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.
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.