Graduate student and astronomy writer

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AAS 227 Meetings: Pre- and Initial-Conference Thoughts

Hello all. This is the first in what will be a series of blog posts about the AAS meetings currently happening in Kissimmee, FL. I am trying to write my thoughts and experiences about the conference a day at a time, and post them as the conference is happening. These are my thoughts leading up the conference, and on the first day/impression of the conference. All thoughts are my own, and if I use ideas from others I will identify them unless they ask to remain anonymous.


So, this post is a bit different than my others will be about the AAS meeting. I’ve had most of these thoughts for a while, and while they’re not mainstream, I have heard others with similar opinions. I will preface this post by saying that I really do enjoy AAS meetings in general. I love seeing all of the people I collaborate with remotely, people I have followed (read: stalked) online, and learning all of the new science from people I have never heard of before. This post is mostly an explanation of a few issues I, and others, have with the current structure of AAS meetings, and will focus on the schedule of events, the timing, and the location. I can’t say that I have any concrete way of solving them, only suggestions of things to be done.

Organization of schedules

I’ve noticed that there are essentially two different conferences going on at the same time at most AAS meetings. In the one conference there are all of the science talks, large plenary talks, and science workshops. These are very talk heavy, full of 10 minute presentations occasionally broken up by 15 minute “D-talks” (for dissertation research) and large conference wide science talks.

The other conference I dub the “alternate” conference: science outreach, astronomy education and history, science writing, press conferences, town halls, career workshops, performing arts in science presentations, etc. While these are science related, most of those don’t have original research presentations. Rather, those are more of the professional development sessions that make you a more rounded scientist.

The problem? The science talks and “alternate” sessions happen at the same time! If you want to learn how to write your science for the public you must, perforce, miss out on some of the science you want to write about. And vice versa. While, yes, it’s impossible to go to everything (and indeed, you would quickly burn out if you tried), the schedule should be arranged so that people can attend multiple types of sessions if they want.

Also, to keep the two separate like this enforces the idea that the two are not equal, and not complementary. It enforces the mentality that if you do original research, you don’t need communication or outreach. And if you do communication or outreach, you can’t to original research. The two are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive.

Regarding the timing, specifically impacting health, inclusivity, and convenience

I’ve spoken before about my dislike of the timing of the AAS meeting. When you start going to AAS meetings, most advisors will tell you to go to the winter one, since that’s the “big meeting.” OK, that’s totally fine to have a “big meeting” where most of the community all gets together at the same time. That’s actually a really good thing.

My problem is that, somehow, the winter meeting became the “big one” and the summer one is very sparsely attended. Why is this an issue? Well, a number of reasons really (one of them is that it always conflicts with my birthday, but that’s neither here nor there).

First reason: logistics. Travelling to most of the USA in January is difficult. Especially difficult in the first week of January. There is snow everywhere (well, at least in normal, not freakish El Niño years like this one). If there isn’t snow where you are or where you are headed, there is snow in a connecting layover location. Snow leads to flight cancellations and delays and travel stress. No one likes to travel at these times, some people avoid it altogether. Also, just after New Years means that there is much higher airport traffic and higher prices due to demand.

Second reason: the start of the semester. The first week or second week of January is also the first week of classes for most academic folk. For students, this means giving up valuable prep time for classes, or missing the first week of classes altogether. For teaching faculty that means losing that last week of valuable prep time for the semester, getting last minute research done, communicating with their students, pre-semester forms and training. Also, many job applications, grad school applications, and grant applications are due just before or after the new year, and combining these with a large meeting can often be disastrous.

Third: international astronomers in the US. The American astronomical community includes a diverse spread of astronomers from around the world who have chosen to make the US their home, either permanently or temporarily. Many of those who have come here to do science have left friends and family back in their home countries that they don’t get to see often. Winter break, often being 2-3 weeks long, is usually one out of two times a year that those astronomers have the chance to travel to see their family. Making the winter meeting so critical is damaging to international astronomers who choose to travel home during this time. This is detrimental to astronomical diversity, and enforces the idea that a scientific career and healthy family life are incompatible.

