Our guest post today is by Dr. Sarah Gallagher and details important guidelines for hosting effective remote meetings. Dr. Gallagher (@scgQuasar) is the Science Advisor to the President of the Canadian Space Agency and an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Research groups and committees with members from different institutions or offices are meeting via videoconference increasingly often. Remote meetings save time and money and have a smaller carbon footprint, but if done poorly, videoconferences are significantly less effective than face-to-face meetings. In particular, remote members who aren’t able to hear what’s happening or follow the visuals can become exhausted and frustrated, which inhibits engaged, informed participation. Below are some best practices to set up videoconferences as well as recommendations for interaction protocols to retain the benefits of the in-person experience as much as possible.

The recommendations below assume a common setup where an institution (the host) has an in situ group of several people (3 to 15) and additional members are connecting remotely via laptop and/or telephone.

1. Use good software and invest in the professional version

My favourite is Zoom. I’ve had good experiences with Bluejeans, and both good and bad experiences with Webex. Do not use Skype: it’s not reliable enough. The software should have screen sharing, computer audio and video enabled, and allow for telephone call-ins (preferably with a toll-free number.) The host should have a wired connection and be aware that remote participants may not. All participants must first give their permission if the meeting will be recorded.

2. Build in communication redundancy

Assume that someone will encounter a problem accessing the video-conference system at some point and therefore will need a backup way of communicating, such as texting. To minimize delays, distribute a list of each participant’s email address and cell number in advance so there are alternate ways to communicate within the group. This is particularly useful for remote participants to check in with each other if one of them loses audio or screen sharing becomes too low resolution to read. Live, collaborative note-taking is also useful, particularly if a document needs to be produced following the meeting. My favourite is Google Docs because documents can be accessed directly by participants with a browser and therefore don’t require the videoconferencing software to share.

3. Set up the host conference room with the remote participants in mind

Ideally, a dedicated videoconferencing room should be set up with a camera that can see the whole room and a quality microphone that will clearly pick up the audio from the in situ participants. Quality external speakers are also required. (A large in situ group requires more sophisticated audio equipment such as distributed microphones in the conference room that can be individually muted.) If you have limited resources, invest in the audio equipment first. A camera located close to a large screen with the video feed and any visual presentations will create the most natural experience for the remote participants. A single laptop in front of one of the in situ participants or located in a corner of a conference table DOES NOT WORK, and creates a horrible experience for the remote participants. They generally can’t hear anyone except the person in front of the laptop, and they can’t see most of the in situ participants.

4. Consider time zones when scheduling the meeting

A meeting with participants in three to five adjacent time zones can be scheduled within typical business hours for all parties, between noon and 5:30 p.m. in the easternmost time zone. A meeting with participants in time zones further apart (e.g., Beijing, Toronto, and Paris) means someone will be calling in outside typical business hours. While many people don’t have too many conflicts at 2 a.m. (other than sleeping), insufficient sleep can ruin productivity the following day, and is an imposition on your participants. If this has to happen, then the pain should be distributed so that the people in a particular time zone are not the ones who are always calling in at awkward hours.

5. Schedule regular breaks and keep to the schedule

Remote participants are likely busy with other responsibilities and have only allocated the time scheduled for the meeting to participate in it. The host is not providing them with snack breaks or lunch, but should respect that they need both and stick to the schedule. It can be physically uncomfortable to sit in a chair and stare at a screen for hours. Breaks should be scheduled at most every 90 minutes to allow people to stretch their legs. The videoconferencing system should also be left on during breaks so remote participants can join in with casual conversations if they so choose.

6. Minimize presentations to maximize discussion time

The value of having everyone in one (virtual) place at the same time is the opportunity to develop relationships and discuss the issues at hand. I’ve participated in many advisory meetings where we were bombarded by hours of overly detailed and often redundant presentations because the presentations were not coordinated and the presenters all went over their allotted time because of ineffectual moderating. All visuals and supplementary material should be provided to the participants at least several days in advance. This allows remote participants to use the downloaded slides in case there is a problem with the screen sharing video feed (e.g., it cuts out or the resolution is too low), and also allows participants to review materials in advance so less time can be spent presenting them. Slides should all be numbered with the full name, title, and contact information of the presenter included. Twenty minutes should be considered the maximum time allowed for a presentation. Presentations can be shortened by using a reduced set of big-picture summary slides and including backup slides with further details that can be shown for questions and discussion as needed.

