something had gone wrong, we headed back into the property only to have our assumptions verified. Our teammates had gotten themselves stuck, with the nose of their Honda Fit snubbed into a small ditch. Luckily, we found a stray rope in my SUV to pull them out. Of course, this meant I had to turn around to get my rear bumper pointed toward the car. The road here was about as wide as my car was long and bounded on both sides by muddy, water-filled ditches, so turning around was an endeavor. But a couple-hundred point turn later, I was oriented the right way and ready to pull. We got our little Fit out of the ditch and they collected their last data point.
Our results aren’t ready yet, as we are still looking at the data and processing it, but I am optimistic that we will make something of that snowy trip!
AGU: Man, there are a lot of people here
If you look back through the history of this blog, you’ll find some great tips about attending and preparing for scientific conferences. There are two things you should know regarding these tips...
1. They are doubly true if you are attending a big conference like AGU.
2. We often don’t follow our own advice.
I am accustomed to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), which has about 1,500 people and about six oral presentation sessions running at any given time, with two poster sessions in the whole week. By comparison, AGU has roughly 20,000 people, 15 oral sessions running at a time and a new set of posters every day with an appropriately massive poster hall. I unfortunately disregarded my own advice to not try to make it to every single relevant session in my scramble to do the exact opposite my first few days at AGU.
Luckily, I got some advice early on from a fellow planetary scientist. He said that he makes a point to NOT go to planetary science sessions at AGU, since he will get all that info at an upcoming LPSC conference anyway. Instead, he focuses on attending sessions about nearby fields in earth science. I took this to heart, and focused on attending talks that were relevant but not immediately related to my own ongoing work.
I also learned as the week went on how to really get the most out of my AGU experience: the posters! There is a reputation among scientists that giving a talk at a conference is the best thing, and that presenting a poster is something of a consolation prize. It is true that you will reach more people with a talk (probably) and you have a somewhat captive audience during a talk, which is always nice. But oral presentations in this setting are so one-directional. The presenter gives a 10 or 15-minute talk, where one or two people can get a question in if you are lucky and the presenter didn’t already use up all the time. If you want to follow up about the science, you’ll have to email the presenter or try to find them later at the conference. But during a poster presentation, the author is there, standing next to his or her work, and you get to ask a lot of questions directly and actually converse about the science, which gives so much more insight!
I got most of my value out of AGU during the two hours I spent standing in front of my poster. I chatted with people doing related work who were presenting nearby and with the people who came to my poster to ask about what I was doing. It was there that I made professional and academic contacts, and gained insight on my project and what I could do with it next. So, my new advice to anyone going to a conference would be this: Oral presentation sessions are great, and go for one if you like, but don’t forget how good a poster can be! Ask yourself if maybe the poster session would even be better for your work.
When prepping for your poster session, don’t forget to be flexible. Everyone has a pre-set talk that they will give about their poster, which you should have for sure. I spent at least an hour running through my pre-set poster pitch in my head before getting to my session at AGU, but I only said it once or twice. Most people who came up to my poster were either interested enough to have read the abstract in advance, or where close enough to the field that they didn’t need much setup. Be ready to have your pre-planned talk utterly derailed with interjected questions and comments.
I finished up my AGU experience with my first Story Collider show. If you aren’t familiar with the Story Collider, it’s a series of shows where scientists get on stage and talk about something that isn’t science. They have regular shows all over the country, including in Washington DC, Boston and Los Angeles. They also do special shows for big events like AGU.
I was told by the director that the first rule of Story Collider is that you don’t learn at the Story Collider. That’s not something I’m used to hearing in academia. The story I got up on stage to tell ended up being a personal one, based on experience, intuition, and feeling rather than evidence or logic. In preparing for my talk, I had to shake my brain out of that writing style where we arrange evidence, logic, and conclusions in a convincing manner. I wasn’t really on that stage to convince anyone of anything, just to tell a story about a personal part of my life and how I, being a scientist, dealt with it.
This was honestly a good deal harder than giving my poster presentation at AGU, because the story I was telling was so much more personal, more vulnerable. All my experience told me that scientists were smart, critical people. Not that we are mean, but that we are critical thinkers and tend to find holes in arguments. Putting my personal story out there felt like opening my scientific life up to a lot of criticism. But on the contrary, the feedback was remarkably positive. I hadn’t necessarily told the best story ever, but the message resonated with people. I talked about trying to find common ground between my spiritual beliefs and my scientific knowledge, and it turns out I wasn’t the only person in the room to come across that challenge. I told that story in front of 150 people, and it might make its way onto a podcast and reach thousands of more people. I wonder if one day I’ll meet someone who has heard me speak but who otherwise doesn’t know me at all.
That’s where my AGU experience came to a close. In the span of a week, I spent time in the field doing science, I spent hours hearing about other scientists’ work, and then I spent one night talking to scientists about something totally non-scientific. Interestingly, the experience encompassed pretty much everything we do as scientists, all in one week! It all came on the back of a long semester and a busy November, so the holiday break has been a well-needed one.
Looking back on the 2017 AGU conference, there wasn’t much I would have changed, except perhaps leaving the conference talks a little earlier at lunch to get in line sooner!