What’s the Point of the AAS Meeting?

by Kelle on October 5, 2010

Nic posted this comment on the “What’s your status?” post and I think it’s controversial enough to be its own post:

“IMHO”, simply put, the AAS is the most energy (flight) intensive, least scientifically productive meeting in the the Astronomy community by, I would suggest, at least a couple of orders of magnitude.

Do you, or should the collective “we”, start a campaign to make it virtual.
The AAS on Facebook could be a nice way forward…
(Of course there are huge political and commercial interests in place that will stop this from happening!)

Discuss!! 🙂

Well Nic, I agree that the AAS meeting might be the least scientifically productive, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve other very important purposes that eventually lead to increased scientific productivity:

Networking and Having Fun Together

We are all scattered about and don’t get to meet face-to-face with many of our friends and colleagues very often. Our community is small and we need time to bond. It is from these bonds that excellent collaborations and life-long friendships will arise. For strong relationships to thrive, email and Facebook just don’t cut it. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t go to dance clubs very often where I’m comfortable, bump into people I know, and meet lots of new people. I don’t think the value of this one-night a year event should be underestimated.
Undergraduate Enrichment
We’re not gonna pay to take the undergrad to the uber-specialized meeting in Heidelberg. But they need to be incorporated into the fold/thrown to the wolves at some point and the AAS meeting is the place to do that. They meet other students, meet the scientists whose papers they’ve read. Many times AAS is their first poster presentation. These are all extremely valuable early steps of a young scientists career that cannot be replaced by Facebook.
Job Hunting and Recruitment
This is where people go to see and be seen. It’s a meat market for positions at all levels. Think about how the AAS Meeting helps search committees narrow their short lists so they can fly out less people for on-campus interviews.
Professional Development
Last but not least, I am on a personal quest to make professional development a significant part of the AAS Winter Meeting. There are so many things that we do that we are never taught how to do well. At this coming meeting, workshops on 1) leadership and 2) negotiation will be offered again. New this year will be 3) an intensive workshop on making better plots and 4) a seminar on giving effective talks. Dates and times TBA…stay tuned to your AAS email exploder.

So Nic, if you don’t want to go to the AAS meetings, fine, stay home. But that’s too bad cause I’m going and it would have been nice to chat. And I will continue to go with my undergrads and grad students in tow. It’s a valuable meeting for me and for them, and one that I hope to make even more valuable to everyone with the addition of professional development workshops and seminars.

What does everybody else think?

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eilat October 5, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I would also add that it is really nice to hear about major results going on outside our own field. I know that I barely can keep up with papers in my specific area (quasars, cosmology, etc.), let alone star formation, planets, the Galaxy, etc. The plenary talks are great for that.

AAS is also a great place to learn about the big surveys and missions from their fancy booths. It is not just for swag. We take these things for granted, but the broad and shallow knowledge exchange at the AAS makes it legitimate to call ourselves “astronomers” as opposed to “quasar-ists”, etc.


2 Liam McDaid October 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I have mixed feelings. Disclaimer: There was a 20 year gap between the last two AAS meetings I went to. Since I stopped doing research, I always felt that there wasn’t much there for people like me. When I got involved with the employment committee, I figured I should show up. Things have changed. For the better. I blame Kevin. Yet I still feel like there’s not a lot there for E/PO folks. There are a lot more educator oriented things, but they are all sponsored by one group that acts as though “only WE have good ideas about teaching”. It also doesn’t help that they keep writing the same research paper over and over.



3 Nic Ross October 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Hi Everyone,

I completely agree that getting ~3000 astronomers in one place, once a year is no mean feat. I also completely agree that is it very important for our community and *very* inspirational e.g. Kepler planets in D.C. this January.

I guess all I am trying to say, is there’s a slight disconnect between this particular meeting and trying to save astronomers from being energy intensive and flying all over the joint. A discussion that I know has been raised in numerous astro-department coffee rooms!

