On November 1-4, the Annual Meeting for the Geological Society of America (GSA) was held in Baltimore, MD. I attended as a first-timer, joining scientists, educators, policy-makers, industry buffs, and students from the international community at the second-largest geology conference in the United States.
I had attended a geology conference before, but I had not been involved to the extent that I was at GSA. Although I registered to present my thesis research, the conference provided me with so much more than just a platform to speak to a wide audience. I also got to staff the GSA newsroom, work at the STEPPE exhibit hall booth, attend after-hour events, and meet and network with a multitude of people with different backgrounds and interests.
Booth Interactions and Networking
As the Science Communications Fellow for STEPPE (Sedimentary geology, Time, Environment, Paleontology, Paleoclimate, and Energy), I had a unique vantage point at the conference of working at an Exhibit Hall booth and letting the people come to me.
As soon as the exhibit hall opened on Sunday afternoon, a crowd of eager people flooded the large space, spreading out to find which booths offered the best free souvenirs, stickers, and stress-squeeze-balls. Many booths, like STEPPE’s, offered something even better: cross-disciplinary information and opportunities for experienced researchers and budding scientists alike.
Having helped organize the booth setup and our handouts, it was definitely a point of pride when I could tell people about the work we do, the resources we offer, and hand them a brochure and a flag sticker to put on their badge (#DeepTimeRocks). I met a lot of interesting people and quickly went through the majority of business cards I had brought with me. Lesson learned: bring more business cards than you think you need.
Students and early career professionals were very interested in our student travel awards and our free, online funding database. Established researchers were more interested in our funding for cross-disciplinary workshops to bring together researchers from different backgrounds, and many PIs came to our booth just to ask when the next call for proposals would be. Whatever their background, there was great enthusiasm among the booth visitors to share ideas and collaborate across all Earth sciences.
Behind-the-scenes: Media and the GSA Newsroom
Here was where I really got an exclusive look at what goes into running media events and producing content for a large meeting like GSA. Although I am employed by STEPPE, I do some work for GSA, and I was invited to staff the conference newsroom. I was able to watch a professional interview being done for the annual meeting TV channel; it reminded me of watching an interview on PBS NOVA growing up (pre-editing, of course). Additionally, I got to sit in on the making of a webinar presentation with a panel of experts talking about various watershed and climate change topics in the Appalachians. Watching science journalism and media in action was a great learning experience to see the effort that goes into producing content.
Leading up to the meeting, I worked with the communications and marketing team of GSA to write press releases of some noteworthy topics that would be at the meeting. I wrote three in total, which was an educational experience getting to read up on the featured research and contacting the lead authors. Additionally, I got to meet two of them in person, one a student from my graduate school who I reconnected with, the other a researcher from Canada who picked me out of the coffee line by my badge just to introduce himself and chat about his fascinating and diverse session.
The third author was none other than oceanbites’ Kari Pohl, who gave a talk on sediments and climate change in the Chesapeake Bay area. She later contacted me to thank me for the press release, as it got her an invite to speak at another conference in a few months. These positive interactions only reaffirmed my love of working in science communications.
GSA special lecture: John Holdren on science policy
Among the myriad of interesting sessions and events, I made sure to attend one presentation: the GSA special lecture by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). His talk centered on why Earth science is important to the Obama administration.
Holdren spoke on several topics, including marine planning, arctic science, space weather, and geosciences. The focus areas in the Obama administration’s marine planning agenda are fishing, harmful algal blooms (HABs), ocean acidification, and management. All of these are affected by climate change, which is controversial and can be difficult to talk about in science communication. When talking about climate change and the struggles that scientists have communicating the facts, Holdren showed this cartoon:
The Earth sciences are additionally important to the Obama administration because policymakers need marine and geoscientists to enhance planning for climate and natural hazards. “You can’t do natural hazards without geoscientists,” said Holdren. A large part of this is looking at the intersections between different Earth sciences such as marine ecosystems, sedimentary research, geophysics, and meteorology.
However, Holdren noted, a major issue facing the Earth sciences is that some policymakers oppose Earth science funding because they believe they are linked to the President’s push to combat climate change. Consequently, there is a continual struggle in Congress to fund these sciences. To fight this, Holdren stated, “We will continue to oppose meat-axe cuts to Earth science funding.” The room appropriately burst into applause at the declaration.
Although he was late to catch a train, he had time to answer one very important audience question: as scientists, how do we talk to the public? His answer was simple: “Start with the basics, and use language that the public and policymakers can understand. Also, it’s smart to bring it home to the local level, and emphasize how it will directly affect people.”
Above all, Holdren concluded, scientists need to make themselves heard. From everything I learned at this conference, this is true in all aspects of science, even outside of policy. The students I spoke to at the booth were trying to connect with others, to have their research heard and learn about other scientific topics. Working in the newsroom showed me the process of scientists making themselves heard by the public, via interviews and webcasts. And that is what conferences are all about: making yourself heard, and hearing others.