Noel here –
This year, I got the honor to attend the annual conference for the Geological Society of America (GSA) in Portland, Oregon. This conference is dedicated to all corners of the geosciences, and hosts professionals and students alike from all over the world to present their research to the scientific community either through presentations or poster boards. It is also an amazing opportunity for any undergraduate student who is just starting their journey into their field and seeking for further education opportunities, such as myself. I attended along with my professor and another member of my lab group, representing the University of South Florida (USF).
Last year’s GSA conference was held entirely online do to the COVID-19 outbreak, so this year was a return to the in-person format, while still having online accessibility to all participants who either couldn’t make it or didn’t feel comfortable being around crowds of people still.
As this was my first time attending a conference, my focus was on meeting as many people in the field of paleontology as possible. I will be graduating from USF at the end of 2021, so I wanted to explore my options for possible grad school programs and professors that I could work with. During the four-day event, I got to talk to a wide variety of paleontologists, this included students of all levels, and professionals looking for students. There was only a handful of undergrad students since it’s not common practice for students at this level to attend conferences unless they are very passionate about their field and want to get ahead of the game. I would personally recommend any student who is interested in higher education to consider attending such events in general, but GSA is a good experience specifically because it is a very wide-reaching event and gives many more opportunities than smaller conferences.
I did not have any research material to present this time around, but a graduate student from our lab, Stephen Hill, did present his current research on the feeding mechanisms of diploporan echinoderms. He used computer models based on the morphology of these animals to run mathematical simulations on how water currents would have interacted with them. Watching students present made me feel better about the idea of someday presenting myself at these kinds of event, which is a huge benefit of going with a lab group or colleagues, specially when you are new to the conference experience.
There was also a large poster exhibition hall at the conference, here you get to have a more one-to-one experience with the people who are actually heading these research projects and get to ask questions. These posters are not only an interactive way of find out about the latest active fields of research, but you also get great networking opportunities. This is where I got to talk with the many great professionals and their students to get a better idea of how graduate school works and what I should expect for the application process.
From the perspective of an undergrad, attending GSA was definitely a worthwhile experience that gave me ample opportunity for networking and broadening my perspective on relevant topics in my field. Even though my preferred area of study is paleontology, there is definitely something for everyone in geology. As stated previously, I wouldn’t let an opportunity like this pass, and neither should you.