What is a conference? Part 2- the BIG meeting- AGU Fall Meeting 2015

My PhD has so far taken me to some pretty exciting places and I’ve been lucky enough to secure some travel grants that have allowed me to really make the most of my allocated travel money. However, despite the fact that my friends and family seem to think I’ve been constantly off on holiday conferences are actually pretty hard work and essential for making a career for yourself in the scientific world.

Recently I wrote about my experiences at a small meeting in Iceland. Small meetings tend to have a set programme, you all see all of the talks, everyone has lunch together and you have a chance to speak to the bulk of the people at the meeting. My other conference trip last year was to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco and was completely the other end of the scale. With over 23,000 attendees it is the largest Earth and Space science meeting in the world, and is spread across 3 buildings. At any one time there are many talks going on as well as multiple poster sessions; here the poster session is the size of several football fields.


A small fraction of the poster hall at AGU.

Given this, I was slightly sceptical about how much I was going to get out of the meeting. Even though I had put in the effort to be prepared for what I wanted to see the first couple of days were exhausting and I didn’t feel like I was picking much up. Even simple things like going for dinner were quite hard work with limited WiFi and even though I knew plenty of people there I kept missing many of them. The icebreaker reception was pure chaos- the crowd outside waiting for the free beer and merchandise from the exhibitors reminded me of the crowds you see on the news for black friday!

However, once I got over the jet lag a bit things went up hill. I realised my brain was too saturated with science on Wednesday to take in much more and instead joined to queue to watch Al Gore speak (a definite advantage of a larger conference)- he was very into the space science he was talking about, funny and nothing short of inspirational at the end. Words I’d never expect to use about a politician. It was also nice to have dinner with my UCL colleagues, and catch up with old Reading colleagues and Karthaus friends throughout the week.

Thursday was a very early start for my talk but I was glad there were still quite a few people there for the time of the morning. Straight after my talk I had responses on twitter and the next day at the poster session I spoke to several people who were interested in my work and able to offer help and advice, or were just starting out on their PhDs and wanting to know more.


Giving my talk. Unfortunately no-one ever sits near the front but there were a lot of people there, honest! Thanks to Nat Melia for photographing.

It is these interactions that make the conferences so useful and so essential. Not only have I found help with my own work, I may be able to help others with theirs and collaborate in the future. You also get a good idea of what other people are working on so you know where there could be gaps to look at things in the future.

It’s a weird old world in science as we are all at the end of the day often rivals for the same pots of funding, but we also all need help from others to get to where we need to be. Meetings like AGU are essential for this and also good for just getting to know what’s going on more generally in your field- Iceland was great but it was very specific. AGU gave me chance to watch big keynote speakers such as Eric Rignot talking about sea level rise, the notes from which will definitely be useful for putting my PhD in context both in my viva any upcoming Fairbrother public lecture.

Conferences also are of course a lot of fun and luckily there was a bit of time for sight seeing and even a Parkrun* the day after the conference ended. It was also useful that the conference was right next to Bloomingdales for those moments when a break from the full on science was needed, but don’t tell my supervisor that…


*The last one in the world in fact and therefore probably the only one where coming last is a more exciting achievement than winning.


What is a conference? Part 1- a small meeting- International Glaciological Society Iceland Symposium

This June I had the chance to attend my first international conference. It was a little daunting being as I’d only been to UK conferences before and had never spoken outside of my home Universities but the chance to visit somewhere so stunning definitely helped to mitigate that.

The journey there was an adventure itself- fill a tiny plane with glaciologists and fly them over an ice cap and you are bound to get some pretty excited people.

The conference itself was a really good size- there were 120 delegates which means that it is very easy to get talking to people. The day consisted of talks and poster session. Talks are as you would expect, a speak has about 12 minutes to give a presentation on their work and then the audience can ask questions. Poster sessions are usually in another room where people can wander and chat more informally with those presenting their work as a poster. These are often at the end of the day and over drinks.

Being a small meeting the talks were quite specifically in the area of ice shelves, ice sheets and glaciers which was good as I felt I understood a lot and also picked up things from people that are lucky enough to actually go to these places or use satellite data to learn about them.

