How to improve the AAS meeting?

Two thousand astronomers are dragging themselves home from an exciting but exhausting 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Long Beach.  After we’ve gotten a good night’s sleep and some strong coffee, how about we discuss what we thought worked, what didn’t and how we can improve the “Super Bowl of Astronomy”?   If we don’t capture it now, it’ll leak out of our brains…

What did the 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?  (I felt sorry for students with Thursday posters.)  What’s the right balance of career development, networking, and science?  Is the AAS meeting a respectful place that doesn’t tolerate harassment (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 recruiters?  How could the exhibitor booths be improved?  What plenary talks were brilliant, and why?  Did the meeting this year have enough public visibility?

Okay, go.

59 comments… add one
  • Paul Scowen Jan 11, 2013 @ 10:56

    Great meeting. Really learned a lot. And yes, some very well delivered and composed Plenary talks. Things that were done well: lots of younger presenters in posters and some talks – very high quality REU students, and many 1st and 2nd year grad students presenting too – good, get ’em out there. Opening reception was good but a bit of a mosh pit. Things not so great… the most expensive beer on the planet, the continued (skill?) of the AAS to schedule parallel sessions in very similar topics making it impossible to see/attend what you need to. AGU fixed this years ago – in 20 years of attending the AAS this has always been the biggest criticism, that and… the continued waste of time that is the AAS 5-minute talk. This really can be done better – the AGU uses a 10-minute talk and NOT everyone who asks to give one, gets one. The session chair actually has some responsibilities to pre-select the talks to be given, and is allowed to say “no” to talks that are felt to be not up-to-par. This produces much BETTER talks and you can say more in the time alloted. And we need to ditch the Thursday poster session altogether – such a waste of effort for so many young researchers… late papers, etc. should be scheduled on the Wednesday – they had the room to do that – there were dozens of empty/unscheduled boards on the Wednesday. But all in all a great meeting.

  • Angela Speck Jan 11, 2013 @ 11:37

    More feedback please! And be radical – we can make big changes if that’s what people want. What do you think about having 14 parallel sessions? Are 5 minute talks useful? Could we improve the poster sessions? Should dissertation talks be in a session for dissertation talks or should they continue to be included in and amongst the 5 min talks.

    For instance how would people feel about replacing the current talk format with the Pecha Kucha format (
    Here is an example of a public talk done this way:

    • Ben Jan 14, 2013 @ 16:30

      I was not at this AAS (but I have been to many) and I’d like to send the 5 minute talks in a different direction from the format Angela suggests, which may be more suited to images than to data intensive topics. You should absolutely be able to explain a topic in 5 minutes, like an “elevator pitch.” The problem is that most people try to make a 5 minute talk by taking a 30 minute talk and removing slides, which leaves an overly crammed and hurried talk. My suggestion: everybody gets ONE slide. You can put two plots side by side if you want. Give the introduction in words, not on the slide; talk about why the plot is important and what it shows; and conclude.

      If making a one slide talk sounds impossible because it will omit all the important details of your painstaking research … that’s exactly why you need to make a one slide talk, to distill it to the essence. Try it.

  • Dominic Benford Jan 11, 2013 @ 12:48

    I did a fair amount of beheaded-chicken-sprinting, and this would be somewhat easier if my smart phone were smarter about timing. SPIE has a decent app for this, but perhaps the AAS doesn’t warrant such an expense. I did successfully export my desired talks (as of early December, which wasn’t 100% current by the time of the meeting), but the timing was for whole sessions rather than individual talks. This would be a simple change to assist the smart phones to assist the dumber astronomers like me.

  • Josh Pepper Jan 11, 2013 @ 13:21

    What about recording and posting all the sessions online? It would be a lot of work for the organizers but an immense benefit for the community.

    More power outlets. Scattering $3 power strips at the few outlets outside the presentation rooms would be a huge help.

    And, of course, coffee. I confess to not knowing the exact economics of it, but if we’re getting 2 free cups already, can it really be that much more expense to make it more? That is one item for which an e.g. $10 increase in the registration fee would be well worth it.

