Monday, January 21, 2013

Astronomy: The 221th American Astronomical Meeting

My trip to the 221th American Astronomical (AAS) Meeting was long, but quite productive. Now that I've returned to Chile I'm ready to talk about what went on there. There is always far too much going on at AAS for me to keep track off, though, so this is more of a snapshot of my experiences at the AAS conference.

This Winter meeting was held at Long Beach, California, which was cool for several reasons. I've been to Long Beach before, in fact, the first AAS I attended was held there. Given that I did my graduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I've also gone to Long Beach for quick trips, such as checking out their Aquarium of the Pacific.

Aerial view of Long Beach

My AAS experience started early, on Friday. I had originally planned to arrive Sunday, but flights were too expensive and so I flew a few days extra. However, this allowed me to attend the Saturday/Sunday workshops and so I went to the Teaching Astro101 workshop run by the Center for Astronomy Education.
It was an excellent workshop and I feel I learned a lot of useful things to keep in mind when teaching introductory science classes. It made me realize that teaching is no joke, particularly if you want to do it well.

After that was the opening reception at the Aquarium of the Pacific. A few people complained about there being poor light and too crowded, but in my opinion, this is one of the best receptions I've been to. The whole of the aquarium was open to us so we could go and pet the sharks, see the otters and penguins, and walk around the exhibits with our food. As many pointed out, there was no seafood options. The drinks were a bit expensive, but that's to be expected. I pulled out my I'm-from-Chile-and-know-my-wines card and was offered the finer (yet even more expensive) wine, but in the end settled for the cheaper variety.

Thousands of astronomers at the Aquarium of the Pacific

The following days marked the official conference. I had two posters, the first on Monday detailing my science of young stars. This was very well received. I had plenty of "customers" and even dragged a few people over to see it. Despite this, I met people other days who say they dropped by and didn't see me there. I was worried that I was near the end of the hall, yet clearly people were interested on what I and others around me had to present.
The second poster was an education poster (this allows you to present 2 posters at the meeting) on Tuesday about the results of our transit of Venus distance measurements. This was a paired poster with my officemate Jackie Faherty who presented on the same day about the outreach efforts on Easter Island. I've talked about our transit of Venus work on this blog before and was very proud of our work. However, we didn't get that much traffic, which I attribute to the lesser interest of the astronomical community in education or outreach-related work.

Proud of our Easter Island outreach work! The electronic gadget I had said "HETU'U 246.08,09"; basically it advertised our posters.

Wednesday and Thursday I had nothing to present, but still wandered around seeing posters, talks, and meeting people. I was exhausted given the long flight, hotel problems, the 2-day workshop, and the poster presentations, and I think people could tell I was tired. This was a long, expensive trip, though, and I felt I had to make the most out of it. I don't drink coffee very often, but I did every morning here. However, I would buy it myself so I never used my two coffee coupons. I remember the NRAO booth at some meeting ago had a container/box for people to donate coffee coupons for the "poor grad students." I didn't see that this time, though I'll admit my mind was on other matters. Those who run booths should feel free to do this (and have it clearly labeled) so those of us who don't care for our coupons can donate them.

Wednesday I had a research "family" dinner with my former thesis advisor Ben Zuckerman and several of his current/former students/postdocs/etc. It was very nice and cool to see all "generations" together. I think I drank a little too much sangria, but not so much that I was drunk or impaired: it was just the right amount to enjoy the "secret" AAS after-party. I liked the place at first with the salsa music, but then it became too crowded. We could barely move, let alone dance. I'm a bit disappointed I didn't get to dance with my salsa teacher, but did I mention it was crowded? Still, overall it was fun. There exists video and photographic evidence of hundreds of astronomers doing Gangnam Style if you care to search for it.

The Grand Hall of the conference center. In this picture, Julia Fang is giving her 15-minute dissertation talk Thursday morning. You can tell my camera isn't great and I was sitting far away...

Thursday was a far more quiet day, probably since some people were hungover or just plain tired. Even though I had left the party early, I was exhausted from everything the past few days. I had to check out some of the talks, though, including one given by my former advisor, Ben, on our young-star work. He picked several slides from a talk I would be presenting the following few days, but the talk tried to squeeze too much material in too little time. Five minutes is really too short of a time to cover everything as he tried to do.

Thursday was also hackday, which I was interested in attending. This is a day in which you and your team focus on a single project, usually requiring some clever coding, and try to complete or get as much done on it as you can (see the wiki and ideas here). However, I had several talks I felt I needed to see and so decided "not this time." I do wonder how much programing or technical experience is necessary. I know they advertised as "none needed", but I was still hesitant despite the fact that I actually do know some Python, IDL, etc. I guess some projects are less coding-intensive, though.
Regardless, from what I hear, it was a big hit and I hope they do it for next Winter AAS. I'll try to have a more open schedule so I can join in one of the projects. In spite of not being part of it, I may actually appear in one project since Emily Rice was going around with a camera recording people lip-singing "Fund Me, Maybe" (a parody of Call Me, Maybe). I was one of those recorded, though given that I can't sing I'm sure I did terrible and perhaps won't survive the final cut. Still, I look forward to seeing how that project comes out! Here's a summary of some of the projects being carried out.

On the online realm, I and many others were tracking the #AAS221 Twitter feed. I'm glad to say that according to Douglas Burke's statistics, I ended up as the 32nd most frequent tweet-er. Here's a word cloud of the 100 most commonly used words used, according to a log I created using Google Reader:
I've eliminated things like the #AAS221 hashtag and "RT" which are far too common. Overall, you don't see very many mentions of particular science topics. Even though "JWST", "Kepler", and "planets" are there, the focus is more on the people. Interestingly, this differs from Burke's word-count statistics. It appears that my Google Reader log did not record every possible entry. The word is that there were ~7000 tweets during the meeting, but Reader only recorded ~700. Clearly I have to either check Reader continuously through out the meeting, or better: find some other way to archive all (or at least most) of the tweets.

After Thursday, most people started heading out to their respective homes and institutions. Several have already posted videos, photos, and blogs about their AAS experience, so I feel that I'm a bit behind (Astrobites seemed to have a running summary through the conference; check out the final entry and related links here). My own work wasn't done on Thursday, though. I set out North to move closer to UCLA. On Friday I had a meeting with collaborators there, gave a talk, and hung out with the grad students. On Monday, I had another talk scheduled at CalTech and also met some people and gave brief overviews of my work there.

The only days I really had to rest were Saturday and Sunday, and so, of course, I did no such thing. I went to go buy things that are hard to get, or expensive, in Chile, including two books: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson and Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. A Memory of Light had just been released January 8th while I was at the conference so it was extremely well-timed. I also went to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour at its new home in the California Science Center. Yeah, I really packed my trip with things to do.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour!

In the end, I feel this was an excellent conference. I was exhausted from all the pre- and post-conference activities, but I would do them again in a heartbeat. At this stage in my career, I feel it is important that people see me and my work and realize that I have something of value to offer to the community. AAS is a time to network and, even though I am shy and quiet, every little bit of effort helps to put my name out there and pave the road for future job opportunities.

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