Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An ode to conferences

Casey Moore, PVL's longest serving graduate student and a PhD Candidate stands in front of the poster he presented at the 2015 Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting in Washington, D.C.

By Casey Moore

Graduate students become masters at juggling. Between meetings with your advisor, meetings with course directors, health and safety training, taking courses, teaching courses, office hours, marking … ad nauseam -- every now and then you will find yourself finally able to sit down and get to your research and eventually, present at conferences.

I am starting my fourth year as a PhD student of Dr. John E Moores. My Masters degree was completed in the United States in a terminal Masters program in Physics.  

That degree was course driven – in the span of two years I took ten courses and only began my research one year into the program. It felt like research was an afterthought. Comparatively, at York University, research is the main focus of graduate students in the sciences. This has allowed me to work on numerous projects and build a portfolio of research interests.

Just because someone has a lot of research under their belt, doesn’t necessarily mean they are a great researcher. I have found that in order for research to be successful, you must be able to communicate your research (methods and results) in a clear and concise manner. This is where conference attendance comes into play. Both oral and poster presentations are excellent ways to get your ideas across and interact with the greater scientific community.

I am in the process of completing a body of research that I have been working on for the greater part of my tenure at York University. The completion time was known in advance, so I put an abstract in with the Division for Planetary Sciences and was able to come away with an oral presentation.  This will be the largest venue I have given a talk at. Seeing as it is only a few short weeks away, I wanted to discuss conferences in this blog post.

I am very thankful to be a part of a research group that has an advisor who sees conferences for what they are: a venue to share your ongoing research or to present results from completed projects. Conference attendees come from all walks of the academic hierarchy – undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, early career scientists, and both soft and hard money scientists (professors included).

Our group is similarly comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and professor John Moores. All walks of the academic hierarchy in our group are encouraged to submit abstracts to conferences and all of us (excluding recent hires) have successfully presented either posters or talks to numerous conferences in the past.

This won't be the experience of every graduate student, case in point: before my time at York University, the only time I presented on my research was to the examining committee when fulfilling my Masters degree.  However, since being at York University in the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory, I have presented on three research topics at a total of five conferences and two Mars Science Laboratory Participating Scientists Team Meetings.

Presenting research at conferences has allowed me to interact with members of the planetary science community that I would otherwise have never had the opportunity to. Conferences have proven to be a great place to meet seasoned professionals in the field that I want to continue participating in after my PhD. Perhaps I have already met future bosses and colleagues.

At the MSL Science Team Meetings I was able to share the work that I am doing with the data being collected from the Curiosity rover with others who are working on similar problems but maybe with a different set of instruments. This allows us to collaborate and work on problems together or share results internally that may be of use for something completely different. While I am just a graduate student, it has been made clear, time and time again, that my work has value.  Attending conferences and team meetings has boosted my confidence in my work.

Our group likes to show up in full force at one conference held in Canada every year. In 2014, it was the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society meeting held in Rimouski, QC. In 2015 it was the American Geophysical Unions Joint Assembly in Montreal, QC. In 2016 it was the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute ASTRO conference in Ottawa, ON. In 2017 it will likely be CMOS as it will be held in downtown Toronto – a short, but sometimes unpleasant, TTC ride from York University.

Not all conferences are alike. More pertinent to us, not all conferences for planetary science are alike. The field of planetary science is multi-disciplinary by nature. Some conferences are purely science based. Some conferences lean towards the engineering aspect of planetary science. Some conferences like to have a sampling of both. We’ve even been to conferences that have dealt with the intricacies of space law and multi-generational space ships.

Some conferences have tens of thousands of attendees (I’m looking at you AGU Fall Meeting with ~24,000 attendees in 2015). On the other side of the spectrum, some conferences have a handful of attendees.  DPS fits somewhere in-between with attendance ranging between 750 and 1000 people per meeting over the last decade.

As a conference approaches, it seems that the amount of time you can work on your talk or poster decreases exponentially.  Class assignments, TA assignments, and other responsibilities need to be taken care of. Many things can go wrong before a conference: scheduling conflicts, self doubt, social anxiety, a bug in your code that just wont go away, etc.  Relax. Breathe. You can make it work. I have never come away from a conference wishing I had not participated.

In that vein, I am telling myself to relax… I am telling myself to breathe…. And I am hunting down that bug in my code like there is no tomorrow.

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