    • Kevin Marvel Jan 14, 2013 @ 18:13

      Thanks for these ideas Josh. The coffee economics are, sadly, far worse than you imagine. To provide an ‘open’ coffee break to everyone, most venues charge $18 per person per day. You read that right. And on top of that there is usually a 20% (or more) service charge, plus any local food and service taxes, that can be 7% or more. As we wanted to invest in better speaker presentation services and other science communication enhancing aspects of the meeting, we moved to the consumption based ticket system, which is WAY cheaper…we only get charged for tickets used and charged much less…this freed up a _lot_ of money for other needed expenses.


  • Brian Hayden Jan 11, 2013 @ 13:24

    This is a pretty small comment but I thought the 90 degree rotated posters were awful. It increased clutter and decreased visibility.

    Personally, I don’t like lumping two oral sessions from one field with the posters in that field. On Tuesday, I had 2 oral sessions and 20 posters to go over. I was exhausted and in pain all night and on Wednesday. One of the oral sessions should have been on a different day.

  • Angela Speck Jan 11, 2013 @ 13:31

    There are reasons for the orientation of the posters which relates to the needs and desires of the vendors who pay a lot more than we do to be there. This more or less precludes going back to long straight lines – so how would you prefer to orient the posters to make for better visibility and interaction between presenters. Let’s face it – it would be great to have the individual poster sections set up so that the presenters can interact more and so that readers can see the bigger picture of all posters in then section and maybe even have discussions incorporating more than one poster/presenter. How do we facilitate that?

    • Brian Hayden Jan 12, 2013 @ 2:46

      I didn’t think about the vendors being the reason for the poster switch. I suppose that makes sense. My only suggestion then is to put a little bit more space between the rows. One thing that happened was that there were many times I wanted to see the title of someone’s poster but just couldn’t because there were too many people in between, and the title was too small. And I also felt horrible for some people who were sandwiched in behind the occasional poster board that was different from the normal orientation. It created a little hidden corner that almost completely hid them from view. I just can’t necessarily think of a better solution.

  • Cynthia Froning Jan 11, 2013 @ 13:45

    I carefully marked the events I was interested in on the online itinerary only to find I could not access it later because the login window was mis-sized and did not display the box to enter your email for pre-existing itineraries. I much prefer going to electronic schedules over carrying around a big book but in this case I had to go back to the old-fashioned way.

  • Jennifer Hoffman Jan 11, 2013 @ 14:34

    I didn’t like the way the Chambliss poster judging was handled. The “first round” of abstract judging, which weeded out many deserving students, doesn’t seem to me to assess what we are trying to assess (for example, what’s to prevent the adviser from writing the abstract?). Then of the 7 graduate posters I was assigned to judge, 4 people were not at their posters when I came by, when the rules require them to be there for two 1.5-hour blocks. It made me think that the students who were selected to be judged didn’t appreciate the opportunity, and that others who were not selected may have actually performed better.

    I understand that it is difficult to recruit poster judges, but I also had several senior people say to me that they missed the original deadline but would have been happy to volunteer if they had been reminded again (e.g., “We do not have enough judges for all the student posters; please sign up so that we can accommodate everyone”). Or what if each graduate student who has a poster judged must in turn judge a few undergrad posters?

    • Jason T Wright Jan 11, 2013 @ 15:27

      I’d like to second this. It seems absurd to judge any posters sight unseen. It also seems to put too much of the judgement on the topic of the poster (which, especially for an undergraduate, is a function mostly of the adviser, not the student), and not enough on the presentation itself.

      I agree that it would not be hard to drum up additional judges.

    • Greg Feiden Jan 11, 2013 @ 22:00

      I agree, the notion that an abstract is an accurate judge of the quality of science is ridiculous. It reinforces that “attractive” or “sexy” projects are “better” or of higher quality than others. It may be difficult to produce the desired yield of judges, but I feel it is worthwhile to invest in determining how to attract judges than to promote a superficial evaluation of someone’s research.

