Patty’s Experience Attending Virtual AGU 2021

Patty here – 

I recently attended the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting virtually Dec 13-17, 2021, thanks to the generous support of the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant, so this post is a wrap-up about my experience presenting at and attending the conference.

If you have never attended AGU before, it can be very overwhelming. The first time I attended was in 2018 when I was an undergrad, and I was presenting a poster on the Marine Geology and Geophysics Field Course I participated in that summer. It was my first scientific conference, and I definitely felt overwhelmed. There are so many people from different disciplines that present at AGU every year, it is almost impossible to see everything you want to see, but there is great potential for interdisciplinary collaboration. This experience exposed me to research I was not even aware was possible. I did not attend AGU in 2019 or 2020, so this was my first time back at the conference in several years, and I had high hopes for generating collaborations and expanding my network to include different scientists.

I wish I could say that these new connections with people happened during my virtual attendance, but I think it is particularly difficult to achieve in a virtual setting, and especially when half of the conference attendees are in-person and may not be looking at virtual poster presentations. I think it is likely that my expectations for networking in this hybrid environment were a little unrealistic, so this was a good learning experience for me regarding pandemic-era conference presentations. 

My poster presentation was part of the Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology General Poster session on 13 Dec 2021, and I was presenting some very preliminary data on my PhD research project investigating deep-ocean circulation changes in the southern Gulf of Mexico during the Eocene-Oligocene Transition. (The poster is still viewable on AGU’s iPoster website, by the way.) As a virtual attendee you can schedule video and chat sessions for your poster presentation on whichever platform you prefer. So, I scheduled zoom and chat times during the poster session, hoping people would have time to drop in and chat about my research and the preliminary data I was presenting. I even advertised my poster and zoom/chat sessions on Twitter.

Large format poster that Patty presented virtually at AGIU 2021. The poster includes maps, climate plots, core sections and the chemistry pulled from the core. Work is summarized at the end and future directions are stated.
AGU Poster, Deep-Water Circulation in the Southern Gulf of Mexico at Eocene-Oligoene Transition

Unfortunately, that did not happen. According to AGU’s poster statistics, by the end of the conference there were 17 people who viewed my poster, but no one contacted me during or after the chat sessions. My dreams of collaboration at AGU 2021 died fairly quickly by Monday evening, but I do not want it to discourage me from participating in and presenting at conferences in the future. This just was not a great way to generate those connections I was looking for, and it is something I will keep in mind as the pandemic continues.

I do not want to give the impression that my entire AGU experience was negative because it was a great opportunity for me to look for research outside of what I was working on, and to get updates on diversity and inclusion initiatives taking place within the AGU community. Although the lack of engagement at my poster and technical issues on the morning of the first day, which admittedly may have contributed to the limited engagement, made me feel somewhat discouraged attending talks and townhalls for the rest of the week, there were a few sessions that I found interesting and useful. I liked that I was able to view recordings of the talks and could elect to participate in the discussion or not and that I could view any of the virtual posters at any time. I think that AGU set up a very functional hybrid format. Their new Q&A format was also very successful because it limited unnecessary and unhelpful comments and highlighted questions that the entire audience wanted to hear through upvoting on the platform.

Due to the limited engagement at my poster, I made an effort to look at virtual posters, especially posters that are outside my discipline. This is something I tend to do at in-person conferences, anyway. Wandering around the poster hall and randomly reading a poster can be enlightening and reveal unexpected research paths in subjects I was not previously aware of. I think my favorite “random” posters I found were the ones on the probability of bolide impacts (very timely #DontLookUp).

Some of the best sessions I attended focused on advances in paleoceanography and understanding climate changes in the past, such as PP23A: Advances in Understanding the Deep-Time ‘Greenhouse Climates’ and the Hyperthermal Events, PP22A: Paleoceanographic Insights From Biomineralizers: Advancing Proxy Applications via Process-Based Understanding, and PP34A: Evolution of the Earth System. These sessions are directly related to my research, and I enjoyed seeing all of the great new research being done. I felt encouraged being able to connect my research to the work being done by other scientists. Although I was virtual, it helped me feel connected to the community in a small way.

I also attended sessions from the Ocean Sciences division on Advances in Understanding Global Meridional Overturning Circulation From Past to Future, Ocean Dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico, Interaction of Tropical Basins, and Outstanding Problems in Caribbean and Central American Tectonics, which are topics that are tangentially related to my research. These sessions helped me to look at my research from different perspectives and see how it might inform other disciplines. Due to overlap of many sessions, there were some sessions that I was not able to attend live. However, I was able to watch the talk recordings and AGU has an On Demand feature that shows the recording of each session, so you can go back and catch up on talks and discussions that you missed. 

