Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Astronomy: Young Stars and Planets Near the Sun

This past week, I attended the 314th International Astronomical Union (IAU) Symposium titled Young Stars and Planets Near the Sun. This symposium was held in Atlanta, Georgia and covered everything related to the subject including, of course, young stars, but also brown dwarfs, circumstellar disks, and discussions of upcoming observatories and surveys. In this brief blog, I talk about my experience there as well as my work as part of the Science Organizing Committee (SOC).

The Young Stars and Planets Near the Sun IAU Symposium
Fourteen years ago, in 2001, a conference was held to discuss the new results on nearby young moving groups. Since then, the subject has been visited from time to time in other conferences, but has never been the main point. Several key people decided it was time for that to change and to hold a meeting to pool together all the recent discoveries and efforts of young-star science. I was among the first of those people to sign up for this effort as a member of the SOC (as led by Joel Kastner and Anne-Marie Lagrange). Once we identified the meeting location (the Georgia State University campus in Atlanta), we had the support of an active local organizing committee (LOC) led by Sebastian Lepine.

Scientifically, this symposium gathered experts from across the world to discuss 5 main topics: the discovery and characterization of young moving groups, the study and evolution of young stars, circumstellar gas and dust disks, brown dwarf and planet studies, and the future facilities that will enhance all this research. In my opinion, it was a fruitful conference. My science relates most closely to what was discussed on the first day (the young moving groups) and so I learned quite a bit as to what others are doing and how my work fits in the overall scheme of things. Each day covered it's own subject (except Tuesday which dealt with two) and so the talks were well-focused and provided lively discussions. Unfortunately, we always seemed to be running a little late and had to cut off a few sessions set aside for discussions or eat into our coffee break time.

Logistically, the conference was well organized, especially thanks to the efforts of the LOC. We got a welcome packet that described everything we needed to know including the venue, maps, nearby restaurants, etc. It was quite well-received by the attendees. We were a paper-less conference which meant materials like the welcome packet and schedule were sent via email as PDF files. For us younger folk that's not a problem, but I heard of a few cases where people requested paper versions be provided.

Lunch was provided at the conference which was quite nice. It allowed us to keep a tighter schedule as we didn't have to go off exploring town to find something to eat (though to be fair, there were plenty of options in downtown Atlanta). Wednesday and Friday didn't have lunch, though, as these were half days. Coffee, water, and tea was also provided during coffee breaks, though I would have liked if some cookies or snacks had been available too, particularly in the morning break. Still, it was quite fine given budgetary constraints.

Tuesday was our public lecture and debate. This was presented by Ben Zuckerman on the subject of intelligent life in the universe and included Karin Oberg and Virginia Trimble for the debate section. I personally could not attend, since dinner took too long, but watched online since it was streamed. It was quite good, especially the debate. I'm not sure how long the video will remain hosted, but you can catch the first part here.

There were also plenty of posters presented at the meeting, including my own. Several SOC members (I was not among those) judged the posters and awarded prizes for the best graduate and postdoc posters during the conference banquet. Speaking of the banquet, this was held at a historic site- the oldest building in Atlanta (since it was burned down in the Civil War), the Freight Depot. The ambience was pretty good, but the acoustics were not that great for the banquet keynote presentation.

Social Media
Throughout the conference, several participants were very active in Facebook and Twitter providing summaries or commentary on the various talks and activities going on. Matt Kenworthy and Rahul Patel were very active on Facebook providing short summaries of every talk. On Twitter, nearly 1000 tweets over the week were sent, many of them by Adric Reidel. I collected all these tweets in a Storify you can read here (it loads up the newer tweets as you scroll down). I learned that Storify has a 1000 element limit, so bear that in mind if anyone is thinking of doing the same at other conferences. I also created a word cloud of the 150 most common words (removing the #IAUS314 tag) used in these 951 tweets. I would say the conference was moderately active online as while there were plenty of tweets and posts, most attendees were either unaware or posted infrequently (myself included).