      Jennifer’s recommendation of requiring graduate student nominees to judge undergraduate posters is an interesting first approach.

    • Kevin Marvel Jan 14, 2013 @ 18:15

      We’d like more ideas (and volunteers) for this activity…it is a tremendous challenge, but a great and rewarding program for the student presenters…keep the ideas coming!

    • Ian Crossfield Jan 17, 2013 @ 10:36

      I concur with Jennifer, Jason, and Greg: AAS should back away from the new policy of pre-judging award posters by their abstracts.

  • Jackie M. Jan 11, 2013 @ 14:54

    The parallel scheduling problems included E/PO panels scheduled simultaneously on opposite sides of the convention and Town Halls scheduled simultaneously. And if you attended the plenary sessions AND the Town Halls, that would often translate to no lunch break. The potential similar-science conflicts were too numerous to count.

    It seems like we just need more time. Is it really impossible to have the AAS run from Monday-Friday?

    I would like to say, however, that I really enjoyed this AAS meeting. (Despite a lot of the pessimism on the outlook of the field, given the current US science budget.) Some of that was Long Beach, which turned out to be surprisingly convenient in terms of getting food and beverages. Even the public transportation wasn’t too bad.

  • Jonathan McDowell Jan 11, 2013 @ 15:20

    I don’t know how to fix Thursday, but at a minimum don’t close the poster room at 2pm.
    Sure, let the vendors close up their booths and start packing, but I don’t see that you can’t let that happen in parallel with us continuing to look at posters – half a day is not enough time.

    Of course, my *radical* idea is to let AAS meetings last a month – or at least, say, 10 days, – so that you can actually have time to see everything without your favorite talks being scheduled in simultaneous parallel sessions…

    • Kevin Marvel Jan 14, 2013 @ 18:19

      To allow exhibit takedown we are required to have attendees out of the room for liability issues…forklifts and stuff are moving about. A challenge with a fourth full day is that we would have to have exhibitors take down booths after the hall closes at the end of the day, which usually means an extra hotel night for them…on the flip side, we could set up posters in a different room (maybe) on the fourth day, but then we have the problem of low traffic in the Exhibit hall, which is very much not liked by the exhibitors….quite a conundrum. Perhaps only posters on the fourth day and close down the exhibit hall on Wednesday evening? Tricky…more ideas please!

    • TMB Jan 14, 2013 @ 22:43

      Is an extra night of hotel for the exhibitors actually a significant expense relative to the cost of mounting the exhibit / paying the AAS / paying the other hotel and travel costs? Seems unlikely to me (but if someone can provide data that says otherwise, please do)… and also much less significant on a goal-of-the-AAS-meeting front than the current travesty of having your poster scheduled on the Thursday.

  • Emily Jan 11, 2013 @ 16:08

    At least two of the problems I encountered could be solved with more volunteers – abstract sorting/scheduling and Chambliss judging (which was an awesome experience for me, but I understand the complaints). Getting people to “volunteer” is intrinsically difficult for many reasons. What if we learn from the success of the Zooniverse and the tasks more crowdsourced i.e., make it easier for people to contribute at different scales and take advantage of being able to have a large number of small contributions?

    • Ian Crossfield Jan 17, 2013 @ 10:39

      Another possible way to get more judges would be to pay them woul dbe to offer compensation: for example, a small rebate on current or future meeting attendance, more free coffee, etc.

  • Karen K. Jan 11, 2013 @ 16:39

    The main issue with Thursday was that the poster session was printed in the program book as going until 6:30.

    I thought the online meeting tool was good for organizing which posters and talks to see and I used it successfully on my iPhone.

    I also volunteered at the meeting and while it had good points and a few disappointing points, that was also due to how I signed up for it, so next time I’ll know to only state I’m available for the minimum number of hours (I had thought they might choose between a few of my availability, but not take it all).

