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AGU blogging #3: Friday and conference wrap-up

December 15, 2007

I did not make it to the conference on Thursday, but I was there yesterday (Friday) from 8:00 am until 5:30 (with a nice long lunch in there).

There were several posters I wanted to check out yesterday morning, but I went early to catch a few of the talks in the “climate sensitivity” session. Jim Hansen was supposed to be first, but they had a technical issue so they bumped James Annan up. That name seemed familiar to me and, lo and behold, it is the same James of James’ Empty Blog. The topic is not in my field so I cannot comment on the nitty-gritty, but James delivered a great talk about our assumptions that are built into calculating various probabilities of climate scenarios. Jim Hansen spoke next and discussed the paleoclimate record a little deeper than people usually do (the Cenozoic record) within the context of evaluating sensitivity.  He had to rush at the end of the talk to finish in time…this was a pattern I saw many times at this meeting that I will rant about below.

I then checked out some posters about river bifurcation and avulsion. Specifically was Doug Jerolmack‘s poster discussing some observations and modeling of how avulsion leads to bifurcation patterns and the time scales in which this happens. Doug is a very enthusiastic scientist and does a great job of explaining his work. If you ever have a chance to check out a talk/poster by him, do it.

I checked out several posters in the hydrology/sediment transport session. As a sedimentary geologist, I’m mostly concerned with long-term preservation (stratigraphy) but always learn something from those looking at the mechanics of sediment transport.

I then went to check out a talk by a former student at my institution that is now at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He did his work on the habitability of Europa. He is essentially a combination of a physicist, astrobiologist, planetary geologist, and engineer. His talk discussed some aspects of calculating the thickness of the ice shell on Europa that were way over my head. The point of the talk was to try and calculate the thickness based on physics alone (especially the tidal interactions with Jupiter) and not so much by looking at the ice surface.

Later in the afternoon, the last slot of the whole conference, I went to a “depositional landforms” session. The aim was to bring together observation of modern and ancient systems with modeling studies. It was a good session, I enjoyed it. It’s tough to be on Friday afternoon like that, but there was a decent-sized audience. Sessions that aim to integrate disciplines are a double-edged sword in some senses. I love the concept, I am very much a fan of integration…but, sometimes I feel like the session needs a wrap-up of some kind. Either a really good talk at the end that actually brings things together, or a discussion panel. I’m not sure what the answer is. Again, I enjoyed the session and don’t mean to sound nit-picky, but I’m always trying to think of ways to make it better.

On to one of my biggest pet peeves. Several times during AGU this week I was annoyed at talks that ran out of time and had to rush through about 4-5 slides in the last 30 seconds. I understand that 13-15 minutes is a short time to give a talk, but everyone knows what the length is and should be prepared. I get way more out of a talk that gives a nice “take-home” message at the end. A good punctuation mark, so to speak. The talks that started off great and were clearly not practiced for timing, trailed off with a lot of details and essentially had to blow off the conclusions (and no time for questions). The whole point of a giving a talk, to me, is to give the audience something to take away. What is the point of the study? Did some unexpected questions arise from doing it? Is there a problem with our conceptual understanding at some fundamental level? Did it quantitatively address some issue that previously wasn’t? And so on, and so on. The bottom line: PRACTICE YOUR TALKS! Maybe I’m being nit-picky, but I’ve seen this pattern in a lot of conferences. It can make a talk that starts out fantastic end with a whimper.

Overall, I had a great time at AGU this year. It is a hugemongous conference and can be a little overwhelming. I don’t even attempt to catch all the “big” events and typically stick to sessions in my field. Those of you who go to conferences know how tiring it can be. The location is, of course, one of the best parts. Not only because it is a 15-minute street car ride for me, but San Francisco is also one of the greatest cities in the world. We had a great weather this week too…sometimes it can be dreary and gloomy this time of year, but it was sunny and crisp all week.

I have a good idea for a session next year…I might work on getting that down on paper now.

About.com has a nice Friday wrap-up as well here.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2007 3:09 pm

    This year the talks felt shorter to me, but I think it was because there were more less-experienced speakers at the sessions I attended. Senior scientists were speaking less and their grad students speaking more, and these are people who haven’t learned their speaking technique as well as their mentors. First, as you say, comes fitting the talk to the time available. Then comes things like good voice and microphone practices. And, it must be said, good English pronunciation. I feel bad bringing it up because I so respect people who can conduct science in a second language. And if your English speech is bad, at least put a lot of text on your slides so we can follow along regardless.

  2. December 15, 2007 4:33 pm

    At GSA, there was a pair of sessions on seismogenic features in ancient faults that I thought did a good job of integrating information. It had a good overview presentation at the beginning of the first session, at least, and the speakers frequently commented about how their work related to work earlier in the session.

    I didn’t stay to the end of the session, though. I had plans to meet with someone before the end of the day, or maybe I just ended up talking to a friend in the hall during one of the breaks. So I don’t know whether there was any good wrap-up. (It’s hard to pull that off, especially for an afternoon session.)

    Panel discussions would be interesting, though. I would like to see conversations between people working in related fields. In some ways, poster sessions are more rewarding – people with adjacent posters usually end up talking before the day is over. (It’s too bad that posters are less prestigious – I learn a lot from them, both as a presenter and as the audience.)

  3. December 15, 2007 4:46 pm

    As much as I like the spectacle of the mega-meetings (and the socializing), I think more science “gets done” at much smaller meetings. I went to the Backbone of the Americas meeting in Mendoza, Argentina in 2006, which had a few hundred participants. That was a good number.

    There’s a balance to be struck between open enough to attract multiple disciplines, but focused enough to promote real discussion and progress (usually by planning to collaborate with people you meet).

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