In addition to science sessions, I also attended two townhalls TH15H: How Is Science Doing in Washington? The State of U.S. Science Policy One Year Into the Biden Administration and Where We Go From Here and TH33G: Reciprocity in AGU: The Beginnings of an Indigenous Action Committee, both of which I found very encouraging. I felt grateful to be able to attend these townhalls virtually, and I think that is a feature AGU should absolutely continue to use in future conferences because of increased accessibility. 

Overall, I appreciated AGU’s hybrid format, and despite technical hiccups on the first day, I think the platform was successful for the rest of the conference. As we consider a future where we need to decrease carbon footprints through airplane travel, the impact that traveling to conferences can have on people’s lives, and, most importantly, accessibility for people who are unable to travel for health or financial reasons, the hybrid conference format is probably the best option we have. I think that AGU has a good start in developing an engaging format, but there needs to be a willingness by all attendees (in-person and virtual) to deliberately engage with each other (myself included), especially for early career scientists. That being said, it’s been a really long two years and the pandemic is not over, so I think we all deserve a little grace for what we are able to contribute to and get out of scientific conferences right now. 


Patty Standring, PhD Student at University of Texas at Austin studying paleoceanography using benthic foraminifera

Hello! I am Patty, and I am a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). I am also an Air Force veteran. I worked as a Dari Linguist during my 10 years in the military before returning to school to get a bachelor’s degree at UT in geophysics.

Photo of me in front of my microscope at the Institute for Geophysics.

What research are you doing for your PhD? I am studying the paleoceanography of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (~30-40 million years ago). I look for tiny fossil shells from organisms called foraminifera (forams for short) in deep-sea sediments, and then analyze the isotopes in the shells. I specifically study the forams that live on the seafloor, so they are referred to as benthic forams, whereas planktic forams float in the water column. Forams are single-celled organisms and build their calcite shells from elements in the seawater, essentially recording what seawater conditions were like when they were alive and giving us information about the source of water masses, ocean circulation, and climate changes through time. When forams die, their shells are incorporated into deep-sea sediments, so all we have to do is dig up old ocean mud and then we have a record of what the ocean was like a long time ago.

The time period I am studying is important because the global climate was changing from very warm (much warmer than today) to very cold conditions, and ocean circulation was changing. Atmospheric carbon dioxide was much higher than today but declining, which cooled the climate enough that ice sheets developed on Antarctica. As a result of many of these changes certain groups of foraminifera went extinct. I am trying to find out how these climate and ocean changes occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea in the hopes that it will help us understand how modern ocean circulation developed and how it may change in the future as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to increase.

Image of 10 Nuttallides truempyi foraminifera to be analyzed for isotope data. My fingers provide some scale of how small the shells can be.


Why did you leave the military to pursue science? I joined the military at age 19 due to lack of employment opportunities and an inability to pay for college. After enlisting, the Air Force trained me in Dari, one of primary languages spoken in Afghanistan. I was a Dari Linguist for six years and reenlisted during my deployment to Afghanistan for four more years. Learning Dari not only gave me a unique appreciation for the Afghan culture but also exposed me to broader geopolitical issues I was previously sheltered from.

Image of me shortly after reenlisting while deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in Dec 2011.

Growing up in southern California, I am familiar with earthquakes, but have been fortunate to not have been significantly affected by them. While deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a northern province in the country experienced a larger magnitude earthquake, resulting in significant damage and casualties, with an entire village swallowed by a landslide. It struck me that a similar magnitude earthquake in the US would not have resulted in the same level of devastation primarily due to the emergency infrastructure of the US and building safety requirements. It made me reconsider what my efforts in Afghanistan were actually resulting in and whether or not I could have a more positive impact on the people I was trying to help.

After my deployment, I began considering what options I might have when my enlistment was up. I decided I wanted to pursue a science career, with the original goal of studying earthquake hazards. I hoped that my military experience would aid in increasing earthquake preparedness and mitigation efforts in countries like Afghanistan.

Me aboard the R/V Brooks McCall in Galveston Bay, Texas, during the Marine Geology Geophysics Field Course in 2018.

Why did you decide to study paleoceanography? After my second enlistment was up in 2015, I moved to Austin and went to Austin Community College (ACC) in preparation for applying to the University of Texas at Austin. While at ACC, I participated in a summer research program where I worked on a group project in a lab studying the permeability and porosity of different types of rocks (how much fluid can flow through certain types of rocks). This experience helped solidify my desire to study geology at UT and gave me confidence in my ability to conduct scientific research. It also instilled in me the importance of promoting participation of 2-year college students in scientific research.

My original goal was to study earthquakes and earthquake hazard mitigation, but my participation in UT’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) Marine Geology and Geophysics Field Course introduced me to marine geology, oceanography, and – more importantly – forams. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on an undergraduate research project with UTIG Research Scientist Dr. Chris Lowery using foram ecology to study sea level change along the Texas Gulf Coast over the last 10,000 years. That project, along with Dr. Lowery’s mentorship, gave me the confidence to pursue a graduate degree studying ancient climate and oceanographic changes in the hopes that they will help us understand modern ocean and climate stability and potential impacts on vulnerable communities.

