Earlier this month, the 54th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Association took place in the very town in which I’ve been working towards my PhD: beautiful, sunny London… Otario?

10/10, no notes

Our lab supervisor, Dr. Catherine Neish, is the current DPS chair, and it was her influence and hard work that was able to bring this conference to Canada[1]Hey, we’re technically still part of an America, right? for the first time. While I’d heard of DPS before, this was never a conference I had personally attended. In general, my impression prior to this year was that DPS was mainly for people who were on the astronomy side of planetary science—looking up through telescopes at single bright dots in the sky, measuring light curves or spectroscopic profiles, and in general never really seeing the objects they were studying.

Given this perception, I felt a little odd presenting some of my work there, since it mainly focused on mapping variations in physical properties from dozens(!) of pixels over our much closer (and definitely well-resolved) Moon. Despite this, several months ago I submitted my abstract and forged ahead, hoping I would figure out where I fit in once I was actually at the conference and could read the vibes better.

In fact, if I had to give one piece of advice to my younger, pre-enconference’d self, it would probably be that: give things a shot, and then feel out the vibes once you’re there. A conference is a place where people with shared passions gather to enthuse with one another about their work, and as such can really only be understood and determined if it’s a good fit for you by actually just going and being part of that human interaction. This, of course, would normally be prohibitive for the average grad student when considering limited budgets for travel, registration, per diems, etc., not to mention the risks associated with large, in-person gatherings that we’ve been made so acutely aware of these past two and a half years. However, one benefit of the switch away from solely in-person gatherings due to COVID has been the “virtualization” of many of these conferences, and while not perfect in terms of accessibility and an ability to recreate the atmosphere of conferences pre-pandemic, I think DPS stood out as doing many things right that will hopefully become permanent changes to conference culture.

One example is the format in which posters were presented. While I’d been to many a conference with a virtual iPoster[2]or ePoster or cPoster or brdfPoster… session since 2020, it usually happens as a separate event from any in-person poster viewings, if these indeed happen at all. However, the great reduction in the cost of large, flat-screen displays in the past two decades has meant that (for conferences on the smaller side at least) it is now feasible to run a poster session the way DPS did: with all virtual posters being displayed on a screen in the poster hall. This has the benefit of making your work (and interaction with you, the author) more accessible for both online and in-person participants, since these virtual posters can include all sorts of embedded features (voice-overs, multimedia loops, alt-text, etc.) that would be impossible in a traditional print-only poster. Additionally, displaying the posters this way significantly cuts down both the cost for individual (often underpaid grad student) participants, as well as reducing the amount of paper waste created for the one-hour-or-less functional lifespan of these objects. It’s a trend I was really excited about, and can’t wait to see how it takes hold and continues to be shaped in order to provide even better experiences in years to come!

Another positive outcome of pandemic conference changes has been the recording of talks and special sessions for later viewing. This is of course important for, e.g., those in disparate timezones who would have trouble attending the entire conference in addition to their normal work hours, but actually comes with an additional benefit that solves an issue that used to constantly plague[3]sorry me at conferences: double-booking. Often, conferences have multiple tracks running simultaneously to fit all the speakers in the limited time available for them, grouped by themes around specific planetary bodies or techniques of studying them. If your interests happen to span multiple of these topics,[4]and let’s face it, if you’re at a conference you’re probably a huge nerd for the entire field to begin with you’ll frequently find more than one talk you’d really like to attend happening at the same time. In the past, your only option would be to bite the bullet and just pick one, hoping you made the right choice.[5]Until the whole rest of your lab meets you at lunch and talks animatedly about this great talk they all went to, and you shrivel up and die a bit inside… ask me how I know! :D But with hybrid and recorded conferences, it’s now easy to go back to the session you weren’t able to attend, and scroll that time marker to exactly the talk you wanted to see. As a bonus, you don’t even have to disturb anyone by slipping in and out of a crowded conference room with squeaky door hinges!

In fairness, this is not an entirely new concept: LPI has been releasing recordings of some of the special sessions at LPSC for several years before the pandemic, e.g.:

However, this is the first time we’ve had access to the full catalogue of talks at every conference, which is an incredible blessing. It’s also useful if, like me, you sometimes get caught up in the general spirit of a talk and forget some significant details that you want to remember to look up later—or, G-d forbid, if the speaker includes a URL on a slide[6]Please never do this that you weren’t able to frantically scribble down on a scrap piece of paper or notebook before they moved onto the next one.

There’s also my own particular, um, “idiosyncracies”[7]Read: failings when it comes to making it to the early-morning sessions of conferences. In addition to decidedly not being a morning person, there’s also the extra time it takes Someone Like Me[8]i.e. aS a TrAnS wOmAn to get ready in the morning, and thus I often miss those first few talks if they’re only in-person. Hybrid meetings mean that I can actually still listen/watch in on them even while getting ready, which was a lifesaver at DPS this year.

A final piece of advice I would give a younger version of myself would be to focus less on making it to every single talk you want to see (especially given the tools and strategies mentioned above), and more on the conversations you have at poster sessions, town halls, and mixers. The majority of the connections I’ve made in the planetary community (outside of direct relationships with supervisors/lab members/etc.) have been at these portions of conferences, and they can be a great opportunity to more casually and honestly engage with your peers on issues in the field or commiseration over struggles due to shared axes of marginalization.

In summary:

  • Look at past conference programs/abstracts for general fit of your research
  • Make use of all available accessibility features (both for yourself and others!), including:
    • iPosters and their various interactive features
    • Viewing recordings later if there are simultaneous talks you want to attend
    • Attending virtually to reduce the stress of getting ready for early conference mornings
  • Go to the poster sessions/after-parties/mixers and really put your social energy into making human connections!

That’s all for now—see you in November, when there’ll hopefully be a final update on the paper progress!

-xoxo gossip grad