    The group that was hired to upload the talks and do the powerpoints were fabulous! I volunteered in the speaker ready room and many people were very complimentary. In fact, I think we can remove the extra time between talks for set up since everything was there and ready to go. It could instead go toward having talks be longer.

  • Meredith Jan 11, 2013 @ 16:49

    The undergraduate reception felt far too much like a grad school fair to me—I would have liked there to be a better balance between talking to grad school representatives, learning about non-academic career options, and socializing with other undergrads.

  • jd Jan 11, 2013 @ 19:46

    If there are parallel sessions on similar topics, keep them in adjacent rooms so that it’s easy to go back and forth.

    • Joey S. Jan 17, 2013 @ 14:05

      This is my biggest recommendation. This should also be the easiest to fix.

  • Adam Burgasser Jan 11, 2013 @ 20:28

    Scheduling has been the most persistent issue for me since I became a faculty scientist – AAS Winter always seems to be held on the first week of classes for the quarter system (which is most of the UC, U Washington, Caltech, etc.). This not only affects instructors who have minimal concern about their classes, but undergraduate and graduate students who are pressured by their non-AAS-attending instructors not to miss class. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to fix this since we can’t slide back (holidays) and can’t slide much forward (staggered semester schedule). I’ve never understood why the winter meeting is the BIG one – seems like summer would be easier on everyone’s schedules.

    I also agree that the coffee deal made me feel like we were shortchanged, particularly paired with an extravagant (and wonderful!) reception. One caffeine hit/day seems to be a minimum to maintain conciousness.

    But overall, a truly wonderful meeting, and kudos to the organizers for managing this behemoth.

    • TMB Jan 12, 2013 @ 21:25

      It’s not just an issue for those on quarters… we’re on semesters, and our first day of class was the Wednesday of the meeting.

  • Greg Feiden Jan 11, 2013 @ 22:15

    Overall, I thought this AAS was quite enjoyable. First, the layout of the convention center was nice in that there weren’t hidden rooms down obscure hallways. Everything was neatly placed off of a main hallway on both floors. The layout of the poster/exhibition room was also quite nice. Some people didn’t like the poster placed perpendicular to the exhibitors, but I thought it provided more space around each poster (better for both presenter and reader). One of my biggest issues with poster sessions is that they are often so crowded that you get herded away from a poster. That certainly didn’t happen this year.

    The number of coffee tickets was a bit disappointing, but I probably drink too much coffee for my own good. Either way, this seems to be a perpetual issue for people at AAS conferences. I know the economics are difficult, but seems to be a worthwhile problem for someone to tackle.

    Still note sure what to do about the last day of the conference. It seems that no matter what day the conference ends, the people presenting (especially posters) will get less traffic. Leaving the poster room open until 6pm would have been quite nice, but that was because I was at hack day and didn’t get to wander through the poster hall. On that note, hack day on Thursday was really spectacular!

  • Reed Riddle Jan 12, 2013 @ 1:20

    I chaired a session at AAS. The transitions now take about 30 seconds because of the computer setup, so that was very well done…the AAS presentation and computer setup is excellent. I think the talks should be lengthened by a couple of minutes because of this…I let my speakers go a bit long, because they weren’t getting enough questions (I asked everyone at least one question), and it worked out just fine. Better timing apparatus is required…I used my iPhone for timing and all my session talks were within a minute or two of the scheduled time and we ended on time. Lots of other sessions I went to ran fast because of a lack of questions and the chairs only paying attention to the 5 minute talk limit.

    I also was a Chambliss judge (I’m still waiting to hear who won), and have been for a few meetings. I wouldn’t have a problem judging a few posters each day instead of a lot on one day, and judging is a really good way to meet new students and hear about things you would pass up otherwise. I don’t like the idea of prejudging based on the abstracts…writing a good abstract is an art, and a newbie isn’t going to get it right. I’d say the students should be allowed to decide if they want to participate in the contest, and then the AAS can push to find judges among the rest of us…let the judges decide how many they want to judge (to a limit). And post the results at the meeting before everyone leaves.