Me graduating from home in May 2020. Like many things in the last two years, the in-person graduation ceremony at UT was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists? I have a non-traditional path toward science. Although it took me much longer to get to where I am, I believe my experiences make me a better scientist and a more well-rounded individual. I come from a low-middle income socioeconomic background, I served in the military in a completely different career field, and I attended community college before enrolling at UT Austin. These are just a few of what some people might consider obstacles that I overcame to get to where I am now. However, I am who I am because of where I come from, what I have sacrificed for my education, and the path I took to get to this point. As an older student, I feel much more certain in what I want from my education and in my future scientific career. As a military veteran, I have a socio-political perspective that informs my research goals. So, my advice to aspiring scientists is do not be afraid of a non-traditional path. Things like prior work experience and a community college education are benefits because they make you a versatile individual, and able to adapt to changes in ways that students on a traditional path may not be able to. Take advantage of opportunities that may become available to you because you never know where they will take you or how they might change your perspective or your research path.

What do you want your future to look like? My military experience helped me realize how important it is to me to have a positive impact on the lives of others. After receiving my PhD, I hope to find a position working for a government agency like the US Geological Survey or the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. I would like to work on scientific research that informs policy decisions pertaining to climate change impacts, particularly for marginalized communities that are typically more vulnerable to climate change and are underserved with respect to mitigation efforts.

Note from the TS Team: Patty has also written a post on the Student Veterans Research Network that we encourage you to read. 

Student Veterans Research Network (SVRN)

Meet the organizers!

Logan Pearce (founder and co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Arizona studying the formation and evolution of planetary systems using a direct imaging technique with Dr. Jared Males. Logan is a US Navy veteran and specialized in nuclear power during her 5 years in the military.

Patty Standring (co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin studying the paleoceanography of the southern Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean using stable isotopes from benthic foraminifera. She is co-advised by Dr. Chris Lowery and Dr. Rowan Martindale. Patty is a US Air Force veteran and was a Dari Linguist during her 10 years in the military.

Rebecca Larson (co-organizer) is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin studying the formation and evolution of the universe’s first galaxies and is advised by Dr. Steve Finkelstein. Rebecca is a US Air Force veteran and was an Arabic Linguist during her 6 years in the military.

What is SVRN?

We want SVRN to be an informal peer mentorship community for veterans who are working in research or are interested in working in research. We would like it to be an inclusive environment where researchers from different disciplines can network with one another and help each other navigate higher education and establish research careers.

Why did you start the SVRN?

We started this network to aid veterans transitioning from their military career to one involving research and/or higher education. While there is some support for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life, and organizations focused on helping veterans get into higher education, there is a greater emphasis on resources to help veterans get jobs or start businesses. When we leave the military there is not a lot of information provided to us on how to go to graduate school, apply for grants, and get involved in undergraduate research. We wanted to establish a community where individuals from different STEM and non-STEM disciplines around the country can meet, connect, and give each other advice or recommendations on how to go about establishing their post-military careers. Transitioning from the military can be very challenging, especially the longer you served, so we want to present options for veterans that will help them be successful establishing their new career paths and support each other along the way.

What do you expect other student veterans to get out of participating in the SVRN?

We hope that SVRN can be a place of peer mentorship for student veterans to come to ask questions and get advice on how to establish successful research careers. Things like how to get involved in undergraduate research and apply to graduate school, how to build a CV versus writing a resume, best ways to promote their own accomplishments to advance their career goals, how their military skills translate to a research environment, and how to attend conferences to talk about their research. It is also designed to be a community of folks with similar backgrounds and goals, another professional network for making connections across institutions and disciplines. These are all things that you might be able to get from a really good mentor, but because it is coming from a veteran, they understand your past experiences better than a civilian would.

Many veterans join the military so that they can afford to go to college, especially if they are the first person in their family to go into higher education. They are already at a disadvantage because they may not know what types of resources are out there to support them in their journey; things like grants and fellowships that will cover the cost of a graduate education. We also don’t see this as a stagnate peer mentorship network. We would like to see it grow into what it needs to be for student veterans to succeed in research careers.

How can veterans get involved in the network?

Please go to where you can sign up as a member and agree to our code of conduct. After that you will be invited to a Slack workspace where you can introduce yourself and meet other veterans in the network. In addition to that, members that agree will provide their contact information for veterans to reach out to them directly regarding a grant application or applying to a specific institution. Veterans can choose their level of involvement in the organization, but the more we are able to connect with each other, the stronger the network will be for everyone.

You can also follow SVRN on Twitter @SVRN_vets!