7. Be respectful of the newbies

Invariably some members of the committee will be new. This means they don’t know everyone already, can’t recognize people’s voices when they start talking, and they have no idea who “John” is (and there will likely be two Johns). These are important reasons why videoconferencing works better than teleconferencing for remote meetings. Start with a round of introductions and when each person speaks (at least for the first few times), they should state their name and affiliation. Refer to people not present in the meeting by both first and last names with a frame of reference (e.g., Janelle Monet, Director of Programs), and minimize the use of acronyms without definition. The goal is to bring everyone up to speed quickly with sufficient context to participate fully in the discussion.

8. Moderate the meeting and establish videoconference etiquette at the outset

In general, it works better if the Chair (who may be remote) is not also managing the logistics of the meeting. An in situ moderator should be appointed to set up the meeting and manage the connections, etc. Testing connections prior to the start of the meeting is a good idea, particularly for people using the system for the first time. At the start of the meeting, the Chair or moderator should state the expected etiquette, including the recommendations in point seven. In addition, remote participants should mute themselves when they are not talking to minimize background noise: even paper shuffling and typing can be distracting. Headphones help reduce echoes. The in situ moderator should monitor problems such as audio dropping out or poor camera sightlines. It’s useful to have private chats enabled so remote participants can inform the moderator when there are problems without disrupting the meeting. For larger meetings that require a more formal structure, participants can virtually “raise their hands” and the moderator can call on people in order. This gives everyone an opportunity to contribute without interrupting each other; it can be particularly difficult for remote participants to cut in and be heard.

These best practice guidelines were specifically inspired and informed by my experience on several advisory committees that evaluated the performance of and made recommendations to institutions that serve scientist user communities. Poor videoconferencing implementation has a negative impact on the experience of the participants and can make serving on such committees inefficient and frustrating. Institutions that respect the time of members (who are generally experts volunteering their effort) and optimize their experience will obtain the best advice.

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It’s that time of year again: The 233rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society is nearly upon us. To make the most of your time at the meeting, we at AstroBetter would like to remind you of some resources available on the blog and wiki.

First, the post that everyone attending a winter AAS meeting should read (even if you’re not a first-timer), Jason Wright’s guide to Getting the Most Out of AAS Meetings. This resource is especially useful for students attending their first AAS meeting!

This post includes specific sections regarding harassment and the wonderful Astronomy Allies program. ALL ATTENDEES need to familiarize themselves with the AAS Anti-Harassment Policy. AAS Meetings are meetings of professional astronomers and we should all behave as such.

Secondly, if you are giving a presentation, whether it be a talk or a poster, the AstroBetter Wiki has a number of resources to help you with your Presentation Skills.

Third, if you have an idea for a fun, small project you’d like to put together, we highly recommend that you check out Hack Together Day on Thursday, January 10. A hack day is a day where we come together to write code or work on some other project, fast. The idea is to design a do-able project and fully execute it in one day. Or at least go down trying. Come with a project, or come with deployable skills, ready to deploy.

If you have a Twitter account, you can also tweet with the #AAS233 hashtag to follow the goings-on throughout the conference. Before the conference, you should also check out Abigail Stevens‘ guest posts on using Twitter at Conferences, both for Non-Tweeters and Twitter Users.

Most importantly, be respectful of everyone you meet or encounter. Strive to be inclusive and non-discriminatory. It makes both the meeting and our field better for all of us!

If you know of any other good resources, or found any of ours particularly useful, please leave a note in the comments.

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This is the second of two guest posts contributed by Dr. Abbie Stevens, who completed her Masters at the University of Alberta in Canada and her Doctorate at the Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is now an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. In her first post, she discussed attending a MSc program in Canada.

When I began grad school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to complete a PhD. However, after having such a good experience doing my MSc at the University of Alberta, I decided that I did want to continue in grad school towards a PhD. I found that many PhD programs in the US don’t have a structure for incoming grad students with a Masters, and a faster three to four year PhD-only track isn’t really an option. I wasn’t feeling particularly enthused about those prospect, so I looked into PhD programs in Canada and Europe.

One thing to keep in mind when applying for PhD programs internationally is that the process may be quite different from US applications. I chose to apply to the University of Amsterdam, and I found that the PhD application process was more similar to a postdoc application than a US PhD program application. I submitted my CV, a short statement of research interests, a cover letter, my Bachelors and Masters transcripts, and the contact information for a few references. There was no application fee and they didn’t accept GRE or PGRE scores. Upon making the shortlist, I was invited to the institute in Amsterdam along with the other shortlisted PhD applicants for an expenses-paid two-day program; there were about 30 of us in total for eight open positions that year.

The program involved 10-minute presentations on our Masters research projects and 30-minute interviews with the supervisors in whose projects we were interested. The interviews gave the supervisors a chance to get to know us, ask more questions, and test our domain-specific knowledge. It also gave us a chance to “interview” the supervisor and see if we thought it would be a good fit. These interviews are important because applicants apply for specific projects with specific supervisors and receive individual offers. This is different from most US programs where you are initially accepted to the graduate program, and only later choose a research advisor.

I accepted my offer from the Universiteit van Amsterdam and completed my PhD at the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy. As a PhD student at U. Amsterdam (and the other astro PhD programs in the Netherlands), you’re an employee, not a student. I had a workers’ union, great healthcare, EU labor law protections, pension contributions, five weeks paid vacation annually, legally-protected paid medical leave, a raise each year, and standardized vacation bonuses. I was a teaching assistant for four courses over four years and there was no required coursework. I really enjoyed being free of other constraints so I could focus on research.

That being said, the pressure to publish starts early. We were expected to have four papers (or equivalent) in the four years of the PhD, though paper requirements vary greatly by university. Rigid timelines are tied to grant money, though extensions are sometimes possible depending on the circumstances. In Europe, PhD positions are usually for specific projects with specific supervisors, so it’s effectively impossible to change projects or supervisors.

Overall, I’m glad that I did my PhD at U. Amsterdam. With a great networking atmosphere and ample funding at the institute, I was able to go to the US for conferences and seminars in my second through fourth years to maintain connections with the US astro community, which was important to me since I wanted to move back to the US or Canada for a postdoc. I’m grateful I took the path that I did, but of course there were challenges along the way like language barriers and some culture shock. If you pursued a PhD outside of your home country, what drew you to the program you chose? How did you handle the personal and social aspects of living and working abroad?

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Daniela Huppenkothen is the Associate Director at the Institute for Data-Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology (DIRAC) at the University of Washington and a Data Science Fellow at the University of Washington’s eScience Institute, where she works on astrostatistics for astronomical time series, and is interested in everything from asteroids to black holes. She is excited about teaching data science to astronomers and researchers from other scientific disciplines, and about finding new ways to get researchers across different scientific domains to talk to one another.

Earlier this year, I visited the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for a meeting. There, on the wall of the conference room, was a photo of a famous physics conference which had taken place in that same room some 90 years earlier in 1929. As I looked at that photo, something occurred to me: the way we communicate about science hasn’t really changed all that much in the last few centuries. When I went to the AAS winter meeting, I saw much the same: people sitting in rows, staring at the speaker (or their slides) up front. Or reading their emails.

When there are discussions about whether academia really needs expensive, time-consuming, and environmentally problematic academic conferences, the core argument is always that yes, we do, because nothing replaces the face-to-face contact that encourages communication, throwing around ideas, building new collaborations. But that often doesn’t happen in traditional conferences, except during the usually too-short coffee breaks, which researchers love for exactly that reason: they are a time and space for informal discussions.

Here, then, is the question that I’ve been asking myself: can we build a scientific meeting that consists purely of coffee breaks? Can we build meetings and workshops that take the things that make coffee breaks valuable to researchers—communication, collaboration, networking—and amplify them? For the past five years, I’ve been co-organizing one of these meetings: Astro Hack Week, a five-day workshop where roughly fifty participants come together to learn, share their knowledge, and work together on data science-related projects in astronomy.

(Astro Hack Week 2016; Credit: Daniela Huppenkothen)

With hack weeks now being organized in several different fields, a group of us who work on hack weeks and other participant-driven workshops in astronomy, neuroscience, geosciences, and image analysis decided it was high time to write down our philosophy and experiences. The result is now published in an open-access article in PNAS, where we describe our motivation for organizing these events, some core principles, and also present results and outcomes from our evaluations. Hack weeks require a lot of careful facilitation (more so than ordinary conferences). But if that facilitation is present, they are effective at teaching data science tools and methods to domain scientists, and they encourage open science and (interdisciplinary) collaboration. And, of course, an ample supply of coffee is a must! The paper provides an overview of the concepts, while the supplementary materials in particular are intended to be a resource for researchers from all academic disciplines. These materials provide a toolbox of ideas, best practices, and our experiences to help them organize their own events.

One thing that’s become clear during our work together is that there isn’t one true way to run your participant-driven workshop. Many of our decisions are based on the needs of our specific scientific community, and our knowledge around hack weeks and participant-driven workshops is still growing and changing. So here’s my question to all of you: What will (interdisciplinary) collaborations of the future look like? How do we as researchers want to interact and work with each other?

(NeuroHackademy 2018; Credit: Alex Alspaugh/University of Washington)

As part of writing this post, I ended up looking up more details about the Copenhagen Meetings, and was both surprised and excited to read that unlike the conferences I was used to, they actually had very little of a formal programme, and lots of discussion time for researchers to talk about questions they found interesting and important at the time. In reality, it has much more in common with modern unconferences, participant-driven workshops where the focus is on discussions, than with large conferences. It’ i’s inspiring to see that in every generation, scientists value improving communication, and I am excited to see what models of interaction and collaboration future generations of researchers (re-)discover.

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An American perspective of astro graduate school outside the US I: Masters

by Guest November 19, 2018

This post is the first of two guest posts contributed by Dr. Abbie Stevens, who completed her Masters at the University of Alberta in Canada and her Doctorate at the Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is now an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. […]

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Citations to Astronomy Journals 2: Ranking the Journals [Cross-post]

by Joanna Bridge October 22, 2018

This article is the second of a three-part series that is cross-posted from the ADS blog. In this series, the ADS team has performed an analysis of citations to astronomy journals over the last 20 years. This post is written by ADS project scientist Michael J. Kurtz and Edwin Henneken, who works on the ADS system […]

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Predatory Publishers in Astronomy and How to Identify Them

by Guest October 13, 2018

Our guest post today is from Dr. Michael Brown of Monash University, Australia, where he studies the evolution of active galactic nuclei and the growth of galaxies over cosmic time. He has written several articles on the topic of predatory publishers and conferences. Have you checked your spam folder recently? A decade ago it may […]

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Citations to Astronomy Journals 1: The growth of interdisciplinarity [Cross-post]

by Joanna Bridge October 8, 2018

This article is the first in a three-part series that is cross-posted from the ADS blog. In this series, the ADS team has performed an analysis of citations to astronomy journals over the last 20 years. This post is written by ADS project scientist Michael J. Kurtz and Edwin Henneken, who works on the ADS system […]

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Honing your Hubble Application [Repost]

by Joanna Bridge October 3, 2018

The NASA Hubble Fellowship Program is an umbrella program that includes the Hubble, Sagan, and Einstein Fellowships. The application deadline this year is November 1, 2018 at 7 PM EDT. In order to help you compile a successful application package, we are reposting this AstroBetter post from 2014. It is an anonymous guest post from two […]

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The Rumor Mill is up and running for 2018-2019

by Joanna Bridge September 12, 2018

The AstroBetter Rumor Mill is ready for the new academic job cycle! The new Postdoc & Term and Faculty & Staff pages have already been started, but the 2017-2018 pages are still accessible. As a side note, we are in the middle of updating our wiki database, and it can take a while for changes […]

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