By Dr. Charles Kironji Gatebe, NASA Scientist for GLOBE Student Research Campaign on Climate
The 2009 Fall American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting being held in San Francisco, California, USA, from 12 December to 18 December is billed as one of the biggest gathering of scientists in the world. This year more than 16,000 scientists are expected from 78 countries around the world with their latest research in Earth and space sciences. The meeting helps to disseminate quality scientific research findings to a wider audience, enhance learning, and encourage international collaboration among scientists. The meeting also attracts teachers and students who come to learn about the latest research in Earth and space sciences.
I am writing this blog at the AGU meeting and it’s hard to decide which sessions to attend and which one to miss given my wide interest in many subjects. However, I realize that I can’t cover all the sessions, and since my research work involves measurements of reflection properties of opaque surfaces (e.g. land, ocean, cloud, snow, ice, etc) and studying how surface properties affect remote sensing of aerosols, I am mainly attending and presenting my work at the Atmospheric Sciences sessions. Let me try to explain the structure of the AGU meetings and why it is hard for me to decide where to go.
By any measure, a crowd of 16,000 is not small and can fill up to 20 schools, each with 800 students. So having a crowd of this size in one place, in this case, the Moscone Convention Center (pronounced “moss-coney center”) in San Francisco turns the whole place into a very busy market place of ideas. In fact, there are more ideas than can be gleaned from the 500 page document containing 15,788 abstracts that are expected to be presented at the 2009 Fall meeting. But still, the number of participants is smaller than half the total number of the AGU membership, currently standing at over 57,000 from 115 countries.
Because of the sheer size of the meeting, it is organized into many parallel sessions, each day starting 0800h until 1800h, five days in a row. There are also side events and small group meetings that are held either before 0800h or after 1800h sometime ending late in the evening. These sessions and events are listed in the AGU program guide, which is a 224-page document. Scientists either present their work in oral sessions, where each speaker is allowed a total of 15 minutes, or in poster sessions, where presenters have to stand by their posters, at least for two hours (see the picture showing AGU Posters this year).
It should be pointed out that the general format of the poster sessions is no different from that of science fairs in schools. However, the oral sessions are a little bit more complex. The first morning set of oral sessions start at 0800h and last for two hours, after which there is a 20-minute break, followed by the second set of morning sessions from 1020h-1220h. Then, there is a lunch break of 1hr, 20 minutes. The first afternoon sessions run from 1340h-1540h, followed by 20 minutes break, then the second afternoon sessions run from 1600h-1800h. This contrasts with the poster sessions which are presented either in the morning between 0800h and 1220h or afternoon between 1340h and 1800h. Posters are displayed for a whole day or in very rare cases, several days, after which they have to be removed to create room for the following day’s posters. That is pretty much how a day at the AGU is partitioned, time-wise, starting at 0800h and ending at 1800h. But of course, if there are special events or special group meetings, which is often the case for some scientists, then the day is stretched accordingly.
Lets now examine how research topics are grouped or organized at the AGU meetings. Everything revolves around sessions. The sessions are arranged by broad categories or disciplines such as Atmospheric Sciences, Hydrology, Ocean Sciences, Planetary Sciences, Cryosphere, Natural Hazards, Education and Human Resources, Solar and Heliospheric Physics, Public Affairs, and many other categories. Currently, AGU has 27 categories. Disciplines with a large number of scientists such as Atmospheric Sciences or Hydrology can hold more than 10 parallel sessions (both oral and poster presentations) during any 2-hr time period, morning or afternoon, while smaller-sized disciplines such as Cryosphere have one session during any 2-hr time period, morning or afternoon. If one was to organize a school day in the AGU style, visualize a discipline as a subject (e.g. Math or English or Science), a session as a topic and a lesson as an individual presentation or poster. Following the AGU format, if you pick say, Math, then in each 2-hr time period (e.g. 0800h-1000h) there has to be subject math, then under each time period several math topics would be taking place at the same time in several classes and in each class, there would be several lessons, 15 minutes per lesson (or 30 minutes if a double lesson). So for just one subject, there are multiple topics going on at the same time in different classes, sometime in different building. At the Fall AGU meeting, the Convention Center has three large buildings, Moscone South, Moscone North and Moscone West, all located in the same general area across the street from each other. Therefore, there can be a lot of walking to do especially if your sessions are held in different buildings. A good pair of walking shoes comes in hardy. So, choosing which subject, which topic, and which lesson to take is not as easy as A-B-C, especially if you have a wide range of interests like me. This gives you a flavor of how complex and busy a day can become at the AGU meeting.
Therefore, if you were to attend the Fall AGU meeting or any other large scientific meeting like it, you would have to decide in advance which subject, topic and lessons you want to attend, then mark the day, time, building and room number. It is important to select carefully to make sure that the sessions you are interested in are not taking place at the same time, and that you have enough time to change rooms or buildings if that becomes necessary. Given the breadth of this meeting, there is only so much you can cover each day, and it is so easy to get lost.
I will end with a quotation from Andrew Alden, a science writer, who is also blogging from the 2009 Fall AGU meeting. In one of his old blogs he stated that “there are three major arenas in the scientific life—the lab (or the field), the library, and the meeting room. School teaches you about the first two, but meetings can only be experienced.”