Also, and I’ve been astounded here myself, my we really mustn’t underestimate the role of Facebook in astronomy research these days. From groups that promote and give news for the Hubble Space Telescope, to folks advertising their latest paper on their FB wall, this is an extremely powerful medium we are only learning now how to control (though I have a feeling this is another topic…)

Finally, and very hypocritically, I’ll most likely be flying to Seattle for one of the days of the 217th meeting. When I know which day, I’m more than happy to continue discussions there!



4 Ben October 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I have mixed feelings about the AAS. I think it is valuable for several reasons that you point out, but I also think it was more valuable for them, and for grads and undergrads, when it was smaller. The last AAS I went to was a giant one in DC (2006), and the poster session was an enormous basement full of poster blitzes by giant projects – 20 posters in a row from Big Telescope That Isn’t Built Yet. Of course there is nobody actually standing near those posters, so there’s no one to talk to, and if there is some grad student whose poster I might be interested in, she’s lost in the giant hall among all these megaprojects. It was alienating and IMO an abuse of the purpose of the scientific-abstracts part of the meeting. I understand that the megaprojects do this to impress the community and the funding agencies, but it’s wasteful and overbearing. They should just use booths and send fewer people to the meeting.

I admit that while I have thought about voicing these concerns to the AAS, I have not yet done so.


5 Marshall October 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I think the AAS is fabulous specifically *because* we should try to minimize flying all over the place all the time. I can think of no other meeting that is so useful for me in terms of seeing so many collaborators in such a short time, all in one place. I’d much rather go to the AAS once a year rather than try to somehow fit in an equivalent number of stimulating lunch conversations by visiting ten or fifteen different places…

Of course this raises a separate question about “how best to use your time at an AAS?”. I’ve always been a little baffled by people that go to the AAS then spend most of their time at lunch or dinner with colleagues from their own institutions!


6 Josh Frieman October 6, 2010 at 1:25 am

An interesting discussion. Given the constraint of a very large number of participants, do people have suggestions for how to make the AAS meetings more useful and productive (scientifically and otherwise) and perhaps greener?


7 Eric G. Barron October 6, 2010 at 3:01 am

Networking and having fun together: Networking can be just as effective without being done in person. It just takes a little more effort and initiative when you’re not crammed into a reception or poster room. As for talking with your friends or colleagues face-to-face…Skype, iChat, whatever other video messaging program you want to use.

Undergraduate enrichment: In most cases this can just as easily be done on a local/regional level. I recall my undergrad department working with other departments from schools in southeast PA, NJ, and DE to hold a yearly session of talks and presentations. Anyone who wanted to present did–professors, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students. A meeting of that scale (there were still a couple hundred people in attendance) is a much better first step for undergrads.

Job hunting and recruitment: From what I’ve seen of the job hunting situation at the AAS, I just don’t buy this argument. The AAS job booth just posts printouts of the pages from the online job register. I don’t need to travel hundreds of miles to read something I can pull up within seconds in my browser. The aerospace booths don’t have recruiters at the meeting…they refer you to the company’s employment website. As for narrowing short lists, a phone interview or, again, video chat is great for that purpose. Other technical industries do it…why not astronomy.

Professional development: Again, there is no reason why this can’t be done on a local or virtual level. How to make better plots? That topic is perfect for an *online* course, or for those who don’t even need that much guidance, a wiki. Hear that AAS? Add a wiki and forums to aas.org so the community can post and discuss techniques, tips, and tricks. Make a social platform for the community. Facebook is too broad for really effective social astronomy and has *far* too much extraneous noise. As for leadership, negotiation, and better talks…those aren’t even astronomy-specific topics. Most schools offer training in those areas right on campus.

It’s 2010…almost 2011. We, the community, now have available so many fantastic online tools that would allow us to distribute the AAS meeting throughout the year and across cyberspace. We just need to start using the tools.


8 Jessica October 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

@Eric – This was exactly our motivation for starting the wiki on astrobetter.com!! However, this only works if the community uses it and there is certainly a larger barrier (motivational or technical) than attending a professional development workshop at AAS where someone speaks to you in person.


