Brittany’s American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2021 Recap

Brittany here – 

In December of 2021 I was able to attend the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting, my first in-person conference in the last two years, thanks in part to Time Scavengers Tilly Edinger Travel Grant. This was the first AGU Fall meeting presented in a hybrid format, with sessions accessible to those who attended in person, as well as those who chose not to, or could not travel to attend. As the completion of my PhD studies is fast approaching, I saw attending in person to be a beneficial experience for my continued growth as an early career scientist.

AGU 2021 logo

This year’s fall meeting was different in other aspects than just going hybrid. AGU prioritized safety measures for those attending in person. Masks were to be worn at all times while inside the conference hall, and proof of vaccination needed to be submitted to attend. It was the first meeting where I have experienced an outside coffee hour, which provided a means of social distancing while still getting a much-needed hot drink. Treats local to New Orleans were also served, such as beignets and bread pudding. More importantly, AGU used a new format for oral sessions, where a longer format talk was uploaded to the meeting portal for attendees to watch in advance, and a shorter format talk was presented live during the hosted session. While this format did not appeal to all, it did provide a more equal opportunity for posing questions to the presenters via the mobile app. In this manor session chairs were able to promote engagement between the audience and the presenters, with a much larger diversity of questions being submitted.

A few of the sessions I particularly enjoyed included: Human Responses to Late Quaternary Paleoenvironmental Change, Novel Applications and Technique Advances of Cosmogenic Nuclides, Advancing Research on the Hydroclimate of South America, and Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) to name a few. As I have been a participant in Northern Illinois Universities URGE pod I was very interested to see how other pods from different universities and colleges across the nation were tackling systemic barriers to those traditionally excluded from the geosciences, and particularly how these issues were being addressed in different sized departments. I really enjoyed watching the panel presentation hosted by members of the URGE leadership team and seeing the changes that so many departments across the country have been able to achieve in only a year. In the associated poster session, it was simultaneously encouraging and frustrating to see that many pods from similarly sized departments as my own often ran into the same issues my pod had experienced in the preceding year. 

A returning feature from previous meetings that I found engaging were the eLightning presentations. In these sessions presenters had three minutes to give an overview of their research, after which attendees were able to circulate amongst the presentations from the session, discussing aspects of the research presented while being able to interact with the presentations on touch screens. One particular presentation where I chatted with the presenter extensively involved computed tomography (CT) scans from soft sediment cores collected from around Antarctica. As I employ the same technique for portions of my own research, I was interested in hearing their experience with the processing software, as well as what other potential complimentary proxies could be used to further assess the data. 

To me, one of the most important facets to attending conferences is the accessibility to connect and network with other scientists. During the pandemic I joined an early career reading group focusing on cosmogenic nuclides, and this meeting provided an opportunity for many of us to gather for the first time. I truly enjoyed meeting these individuals who I had only ever shared a zoom screen with. What made the experience even more fruitful was getting to attend their presentations during the meeting and see how they were applying cosmogenic nuclides to solve various questions involving ice sheet dynamics, geomorphology and even human migration patterns. Furthermore, attending AGU provided a prime opportunity to sit down with collaborators to discuss various projects, as well as meet up with potential post-doctoral mentors. 

My presentation was hosted in the Friday afternoon poster session, a notoriously under attended time spot. As in person attendance was much lower than previous AGU fall meetings, the sheer size of the poster hall made it feel rather empty. However, this made for the unusual opportunity to visit the other posters in my session (Changes and Impacts of Climate Variability in South America II), and see other scientific work being done across the Andes and beyond. The work I presented represented the first chapter from my dissertation and a paper that has since been submitted for peer review. Within, we presented the first Chlorine-36 ages of late-Holocene moraines from the South-Central Chilean Andes to compare the timing of southern hemisphere mid-latitude glacial variability with low and high latitude regions. These data were coupled with a tree-ring chronology and are interpreted to represent progressive phases of glacial retreat over the late-Holocene. Additionally, we modeled an envelope of possible forcing parameters based on the location of these glacial moraines and the chronology of glacial abandonment. These results suggest that local glacial fluctuations are sensitive to variability of both temperature and precipitation. 

Brittany standing at her AGU poster in the conference poster hall
Brittany, a woman with brown hair in a green dress, is pictured next to her poster presentation titled “Chlorine-36 Surface Exposure Dating and Glacial Sensitivity Analysis of late-Holocene Moraines, South-Central Chilean Andes (38°S).” (photo credit: Mary Sorensen).

While the AGU fall meeting may have had a fraction of its normal in person attendance, the science presented was just as rigorous, exciting, and motivating as I have grown accustomed to!

Brittany N. Price, Paleoclimatologist

Brittany, a brown-haired woman, wearing PPE while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois Universities Stable Isotope Laboratory.
Brittany wearing personal protective equipment while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois University’s Stable Isotope Laboratory

Similar to many children, I was always fascinated by volcanos! The dynamic way in which they change the landscape inspired me to pursue a degree in geology. While this interest and appreciation of volcanoes has never faded, a new specialty piqued my interest in my second year at university – Paleoclimatology. The idea that the past climate history of the earth could be reconstructed over millions of years by analyzing the chemical makeup of microfossils preserved in oceanic sediments quickly made me alter my focus, and subsequently my entire career trajectory! I spent the next three years working in the Paleoclimatology and Stable Isotope Geochemistry labs at the University of Miami to prepare forams (microfossils) from the Gulf of Papua (off the coast of Papua New Guinee) for stable oxygen and carbon analysis to better understand the influence of sea level, as well as variability in the East Asian Monsoon system in the western Tropical Pacific.

Fast forward almost 15 years and I am nearing the completion of my PhD. I now focus on terrestrial records that I use to assess variability in hydroclimate dynamics (i.e. rainfall) over the Holocene around the Pacific Ocean Basin. My current projects include a wide variety of locations and proxy data, from establishing chronologies of glacial advancement and recession in the South-Central Chilean Andes, to carbonate isotope reconstructions from small lake basins in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Moving forward I hope to work on better constraining the roles that aridity and convection play in the global hydroclimate system through the use of stable isotopes, as well as to reconstruct better land-based temperature proxy records. It is truly amazing to witness the analytical advances that have been made even during my relatively short career as a geoscientist!

Brittany, wearing full PPE including a face shield, working to decant hydrofluoric acid from samples used for cosmogenic chlorine-36 dating.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring geologists it would be that no two paths look that same, so it is best not to compare yourself to others! There are so many interesting careers in our discipline, and it is alright to explore them. After I completed my undergraduate education, I continued on for my Masters in Geology. While I had wanted to work on terrestrial sediment cores, I ended up working on a basin analysis project using seismic reflection data. Having this skill set opened avenues that I hadn’t originally considered for myself, and led to a job offer and a career working in the oil and gas industry for 8 years. However, I realized that I was still truly inspired and passionate about Paleoclimatology, and that I still had so much more I wanted to learn. I decided to leave the workforce, and as a more mature student (at least 10 years older than the average age of my cohort) I entered the PhD program at Northern Illinois University. Returning to the world of Paleoclimatology has been one of the best and most fulfilling experiences of my adult life, even if the path I took to get here was a bit longer than most.

Brittany, woman in a wide-brimmed hat and fleece jacket, on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier
Brittany on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier.