Tuesday, January 22, 2013

AAS for a Grad Student

Hi, my name is Michael Peth and I am currently a graduate student of Astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University.  I'm working with Dr. Jennifer Lotz on the topic of Galaxy evolution and morphology in clusters as a member of the CANDELS team.  Which is basically a fancy way of saying I look at galaxies that are very close to each other (in a cluster) and from the shape, size and color I can determine a lot about their characteristics.  I am mostly looking for galaxies that have a supermassive black hole currently eating gas and stars, which causes it to shine brightly.  These types of galaxies are known as Active Galactic Nuclei (or AGNs).  A necessary aspect of research science is to present your work to the community as a whole. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference that was just held this month in Long Beach, California is a great  forum to let everyone know what your research has accomplished.  So I set out to attend this meeting and present my own research to an eager community.

Long Beach Harbor at Night looking out on the Queen Mary II Ship/Hotel
It's exciting to meet fellow astronomers outside the womb of academia (on the street, hotels, airport shuttles). It reminds me that I’m a part of something larger (which, really, is something that astronomers are constantly reminded of). For instance, after I arrived at LAX, I boarded a shuttle to Long Beach with 8 other people.  One of them happened to be a fellow astronomer. He said, "You expect to see fellow astronomers outside these conferences at a rate ~1/r^2".  I laughed because I got the joke.

Anyone who wishes to present their research at the AAS conference has the following options: 1) a Poster Presentation or 2) a 5-15 minute Research Talk. I decided that a poster made the most sense for me, since I had presented one last time I attended a AAS conference – in January 2010 – and knew what it entailed. The poster-making process is pretty straightforward. I quickly realized that the trick to crafting an effective poster is minimal text and plenty of graphs and diagrams – it may sound cliché, but a picture is worth a thousand words.

My Poster hanging in the conference hall
Before I tell you more about my experience, allow me to digress.  Three years ago, the AAS conference was in Washington, DC. At this time, I was an undergrad finishing my senior year at Penn State. I was also in the midst of applying to a slew of grad schools. I was hoping that, while I stood by my poster, I would have the opportunity to speak with some professors from the schools I was applying to. Even though I was stationed at my poster all day, only a few people asked me about my research. Only one of those people was a professor from a school I had applied to. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed. However, when I look back on the experience, I really regret missing out on the morning and afternoon talks when I was guarding my poster. This time around, I knew that the best times to show off my research were from 9-10am (before talks begin) and from 4-6:30pm (after most talks are over).

When I tell non-astronomers (i.e., my family) about the poster session, they seem to think that I'm standing in a room with an audience, actively presenting my poster. However this is not the case.  Such an image is more akin to the 5 minute talks given. Poster sessions are different – we hang our work in the ballroom of the convention center and people intermittently walk by; they will occasionally ask questions if they are interested in your project. During the morning session, I was pretty much continually explaining my research to onlookers. The afternoon was somewhat less trafficked but I still was able to explain my research to multiple people. I was even able to meet one of my posters co-authors, who I had only previously interacted with via email. This part of the poster session is great for networking, in addition to seeing old friends and collaborators.

Long Beach Ferris Wheel outside the Convention Center
The poster session is not limited to single-entity astronomers and their research – it is also the domain of private companies, telescopes, publishers and other corporate entities. These groups have booths that detail their work, as well as offer a valuable opportunity to learn about potential employment outside of academia. But I would be remiss if I forgot to mention that these organizations offer plenty of swag. A highlight for many conferences-is the numerous free pens/stickers/posters/pins/laser pointers. One free product – the LED badge – even crossed over into wide usage for poster presenters. It’s basically a high-tech nametag, with an LED function that can be programmed to display any message you want. Many people programmed them to say things like, "Astronomy rules.”  It was an extremely nerdy (and therefore cool) utilization of the technology.

As I implied earlier, the research talks are the main attraction of the conference – when they are in session, most conference-goers are in attendance. I heard talks about galaxy evolution (which is my general research area), exoplanets, and even educational outreach. What many people don’t realize is that the Astronomy world is pretty disparate; people from different research areas seldom come together and share their work. For instance, I learned that, within 30 pc (or roughly 90 light years) there are potentially hundreds of Earth-like planets. This is a factoid that I wouldn’t discover within my own body of research, and it’s also something that reminds me how limitless, vast, and uncertain our field is.

One of the more social highlights of the week is the party that AAS always throws at a local nightclub. This year, the party took place at Sevilla, a Latin dance club just a few blocks from the convention center. It's always fun to see a bunch of awkward nerds cut loose. I always get the feeling that people view astronomers through the lens of The Big Bang Theory, and perceive us as socially incompetent nerds who take themselves too seriously and don’t know how to have a good time. If they had been privy to this party, they would see that they are only half-right: for the most part, we are socially awkward. But that never stops anyone from having a good time.

Soon enough, the conference came to a close. I felt like I learned a lot about Astronomy - especially subjects I don't primarily study. It invigorated my enthusiasm about the field in general and, although I had a great time, I felt excited to get back to Baltimore and continue on with my own research with this fresh perspective.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! The fellow astronomer's joke was funny, but not entirely correct, we do not fly out on spheres, but rather in circles (also not quite, but at least it's a better approximation), so it should really be 1/r, I think.