9 nick October 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I’m generally on the ‘anti-AAS’ side of things. That said, I am attending this year’s meeting. I’m not entirely sure why, it feels like the sort of thing I need to do once every few years. If money’s tight, it’s not any sort of priority in my travel budget.

To some of the specific points mentioned: I think that professional development in astronomy is not so specialized that it can’t be taken care of locally, as Eric mentioned. And while I agree that networking is important, I really feel that a meeting needs to be scientifically valuable first and foremost. Networking and having fun are great, but they shouldn’t be the driver for going to a meeting. If I imagine myself justifying my personal travel budget to some random taxpayer, traveling to have fun with colleagues would not enter the conversation. To me, the most compelling point Kelle brought up is the undergraduate experience. It doesn’t seem terribly likely that regional meetings could fill that role as well.


10 Kelle October 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Eric said:

Add a wiki and forums to aas.org so the community can post and discuss techniques, tips, and tricks. Make a social platform for the community.

aw man, that hurts. That is exactly what this site, AstroBetter, is all about. We have a wiki. We need way more wiki editors, however.

@Eric and Nick,
I can agree to disagree with you about everything EXCEPT the professional development (PD). I totally agree that professional development *could* be done locally, but for the most part, it’s NOT. And if it is offered, it’s typically for faculty only, and not for grad students or postdocs. If people have access to this type of training at their home institution, GREAT! But we want to provide everyone else the opportunity as well.

And even if a lot of the stuff could be generalized, the more specific it is, the more useful it will be. For example, next week there is a workshop at my institution (for faculty only) on grant writing. Sounds great, right? Oh, but wait, it’s about writing *NIH* grants, not NSF, because bio and chem are the biggest science departments. Also, so much of the feedback from the workshops last year was about how they weren’t targeted enough. The case studies weren’t quite right for us. The presenters not very familiar with our way of doing things. This year, we hope to improve on that. So, I disagree, the highly specialized PD at AAS as I envision it, developed specifically for astronomers, is not something that people are going to easily find elsewhere.


11 Eric G. Barron October 6, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Kelle said:

aw man, that hurts. That is exactly what this site, AstroBetter, is all about. We have a wiki. We need way more wiki editors, however.

The thing is, AstroBetter is not the officially recognized professional society for astronomers (in the US). I think something integrated into aas.org would be a lot more powerful venue if only because the AAS *is* the official professional society. That is why I said the AAS should implement something. It wasn’t intended as an insult to you or AstroBetter.

Kelle said:

I totally agree that professional development *could* be done locally, but for the most part, it’s NOT. And if it is offered, it’s typically for faculty only, and not for grad students or postdocs.

So maybe a good seminar at the AAS meeting could be how to organize professional development at the local level, and why it should include astronomers of all levels from faculty through undergrads. You know, teaching to fish instead of just giving away a fish once a year.


12 Steph Slater October 6, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Interesting. So a few thoughts:

We’ve been talking a bit about taking the real professional development online, and using the meeting for what it’s best for: networking. totally with the idea of going virtual, but I’m on the education/EPO side, so they’re not likely to listen to me….

Regarding the poster session: don’t get me started. It wasn’t just the Big Telescope that HAsn’t Been Built Yet that was abusing the abstract submission/presentation/poster session. There were folks last year that presented the exact same talk that they had also submitted as a poster. CV-building at its tackiest. If you even tried that at an education conference, they would fry you. If they caught you presenting the same thing at another conference, they would call you on the carpet. Even other science groups (e.g.: AGU) would not allow this.

And Liam, are you talking about our group, or some other group? Please tell me it’s not me! 🙂



13 Ben October 7, 2010 at 1:37 am

I think it would be productive to discuss what can be done to make the AAS meeting more useful, rather than to attempt to move some of its potentially-useful functions online or local, because it is unlikely to go away in the near future. For example, there have been attempts to use it as a umbrella venue for mini-topical meetings (more of this in the Summer meeting perhaps), where some of the organizational burden is offloaded from the organizer onto the AAS – you don’t have to arrange for hotels and conference rooms and coffee breaks and all that other stuff.