    The Thursday posters should have been up on Wednesday, there was probably enough room for them. I liked the way the posters were laid out, it made the posters in front of you the focus and avoided the dreaded “poster island” that blocks off the entire line of posters. I’m not sure the meeting is quite big enough to go through Friday yet, and people are always going to leave early (I did, had to get back to work). Scheduling really needs a good look, to keep parallel sessions sensible, to push some things so that you’re not stuck in talks all day and then running through the posters, and room placement that takes into account which sessions might have more people moving between them. There is absolutely no way to make this perfect, but I think more improvement is possible here.

    I don’t drink coffee, so I never used my tickets…next time I’ll be sure to auction them off. 😉

  • Brian Hayden Jan 12, 2013 @ 2:53

    A major compliment from me to the speaker ready room workers and the amazing software that is used to homogenize the various talk formats. I don’t have much experience with other large meetings (from other fields) but I was very impressed.

    • Anonymous Jan 14, 2013 @ 11:27

      I agree that the software/presentation setup used at the meeting was phenomenal. It worked perfectly and was easy to use.

  • Eilat Jan 12, 2013 @ 9:35

    A common complaint that keeps popping up is that 5 minute talks are too short. Here is a solution that involves no changes to scheduling whatsoever:
    10 minute time slots are already allotted to each (non-dissertation) speaker. The 10 minutes break down as 5 minutes for the talk, 3 minutes for questions, and 2 minutes for setup. This made sense back when laptop switching and dongle adjusting actually took 2 minutes (I remember those days). Today, all we do is press a button, which takes 2 seconds. That frees up 2 minutes that should be returned to the speaker.

    The new breakdown of the 10 minute allotment should be 7 minutes for the talk, 2m58s for questions and 2s for setup.

    In fact, when I chaired a session a few AAS’s ago, it became apparent that we were in danger of being way ahead of schedule when I strictly enforced the time, so instead of having 2 awkward minutes of silence in order to stay on schedule, I let the speakers have 2 extra minutes. This time, many of the sessions, including the one in which I spoke, were ahead of schedule making it difficult for people to come see specific talks. (Potential employers dart between sessions, which is why the schedule should be enforced).

    Simple solution: 7m, 2m58s, 02s instead of 5m,3m,2m

  • B Jan 12, 2013 @ 16:57

    I really enjoyed this year’s winter AAS meeting! A few comments:

    — I really liked that there was so much time for questions. At some conferences, I never get to ask any of my questions (though I know I can always track people down later), but that wasn’t the case here.

    — Relatedly, I like how the session chairs asked the speakers to stand at the end of the session so we could more easily track them down to ask questions.

    — It was so much fun having the opening reception at the aquarium!

    — I probably should have thought about this when choosing my hotel, but I was sad that internet access was $13 a night. It would be awesome if it were possible (I’ve seen this at other conferences) to negotiate with the hotel to get internet access included. It would also be wonderful to have less slow internet at the conference center (or even the option to pay for a faster connection).

    — In many of the rooms, the screen was in the corner of the room and partially blocked by a stage. It would be great if there were some way to ensure the entire screen is visible (or instruct presenters to only use the top 2/3 of each slide). The view in Ballroom was great though.

    — I didn’t like being torn between several sessions on a similar topic (especially having to chose between 2-3 collaborators or friends’ presentations). I would prefer the AAS to be longer or even to accept fewer oral presentations.

    — It would be nice if someone could ring a bell or flicker the late in the poster hall right before a new session is about to begin, to avoid people accidentally being late.

    — I’m okay with a limited number of coffee tickets if it keeps the registration price down. It was nice that coffee was available for purchase in the convention center or connecting hotels. But maybe there are some companies who would like to sponsor a coffee break.

  • Adam Ginsburg Jan 12, 2013 @ 18:20

    (nothing new here… just various +1’s)

    Overall, I thought the conference went pretty well. Thursday poster session should not be shorter than the others – after all, the closing reception is still in the evening. I was disappointed to miss some posters because I was unaware it would end so early.