The 150 most common terms used in the #IAUS314 tweets.

The Science Organizing Committee
This was my first time as part of an SOC and it was an instructive experience. As part of the SOC, I had a role from the beginning in defining the scope of the conference. While we knew we wanted to include the young moving groups of ages ~10-100 million years and within ~100 parsecs (~300 light-years), we decided to be flexible and not set any hard limits on what was "young" and "nearby". As such, we got some interesting presentations involving more distant young stars such as the Pleiades or Scorpius-Centaurus and groups that are not that young at all.

The SOC was fairly large, consisting of 16 members. We wanted to make sure we covered certain key topics to keep the meeting well-focused. As such, we invited a lot of speakers (probably too many, given the feedback I got). These speakers either had the usual 30-minute review talks or a shorter focus talk 20-minutes in length. With these two types of invited talks, we kept the sessions focused on topic and filled them in with lots of short (10-minute) contributed talks.

One of the tasks we had in the SOC was deciding which contributed talks to accept and which to turn into posters. For this, we divided into smaller teams and looked at a subset of the contributions, ranking them so that the final decision could be taken later by the chairs. I think this worked quite well, but in the end, we had a minor problem of accepting too many talks. We were pretty much fully scheduled from 9am to 5pm with very few breaks (and frequently ran into the time allotted for the breaks). In hindsight, perhaps fewer focus talks, or having them be equal in length to contributed talks, may have helped. It was good that lunch was provided as otherwise we may not have managed to grab something to eat and return in time for the afternoon talks.

In terms of gender balance, the SOC had 4/16 female, or 25%. In terms of both the number of speakers and the number of attendees, we had about 30% female representation. According to this study, women tend to be invited speakers only 23% of the time on average, so we're not that different. If you consider that women comprise ~14% of the IAU US members, we had better representation in terms of attendance. More noticeably, however, is that when I looked at who asked questions, I noticed only 2-4 women asking questions per day. Although women asking less questions has been noted before, I expected a bit more given that the audience was somewhat younger and thus early career (women are less represented as go move up the academic ladder, see here).

The City of Atlanta
The conference was held in Atlanta, which I had not visited before. It was easy to get to the conference hotel and venue (the GSU campus) from the airport thanks to the MARTA metro system. Although, I only explored downtown, the city looked nice. There were plenty of dining options for when we went out to dinner. We even visited Alma (not to be confused with ALMA) for some tasty Mexican food. We were warned, however, that the city was unsafe after dark especially when walking alone. Not surprising in big cities, though. I didn't join the late-night parties, but know that others had fun doing so.

We had two half-days for the meeting, Wednesday and Friday. For the later half of Wednesday, several excursions were offered to those that wanted to explore Atlanta and its surroundings in a group. The conference ended Friday noon, but outreach activities were hosted afterwards for those who were interested. I didn't join any of those and instead headed off on my own to explore the Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and the nearby Olympic Park. Both were very good, though marketed towards younger audiences. The aquarium had lots of aquatic creatures including jellyfish, piranhas, whale sharks, dolphins, penguins, and otters. The World of Coca-Cola had exhibits on Coca-Cola art, videos of past and international commercials, and free samples of about a hundred different varieties of Coca-Cola products.

Final Thoughts
This was a very good conference. I had a good time catching up with friends and colleagues. It was a good experience working with the SOC as well. Any hiccups that came up were quickly resolved and smoothed out by the efficient SOC and LOC teams. Although I recently blogged about my decision to leave academia, I still had a lot of explaining to do for people who were unaware or who wanted to convince me otherwise. Still, most people were positive and encouraging. Regardless of where I end up in, I'm glad I attended this conference and was able to meet up with people and show off my latest results. If you're interested in the science presented, keep an eye out on the conference website since we aim to post up the talks and posters there.

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