My talk thankfully seemed to be really well received which was a big relief and has definitely helped with the thesis writing motivation. This was slightly bad timing being as I was about to start 3 months away from Reading on my Government Office of Science internship but it’s definitely made me keen to get back to the science and given me extra confindence that this a career that I can do.

A highlight of the week was the mid week excursion to the Hoffellsjokull glacier. Finally, after 2 and a bit years of PhD, some actual ice! I was clearly not the only theoretician that was overly excited by this as one was heard to exclaim, seeing the chaotic crevassing  in the ice “and we’re supposed to model this?!” We were greeted at the end of the hike with Brennevin (an Exeter Uni musician staple, no-one could understand why I was quite so averse to it), horse meat and pineapple. When in Iceland…

The conference was great for making contacts, I got to see some old Karthaus friends, and make new early career buddies as well as meet a lot of interesting and important people from withing glaciology. I have hopefully got a chance to collaborate with others outside of Reading and have since been invited to give a talk by one of the other attendees. Sadly it was all over too quickly, but even the journey home from the conference was picturesque with the bus stopping at least every half an hour to view lakes and waterfalls. Iceland, I’ll be back.


RMetS Student conference- what happens at a student conference and why you should go to this one even if you think you shouldn’t

I first asked my supervisor about the RMetS (Royal Meteorological Society) student conference in my first year and he quite rightly suggested it wouldn’t be relevant- on the face of it I’m not really a meteorologist so it wouldn’t be a good use of my time and funds.

However, speaking to those who had been before I came to realise that this wasn’t the case at all. So when this year I had a convenient couple of days between moving out of Reading and starting at the Government Office of Science that just so happened to coincide with the 2015 conference I thought I may as well give it a go, after all it was certain to beat being homeless for a couple of days.

So it turned out to be a pretty useful 3 days. Although some of the talks and posters about atmospheric processes may have gone completely over my head (no pun intended) there was still a lot that I not only understood, but found relevant. I need to know about other processes that are happening both in the ocean and the atmosphere to put my research into context and could well be asked about them during my viva…

There were so many good talks on a range of areas connected to (but not always purely) meteorology but my personal favourites were Jenny Turton’s talk on foehn winds (obviously I’m biased as this was on Larsen C but Jenny is a really good speaker!), Becky Hemingway on the Met Office’s vehicle overturning model and Hannah Barrett’s talk on historical ship log book data. Special mention also has to go to Flavia Pinheiro for making data assimilation accessible, no mean feat to say the least.

Aside from directly learning about science I’ve heard mentions that many supervisors don’t encourage students to attend as they don’t realise the value of the conference in forming early career networks. It may be valuable in the short term to present your work to established researchers but what the RMetS student conference provides is not only a safe and friendly environment in which to practice doing this but also lots of very good questions and chances to get to know colleagues who you may well work with in the future. Although we’re very in lucky to have a big PhD community at Reading (as I think the other attendees came to realise at the ice breaker session) PhDs in general can be very isolating and it’s always nice to meet new people that are in the same boat as you. Social activities such as the BBQ, conference dinner and mini sports day ice breaker were perfect for this.

The ice breaker session- lots of meteorologists sportsing well.

The ice breaker session- lots of meteorologists sportsing well. (Photo Carly Wright)

As well as student talks and posters we had two panel sessions, providing expert opinions on topics including communicating science, the upcoming COP21 and careers in meteorology- lots of useful insights and honest answer to questions.

A lovely highlight for me was being asked as a result of the conference to speak to the Scottish branch of RMetS in early 2016. 2 of us were chosen from the conference for this and I feel like a bit of a fraud as there were many presenters much earlier on in their PhDs who presented much more articulately than I ever could have done at that stage I’m sure, but nevertheless it’s always good to know that people find what you do interesting and understand what you’re saying!

Giving my talk- the penultimate one of the whole conference but thankfully I think everyone stayed awake.

Giving my talk, the penultimate one of the whole conference but thankfully I think everyone stayed awake. (Photo Carly Wright)

The only downsides of the conference were the heat (cue some kind of “you’re meteorologists, can’t you fix that?” comment) and having to deal with James Mollard’s jokes for 3 full days…