Saturday, January 18, 2014

Astronomy: The 223rd American Astronomical Society Meeting

Last week, I was at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Now, I'm back in Chile and have finally written up a post about my experiences there. It's taken a while to write this up, mainly because I got very excited for some of my science at the meeting, but more on that later. Now, without further ado is a brief discussion of my time at the meeting and why I always enjoy it.

The Winter AAS meeting is generally held in one of 4 locations: Washington DC, Seattle, Austin, and Long Beach. I did not have the opportunity to go to the last DC meeting, so this was the first time being in DC in about 15 years. I was pretty excited. Unfortunately, since the last DC meeting, AAS has moved the location of the meeting within the DC area by signing up with Gaylord convention centers. In this occasion, the conference was at the Gaylord National Harbor, which is a bit far from most places in DC and not readily accessible with the metro, though there was a shuttle, which I used to get to the metro and tour DC on Friday. A good thing was that everything was pretty close and you could stay all day within the convention center if you wanted to. That really worked well for the day of the polar vortex, where temperatures dropped precipitously.

Inside the Gaylord National Harbor convention center. The Christmas tree was removed after a few days, but it was a nice area to sit around. Interestingly enough, I visited the Gaylord Palms in Florida the week before. That one was similar, though it felt much bigger.

But enough about location, now for the conference itself! Technically the conference starts on Sunday, but there are always workshops and events over the weekend. I only arrived late on Sunday so didn't attend any of the workshops. Interestingly, a music and gaming festival, MagFest, was taking place over the weekend so you could see some people in cosplay as you headed to the workshops or the opening reception. The opening reception, by the way, was pretty cool, though the location wasn't as exciting as the Long Beach Aquarium. Still, the food was good (drinks were very expensive, though) and I got a chance to reconnect with a lot of old friends.

A Dalek, left over from the MagFest convention, welcomes us to AAS223. Don't worry, there were thousands of Doctors around!

Monday was the official start of all the talks, posters, etc in the meeting. For me, I didn't have too much planned for that day, so just went around meeting up with people and checking out the posters. I attended the first Career Hour and was hooked. This was a 1-hour session led by Alaina Levine talking about all the aspects of jobs from resumes, to interview, to negotiations. It was extremely useful and I would highly recommend people attend these. That evening I met up with lots of my UCLA friends, which was great for catching up with what everyone is doing.

Tuesday was a bigger science day for me as there were several tasks and posters I was interested in. We also had planned a dinner with our research group so we could touch base and plan out any future papers and such. It went well, though the restaurant we picked was a tad overpriced. That evening was also the inaugural Open Mic night, where plenty of people signed up to showcase their talents. I missed the first part of this, unfortunately, but what I saw was really good. There was one awkward performance, but everything else was brilliant so I hope Open Mic night keeps going on at AAS.

One of the many excellent performances at Open Mic night. Lots of people attended!

Wednesday was the day I had my presentation so it was another big day for me. My presentation went well, though it was placed in an odd session where it didn't fit perfectly. The talks there are only for 5 minutes plus a few extra for questions, so you really have to just get right to the point. I was fine, but I've seen many talks where the speakers have to rush. During the session, I also got a chance to see the famous 'Lil BD', a knitted brown dwarf that appeared in a prior conference and traveled to this one. There's even a video about it.

Hanging out with Lil BD.

Wednesday was also the semi-official AAS party. This time it was set at four different locations since National Harbor is so far removed from the rest of the DC and the local areas were much smaller. I personally didn't go for several reasons, the main one being that dinner was so huge I could barely walk afterwards (bad planning, that). I wonder how people did the party? Did they skip from bar to bar out in the cold? Or just stick to the one where their friends were? I saw some mention of it in twitter, but it seems the twitterers were mainly in one locale (coincidentally, the place where I had dinner).

Thursday is usually a slow day, but not for this AAS! There were talks scheduled all the way to the evening and a closing reception with some neat sliders for food. One big complaint I heard was that even though the talks extended to the evening, the posters were only up until 2pm (rather than 6:30pm as prior days). Thursday is shaping up to be a full day and should be treated as such poster-wise. Some of the better posters were up on Thursday, in my biased opinion (my collaborators posted that day! :P)

Thursday is also the day for HackAAS, where people gather to create useful tools, websites, or programs related to astronomy. I would have liked to go, but couldn't dedicate the full day to that with all the extra science going on. Perhaps if Hackday where Friday? Regardless, I look forward to some of the hacks. I signed up to participate on the new astrotweeps twitter account and I helped contribute to the gender statics that James Davenport and his team were gathering. Those should yield some interesting results.

Finally, there is twitter. Twitter at AAS has become huge. I honestly felt that half of the conference was taking place on twitter. The main things being talked about were press releases (like GPI first light, wow!), but there was also snippets from talks and events taking place. A lot of people I know where tracking the #AAS223 feed, even if they weren't actively participating. At certain times in the conference it became impossible to follow as you would get upwards of 50 tweets in a few minutes. Still, I feel twitter is an awesome tool for the conference and I certainly was alerted to several interesting talks/posters that I would have otherwise missed.

I always love looking at the statistics for twitter as they give you a pulse of what the community as a whole is talking about. As in prior years, Douglas Burke has an excellent webpage gathering the stats for the over 20,000 tweets in the #AAS223 feed. It looks like I was ranked #14 in terms of overall tweets+retweets. I encourage you to check out his website and look through the various metrics so you can see how popular twitter has become.

In my opinion, this AAS meeting was a huge success. I always enjoy this meeting because I get to see many of my friends, particularly those not in my field, as well as still see and meet those that work in my line of research. Sometimes I feel out of touch by living in Chile thousands of miles away from my old contacts, so it's always refreshing to see them again.

Science-wise, there are so many talks and posters at the meeting that you have plenty of options as to what to see and how to spend your time. The key thing is to not try to do it all or you'll be overwhelmed. The Winter AAS conference tends to be a large meeting (~3000-4000 astronomers in attendance), which can be both intimidating and exciting. The next big conference for me will hopefully be Cool Stars 18 in June, though that one will have ~1/10th the number of people as AAS! See you then!

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