Fourth, and the important reason: physical and mental health. In the winter, colds and flus run rampant, and no place is a better breeding ground for germs than a conference. Lots of new people, close meeting quarters, sharing rooms, minimal sleep. Not good. As far as mental health: winter break should be about decompressing, not extra stressing. Everyone needs a mental break now and again in order to avoid mental breakdowns. I’m deliberate when I say “need.” This is not a suggestion, or a “well, it’s normal, whatever,” or a “just deal with it,” everyone NEEDS a break sometime. Knowing that there is an important meeting coming up right after the new year means that most spend the majority of their winter break stressing about finishing their calculations, their presentation, their poster, when they could be enjoying family and winter holiday time. This is not healthy.

Location of the meetings: accessibility and affordability

The past few “big meetings” of the AAS have been in strange locations: outside of DC, Seattle, and now Orlando. Future meetings will be San Diego and Grapevine, TX (I had to look up where that was myself). If you are hosting a meeting for the astronomical population of the US, shouldn’t you have meetings in locations convenient to the astronomical population of the US? Unless you live pretty close by, it is time intensive and really expensive to travel to most of those locations. They are pretty remote, and in the far reaches of the country rather than a fair middle ground. Those locations also tend to have really expensive hotels, food, and inner-city travel, making things more difficult on a tight budget.

Another issue with remote locations is often the lack of travel options. To get to many of these places from more than a state away requires air travel (for those who are from New England, that’s how the rest of the country works). Some people just can’t afford to fly everywhere. Some people can’t fly on airplanes for health reasons, and must take trains, busses, or cars instead. These people include, but are not limited to, pregnant women mid to late in their pregnancies. When we already ask (subliminally and through lack of standard maternity leave policies) future mothers to make career sacrifices for their children, we shouldn’t make it even harder for these women to participate in our community.

Now, I understand that the AAS has a multi-year contract with Gaylord Convention centers for some reason or another. I even hear tell that they say that this is supposed to be cheaper for everyone to work with them. But personally, I haven’t seen any evidence of the cheaper nature of these conference centers. When the conference hotels cost $300 a night, that’s not cheap, or affordable for most people. That’s almost a month of groceries for me. This cost is often not including parking, food, hotel shuttles from the airport, etc. and definitely doesn’t also cost meeting registration costs. (Edit: in adding up the total cost of the conference, it comes to almost a full month’s paycheck.)

The cost of travel, hotel, registration, and food can be prohibitively expensive for many people. It is particularly difficult for undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and low-income staff/faculty like adjunct, assistant, and associate professors. You know, the people who tend to get the most out of a meeting through experience and networking? When you can’t afford to miss a meeting professionally, but you can’t afford to attend economically, it’s a no win situation for the most professionally transient astronomers. Missing a meeting as an upper level grad student or a post-doc leads to missed networking opportunities, missed presentation opportunities, and missed job opportunities.

Tenured professors, who generally have a stable salary and career, can afford to miss meetings, might say “well then, just don’t go to this one!” (hint: if someone tells you this, they probably don’t have your best professional interests at heart). There are indeed ways to “virtually” attend meetings. Those methods are important and valuable, too. But when networking in person makes up such an important part of the field and of the job search, virtual attendance just won’t do.

….

I have no solutions here. Only suggestions, and many of them are untenable at the moment. Emphasize the summer AAS meeting instead. Hold meetings in more accessible locations, with a variety of hotel and food options and prices. Provide travel grants to economically challenged astronomers. Adjust the schedule so participants can (are encouraged to!) attend professionally diverse sessions. These are my suggestions to you, AAS, to make your meetings more diverse, more inclusive, and less prohibitive.

Also, I have almost lost my coat twice now because I have to carry it around everywhere. We should get a coat rack.


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