How to improve the winter AAS meeting? (2014 edition)

by Jane on January 15, 2014

We’ve had a week to recover from the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).  Let’s talk about what we thought worked, what didn’t and how we can improve the “Super Bowl of Astronomy”?   (Last year’s discussion got 57 comments; this is a topic our community feels strongly about.)

What did our Society do well and what they can improve?  How can we as attendees improve the meeting?  Did Hack Day work?  What should we do about the last day of the meeting?  What’s the right balance of career development, networking, and science? Is the AAS meeting a place that does not tolerate abusive behavior (as it aspires to be)?  If not, how do we make it one?  Are students finding the meeting enjoyable and rewarding?  Are they connecting with potential employers?  What plenary talks were brilliant, and why?  Did the meeting have enough public visibility?  How has social media changed the meeting?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Erik Tollerud January 15, 2014 at 4:16 pm

One quite simple thing that I think would help (at least, it would help me): post the speaker *times* everywhere, especially the board in front of the sessions, in the book, and on the pdfs of the sessions.

I suggest this because of the large number of the parallel sessions and the fact that the sessions don’t necessarily map well onto attendees’ interests. That’s what leads to people jumping out part way through a session to go to another, but that’s made much harder and is more disruptive if you have to go back and forth because you’re not sure where the second session is in its schedule. But if it’s posted for all to see (and for all to guilt the chair into following it!), it’s more streamlined.


2 Ned Wright January 16, 2014 at 8:10 am

A real-time updating web site that shows progress in the parallel sessions should be implementable because all the talks are done using networked computers. I would think that a display of the most recent presentation launched in each session and how long since it was launched would let people navigate between sessions efficiently.

3 Chris Palma January 15, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I have a hard time understanding how convention centers that do meetings like this all the time don’t have a system in place for letting people know that the exhibit hall is closing and allowing time for it to empty. I liked the chimes they tried out, but apparently we didn’t get out fast enough, so they just turned the lights out on us a day later. Can the society and the convention center decide on a method for announcing the exhibit hall is closing, announce that plan in advance so we know, for example, when we hear the chimes we have 5-10 minutes to clear out, and actually allot the necessary time to let the ~2000 people in the room time to filter out? It seems like this is always a source of tension between the hosts and those of us who just want to be in the hall to participate in the meeting.

Another issue from this meeting was the drastic underestimate of the popularity of the education parallel sessions. I think larger rooms need to be allocated to those sessions at future meetings.


4 Natalie Gosnell January 15, 2014 at 8:07 pm

This comes up every year, but we have to figure out how to make Thursday a “real” day. This was especially personal for me this time as my dissertation talk was 2pm on Thursday afternoon. The combination of a shortened day (posters ending at 2pm) and double booking the Goddard tour over the last day of the conference essentially guaranteed low attendance.

If we expect Thursday to be a scientifically-rich day (not just the late submission posters), then it must be treated as such. Keep the exhibit hall open for the entire day, save a big prize talk for Thursday afternoon, and don’t put an entire subject area on Thursday by itself. If I studied galaxies I would not have stayed through Thursday either – why would you when the day was primarily about stars? Mixing up the subject areas each day would also lower the number of parallel sessions that fall under the same research umbrella, giving us all an opportunity to catch more talks relevant to our research than we were able to this year.


5 Marshall Perrin January 15, 2014 at 10:16 pm

I agree strongly with Natalie: Thursday should be a full day. As it was, this year there were science sessions all afternoon and plenary talks until 5:20, so it’s far outgrown any original notion of its being a half day. And now there’s a closing reception that night! (Which BTW is great, much much better than the prior banquets). It just doesn’t make sense to close the poster room at 2. It does a disservice to those presenting on that day, and it’s blatantly unfair to students who are competing for the Chambliss prizes. Thursday’s outgrown being just the ‘late abstracts’ day. I made a comment about this on Twitter that day and got a roaring chorus of agreement, so I think there are plenty of folks who feel this way.

Yes, there will be some people who leave early on Thursday regardless. But those who choose to stay should be able to leave their posters up as long as there are still talks ongoing. I understand exhibitors might want to start at 2 to pack up their booths – but that’s an entirely different scope of effort from the 30 seconds it takes to unpin a poster at the end of the day.