IMO, anyone who presents both a talk and a poster at an AAS meeting as a CV-builder is kidding themselves.


14 Bethany October 13, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Eric said:
“So maybe a good seminar at the AAS meeting could be how to organize professional development at the local level, and why it should include astronomers of all levels from faculty through undergrads.”

As someone who has worked on professional development at the local level, specifically graduate students, I think this is a great idea. However, we can teach them to fish, but there’s no guarantee that they will. The professional development I worked on was more for a general science population, not for the astronomy and astrophysics community. We astronomers have our own quirky way of doing things. I think the AAS meetings is a great place to learn about that quirkiness. Even if some universities offer PD for their astro grads there are many who don’t. If the programs that AAS offers helps at least one astro grad find a job then I think the programs and meetings are invaluable.

AAS registration = $117, Flight = $200, Hotel = $155, Networking Banquet = $75
Experience of presenting research and getting a job = Priceless


15 Richard Scalzo October 27, 2010 at 8:09 am

Coming a bit late to this post, slowly catching up on all my RSS feeds after blowing megatons of CO2 into the air over the past few months. You’re all welcome. I’ll need to set aside about 10% of my income for offsets…

I’ve attended as many AAS meetings as I could since my first one as an undergraduate. Until fairly recently I think I totally underestimated the importance to my career of just the kinds of activities Kelle describes, but it was always personally fun and rewarding — although, since it’s a big meeting and getting bigger every year, I do tend to saturate on interaction about 2/3 of the way through. Good place to catch up with old friends and see what they’re up to. Good place to learn about astronomical stuff I don’t do and remind me why it’s important and interesting. Good place to learn about jobs which may be coming soon but haven’t yet been posted on the Job Register — I discovered a few there. Since I’m no longer based in the States I definitely want to maintain some kind of presence there by attending AAS meetings on the tail end of my winter (wait, I mean summer now?) holidays (especially the ones based in DC where my folks live).

While a lot of this sort of thing can indeed be done in cyberspace (I did all my interviews for the last round of jobs over the phone or on Skype), I’d like to echo Kelle’s opinion that we are all in fact still made of meat, and that in-person meetings are more vivid and have much higher bandwidth than online meetings — especially if what you’re looking for is social interaction with its 90+% non-verbal content, and not just the exchange of ideas which can be abstracted into words, figures or math. If you’re going to hire someone or collaborate closely with them, interacting with them in person can tell you a lot about them quickly in ways that are hard to pick up sometimes in email or Skype interactions. That extra information can be crucial to making things really work — email can be terrible when negotiating sensitive interactions, and Skype or phone, while better, is still limited in comparison. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that purely virtual collaborations are on average more brittle than those which convene in meatspace periodically.

I should also add that I prefer not to use Facebook as a professional networking platform. There is indeed a lot of noise (Telescopeville, anyone?) which one has to filter. Moreover I view my own Facebook account more as a platform for my “personal” updates and content which I don’t necessarily want directly and transparently associated with my professional persona. Perhaps it’s hopelessly naive to imagine I can compartmentalize my online presence in this brave new world of zero privacy, or perhaps I’m missing the point of Facebook, but one nice thing about having different social networking platforms is that they give us more control over how we present ourselves, customizing each virtual space according to the network. Boundaries can be healthy things!

Finally, I think Kelle is right that professional development is usually *not* (in fact) done locally, which is why we have to go to places like the AAS to hear about what it is we’ve been missing. It’s really easy for people lower on the food chain, grad students and postdocs particularly, to get too absorbed in the minutiae of making that next plot, debugging that code, getting that proposal in on time, and satisfying the continually escalating demands of their supervisors (who may or may not also be their mentors) to think about the bigger picture of how to move forward in their careers. Going to a place like AAS where one can directly access such a large cross-section of the community in an informal and relaxed setting is, I think, really important. You can *see* examples of where you could be in ten or fifteen years, and ask people how they got there. And the AAS atmosphere is good for that precisely *because* it is not predominantly a workshop meeting or symposium, where you’re focusing on specific scientific ideas or solving problems in the field and less on your public image and the arc of your career.


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