    I’ll pass this message on to David & Kelly directly, but I’m in favor of moving hack day to not overlap with talks.

    The overlapping sessions with identical themes were pretty frustrating. I was very pleased at how well sessions stayed on schedule, though, with the exception of some Monday sessions scrambling the order.

    Unlike others, I think the 5 minute talks are great: either one point is communicated clearly, or nothing is communicated at all and it’s over with quickly.

    On the coffee + LA: I had a hard time finding a good source of coffee outside the convention center, which was not at all a problem in Seattle. If coffee’s easily available within <5 minutes walk of the convention center, then fine, save the money and cut coffee. Otherwise, I think it's necessary to provide more and more often.

  • Francesca Jan 13, 2013 @ 10:32

    Poster judges are a problem (specially those judges mixing their shift…). I have been a judge in the past and I like to do it. I think that this new method of changing the rules is not fair. Part of the deal is how the student present is work and how competent he/she is. I think we need to go back.

    A definetely No is the abstract booklet. I think is useless and AAS could save some money there. How many of you carried it home? It is heavy and bulky. This year I used my ipad/iphone where I downloaded the program and I could browse it easily. Maybe an AAS app could be even more useful. I know that not everyone as an iphone/ipad but we could have the choice when registering for the meeting to ask for the booklet or not so that they know how many to print.

    Coffee is always a problem. Well, with no money there is no solution.

  • Steph Jan 13, 2013 @ 13:27

    To add my endorsement to some points made:
    – Judging the student posters by abstracts struck me as flawed. Very often, student abstracts are re-written by the advisors. If we judge students based on the abstracts, then we penalize the students whose advisors are more hands-off. When I judge posters, I look for how well the student really understands the science project and can explain that project, rather than mimicking jargon that their advisor uses, showing results b/c their advisor told them to, etc. Judges can’t get a sense of students’ understanding of the material by just the abstract.

    – I agree with Eilat’s breakdown of the timing for the 5 minute talks. Two minutes for switchover is not necessary (thanks to the fantastic job the AAS has done in organizing the talks in the speaker ready room!), so giving an extra 1-2 minutes to each talk would be a more effective use of the 10 minute allotted talk slot.

    Something that hasn’t been brought up:
    – I think it’s great the AAS had a section in the book this year about sexual harassment, but I would suggest a couple of updates could be made to this. A friend of mine had a really creepy situation with a stalker throughout the conference and was vacillating about whether or not to report this to the AAS since there weren’t any witnesses to these incidents. I understand that for an incident to be actionable by the AAS, a witness is necessary. However, documentation of such incidents are key, especially if situations like this recur in the future to other victims. Another friend and I encouraged this friend to report her experience to the AAS, but it would be a shame if other victims feel they have no recourse when harassed when witnesses are not nearby, and are thereby victimized twice. I would suggest updating the wording of the statement to not isolate those harassed in isolation.

    • No one expects the S.I. Jan 14, 2013 @ 14:05

      Wow, I had a friend who experienced a similar incident at the AAS with a stalker and has been trying to decide whether or not to report this to the AAS as well. The fact that there have been a few victims left very uncomfortable and unwelcome at the AAS means that I suspect the problem is larger than we think. And I wonder if we have a serial stalker?

      For your friend, I would recommend that she get in contact with Joan Schmelz, the president of the CSWA. In a AASWOMEN post, she advertised that she was always open to help and has a personal stake in knowing about the problems that exist. Joan is able to keep everything 100% confidential, and only mentions things after getting explicit permission from the informant. I would highly recommend that you send your friend Joan’s way (jschmelz@memphis dot edu), which is the same place I am sending my friend.

  • IUR Jan 13, 2013 @ 20:54

    I’ll echo the remarks above regarding the online presentation uploads and speaker ready room. This was a really slick system that worked great for me (as a presenter), and I didn’t see any troubles in any of the four oral session I attended.