Related to this: Hack day should be on Friday. I love the idea and had a great time last year, but this year there were just too many sessions I wanted to attend on Thursday for me to skip the entire day.

(Aside: I disagree that Thursday “was primarily about stars”; the oral sessions that day ranged from exoplanets to black holes to galaxy clusters to the CMB, from SDSS to NuSTAR to public policy and African astronomy. Just goes to show yet again how *big* the AAS has gotten, with an overwhelming amount of great science. Surely we can handle four full days. And I say this as someone who was there the entire weekend beforehand for the ExoPAG meeting as well. Yes I was a bit mentally worn out by the end of 6 days of nonstop meetings, but not to the point that closing the poster room at 2 pm instead of 5 or 6 pm makes any sense.)


6 Natalie Gosnell January 15, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Saying Thursday was all stars was probably an overstatement – I was mainly echoing what I heard from others as I didn’t get around to see very many other presentations that day. And I didn’t go back and check the bulletin before posting my comment. Regardless, Marshall’s point that the AAS is quite big and worthy of four full days of programming is well put.

7 Gary Page January 16, 2014 at 9:11 am

I have to comment on the venue. I was not able to attend the conference and one reason was the expense. When the meeting was held in downtown DC, I was able to stay relatively far away from the conference (with friends or at less expensive lodging) and take the subway to the meeting. The location at the new venue did not offer that kind of access and was relatively difficult to leave for whatever reason. I understand the reason for the selection of National Harbor was the size of the meeting, but I wonder if there are alternatives in the city.


8 Kevin Marvel January 17, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Thanks for this input, and the input yet to come. Know that the AAS Office is keeping tabs on the comments posted here and will share them with the AAS Council for consideration in the modification of the meeting.

Also, please note that the hardworking AAS staff deserve a huge round of thanks from our meeting attendees for the fantastic work they do on our behalf. I hope that some positive feedback on the things that work well and recognition for their efforts will also be a part of the posts here in addition to the constructive criticism and ideas for change. They are really unsung heroes, making everything work fantastically well, and I for one am very grateful for their efforts.

Kevin Marvel


9 August Muench January 20, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Amen, Kevin. They did a great job. This was personally one of my favorite AAS meetings. For reasons I can’t quite quantify, I’d admit, but things just worked for me for networking and getting to the talks/posters/events I wanted to attend.

10 August Muench January 20, 2014 at 2:04 pm

I would also like to remind everyone who attended a professional development workshop, career panel, or career reception to please fill out our evaluation survey. This detailed feedback is critical for improving these workshops and bringing new opportunities for future AAS meetings. The link is here:

And covers the following workshops/panels (to remind you if you’ve forgotten which you attended):

Astronomy Ambassadors Workshop (Saturday, Sunday)
AAS/NGS Science Communication Workshop (Sunday)
Introduction to Python (Sunday)
Data Management (Sunday)
Leadership and Teambuilding (Sunday)
Careers 101: Career Planning Workshop (Monday)
Career Hour 1: Having the Right Stuff (Monday)
Career Hour 2: Work-Life Balance (Monday)
Career Hour 3: Network Yourself (Tuesday)
Career Hour 4: Elevator Speech (Tuesday)
Career Hour 5: The Interview (Wednesday)
Career Hour 6: Negotiation (Thursday)
1:1 Career Consults
Developing Career Opportunities in Science Policy (Panel, Wednesday)
Perspectives from Congressional and White House Staff (Panel, Wednesday)
Astronomy and Public Policy (Keynote, Wednesday)
Career Discovery Networking Reception (Wednesday)
Hack Day (Thursday)


11 John Gizis January 21, 2014 at 11:49 am

I wasn’t at the meeting, but I appreciated being able to live-stream the NASA town hall. (I think STScI was to thank,)


12 Alyssa Goodman January 21, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Why not live-stream the whole meeting? Or, at least all of the town halls & plenary sessions? I don’t think that would decrease attendance in-person, and it would be better than twitter for those who cannot join in for the meeting!

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