Wednesday, January 22, 2014

223rd AAS Meeting in Washington, D. C.

Twice a year, the American Astronomical Society holds professional meetings covering a broad range of research and education topics. This January’s meeting was held in Washington, D. C. at the National Harbor. I wouldn’t be surprised if it broke previous attendance records, with almost 3200 people on the official registration list. 

Rachel Somerville giving the Heineman Prize Lecture.
Photo credit: Joson Images/ AAS
CANDELS scientists had a very strong representation at this meeting. Rachel Somerville won the Heineman Prize and gave a lecture entitled, “The Formation of Galaxies and Supermassive Black Holes: Insights and Puzzles.” Meanwhile, Jennifer Lotz held a press conference on the release of data from a new ultra-deep, wide-field imaging survey that she is leading known as the Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields (see the image from their press-release below).  There was also a CANDELS special session which included 4 talks and 10 posters on CANDELS results, as well as 22 other CANDELS-related talks and poster presentations throughout the course of the meeting.

HST Frontier Field Abell 2744.  Image credit: NASA,
ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and
the HFF Team (STScI).
People go to the AAS for a variety of reasons. As one of the largest gatherings of astronomers, it is impossible to see every science talk of interest. For this reason, I find AAS meetings are more of a place to have discussions with your colleagues and the larger astronomical community about priorities and goals for the future. Many of these larger, community-oriented discussions take place during “town hall” sessions.  Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made, especially in the current funding climate. At this meeting, astronomers grappled with the likelihood that many of our beloved facilities will either need to find private partners to sustain operations costs, or be shut down in the next couple years. This is because NSF does not have the money to fund them while continuing forward with important projects like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. If you know anyone with a few hundred thousand dollars to spare, you can buy yourself some quality time on top-notch facilities!

Other important discussions include networking with more senior astronomers, especially when you’re on the job hunt. Jon Trump wrote about this aspect of AAS in a previous post.  However, the largest growing demographic at these meetings is young student researchers. This is a great place for them to showcase their work and gain experience talking with people about their research. For me, this was my first AAS meeting where I was on the “other side”, serving as faculty advisor to an undergraduate student who is applying to graduate school this year. As my first thesis student, I encouraged her to come present her results, while I tried my best to introduce her to people doing exciting science as well as folks on various graduate admissions committees. The AAS can be a bit daunting to newcomers, so it’s the advisor’s role to help facilitate discussion and provide a role model for students just starting down this career path.

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the AAS.
Photo credit: Joson Images/ AAS
In addition to science talks, there were a number of sessions on astronomy education research, which is another growing aspect of the AAS community. One session I attended on how to improve student outcomes in Astro 101-style courses, was standing room only. It’s great to see so many professional astronomers care so deeply not just about their personal research, but also about how to improve their approach to teaching science to non-science majors. While this is a significant part of many of our jobs, it may surprise readers to learn that most of us were never trained as teachers. Therefore, these sessions are particularly important for learning how to be effective instructors.

Astronomers also like to have a bit of fun in these meetings. At this meeting there was a special talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was surrounded by hundreds of adoring, geeky fans (a.k.a, professional astronomers) as he talked about how to use twitter to engage the public in science. There was also the infamous AAS “after-party”, which was a bar-hopping extravaganza, complete with astro-themed cocktails and a mechanical bull (although I never did see anyone attempt the bull)!

Space Shuttle Discovery at the National Air and Space
Museum.  Photo credit: E. McGrath
Finally, with the meeting being held in Washington D. C., I took advantage of the opportunity to do some astronomy-themed sightseeing. I visited the National Air and Space Museum hangars located near Dulles airport, where I got to behold the impressive Space Shuttle Discovery, as well as a Mars Pathfinder prototype. The shuttle was even more impressive in person than I could have imagined—definitely worth a visit next time you're in D. C.

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