    I like the five-minute talks for one of the same reasons mentioned above: if the speaker has prepared sufficiently to communicate one take-home message, they’re great; if not, they’re over quickly. Keeping the 15-minute disseration talks mixed in breaks up the flow in a positive way, in my opinion, and this offers a balance of junior and senior approaches to a topic. I support keeping the two together.

    Not everyone drinks coffee. (Perhaps the AAS has some data on how many of the tickets are redeemed, which could help guide future allocations? Maybe this is already being done.)

    Even if public transportation from major airports to the meeting location is somewhat clunky (and recognizing that contracts are signed years or decades in advance…), I strongly recommend that future meeting sites retain this capability.

  • Karen K. Jan 13, 2013 @ 23:35

    Just a note: the “Coffee” tickets were for coffee, tea, or juice which your volunteer at registration should have mentioned (I know I did to everyone I interacted with). So for those that don’t drink coffee, there were other options. 🙂

  • Jane Jan 14, 2013 @ 7:19

    Wow, this is some great feedback. Keep it coming, folks…

  • Rick Fienberg Jan 14, 2013 @ 14:36

    Thanks for your helpful feedback on the Chambliss student-poster judging, which I organize on behalf of the AAS. We’ve been struggling with this for years. We’ve tried all sorts of things to get more judges, but with little success. We typically have more than 300 posters to review and only about 100 judges. If each poster is judged only once or twice, students who get “easy” judges tend to win medals, whereas students who get “hard” judges tend to lose out. After consulting with representatives of other scientific societies that conduct student poster contests, I decided to try the two-tiered approach you saw in Long Beach: a first round based on abstracts, and a second round based on on-site evaluation of (a now manageable number of) posters. It actually worked pretty well, at least in terms of getting statistically meaningful results. But lots of students — and judges — didn’t like it, for reasons such as those voiced in the various comments here. This means we’ll go back to the drawing board and look for a still better way to judge the student posters. All suggestions are welcome! (By the way, the Long Beach winners were announced at the final plenary sessions, on the AAS website at, and via a posting on the announcement board across from the AAS registration desk at the convention center, all on Thursday afternoon, January 10th.)

    • Steph Jan 14, 2013 @ 14:46

      One thought: maybe only limit eligibility for student poster prizes to undergrads and really early career grad students? If our aim is to judge how well a student understands the project s/he is presenting, then presumably a student who has worked on a research project for 3-5 years really ought to know what s/he is talking about. I personally think that a student who’s close to defending her/his dissertation shouldn’t be compared against 1st-2nd year grad students.

    • Angie Wolfgang Jan 16, 2013 @ 22:48

      I agree with Steph’s idea of limiting the Chambliss Award to undergrads + 1st and 2nd-year grad students. This could free up ABD grad students to participate instead by judging undergraduate posters, as long as they are explicitly encouraged to do so. If this doesn’t generate an increase in judges, though, requiring grads to judge a few undergraduate posters as a requirement for submitting their own poster for judging is an idea worth pursuing. After all, we graduate students need to start getting experience assessing others’ projects in a competitive setting, if we plan to serve on telescope allocation/grad admissions/grant proposal committees later in our careers.

      Here’s an idea to address the tension between the efficiency of judging posters by their abstracts and the understandable criticism that the abstract doesn’t necessarily reflect what the competition tries to assess: a few weeks before the conference, ask all the students who want their poster judged a few questions about their project (i.e. via an online form for efficient processing) – questions that reflect the aims of the Chambliss award*. Those students serious about the award will do the extra work and respond; those who aren’t, won’t, which can take care of the poster presence issue Jennifer Hoffmann identified. Explicitly require the students to respond in their own words, which can address the advisor influence problem (but of course, this still isn’t as good as direct one-on-one interaction since the opportunity for intervention is still there). Then judge these responses like you did the abstracts this year to identify finalists to be judged in person at the conference.

      *For example, to assess the student’s broader understanding of their project, ask them why it is important and how it is interesting, new, or otherwise an improvement upon prior work. To assess the student’s competency, ask them to describe what they did to contribute to the project. To assess the student’s scientific reasoning skills, ask them to identify one main take-away point from their project, and what the evidence is for that result. Yes, all of these things should be in the abstract anyway, but by breaking it up like this into a format less familiar to/accessible by the advisor, you’ll (hopefully!) have a document to judge that is more representative of the students’ own understanding.

  • Meredith Rawls Jan 14, 2013 @ 14:44

    First, I had a great time!

    I tried “hack day” for the first time, despite not being a huge programmer, and had fun working with Kelle to revise the mac setup guide and being a backup dancer for a certain video. The idea of getting a bunch of really smart people in a room with their computers for a day of working on fun, useful projects is genius (since we’re there already and like doing that anyway!). Formally providing lunch would attract more folks upfront, and perhaps emphasizing that the projects don’t have to be coding-intensive “hacks” would help too. I know two of my friends didn’t bring serious laptops with them and didn’t find much they could contribute to, so they left. If the plenary talks on Thursday had been about topics I found particularly interesting, I would have been less likely to attend, as well.

    The plethora of free snacks and drinks scattered throughout the various town halls and evening sessions made for a happy grad student on a budget. The opening and closing receptions were particularly remarkable in the “free food” category – thanks, sponsors!

    The overlaps between E/PO and “regular” science oral sessions was frustrating. I feel like I need to spend more time on my science and less on E/PO to complete my PhD, but I am so darn interested in E/PO that I chose to attend many of those sessions early on and then felt guilty.

    I signed up to judge undergrad posters, as I also did last year, and my reward was unwieldy PDF and Excel documents listing hundreds of abstracts, of which I was supposed to read 1/3 and rank them by Dec 24. I admit that I failed to do this, as there was a lot of semester-end and pre-holiday stuff going on. This was a daunting and much less friendly task than meeting a few poster presenters in person during the meeting, and I echo some of the other comments when I say “weeding out” by reading an abstract is little better than “weeding out” with any other method – GPA, GRE scores, etc. Not the message we want to send to future colleagues.

    Lack of free wifi in expensive hotel rooms should really be a thing of the past, already.
    As should not having a proper AAS app on which to view schedule and abstract information.

    I don’t drink coffee, but I do drink chai tea lattes (caffeine is required during AAS). At least you coffee people had convenient options for purchasing coffee… I tried to make myself a chai latte with hot water, a chai teabag, and some sugar and creamer. It was disappointing, and I resigned myself to walking over to Starbucks each day and standing in an astronomically long line. Next year I will get a room with a fridge and bring my own chai tea latte ingredients with a thermos if there isn’t a for-reals Starbucks in my hotel.

    Now that I am whining about beverages, I think I am done! 🙂

  • Kevin Marvel Jan 14, 2013 @ 18:41

    Just a word on scheduling of sessions….the VPs have struggled with this for years. Our basic problem is that membership provides that each member can make a presentation at the meeting. So far, we have managed to allow those who want to speak to give an oral talk, while those who submit for posters can present posters. The distribution of topics is dictated by the submissions we receive. The two areas of extrasolar planets and galaxies came in large numbers for this meeting. After the volunteer sorters (thank you all!) compiled 90 minute sessions, we had so many sessions of similar theme, there was nothing to do but schedule them against each other. For the week, we only have 8 parallel timeslots (2 per day) and we’re limited by the number of rooms we rent. In a big location, we can always scale up the number of rooms, but we can’t create more time (unless we follow Jonathan’s idea of making the meeting a month or 10 days long…whew!).

    The only ways I see to prevent the overlapping subjects is to either limit the total number of talks or expand the length of the meeting or restructure the meeting day to allow for more parallel sessions (early evening session anyone?). The first one requires some selection process to limit the number, which is hard as we do not have formal session chairs for contributed sessions, they are merely volunteer fellow members who have agreed to moderate a session. Our volunteer sorters would have a much harder job to do selecting what submitted abstracts merited talks and what ones merited posters. Should only students give talks? Only early-career people? Making the decision is a challenge.

    Expanding the length of the meeting or eating into the dinner hour seem like bad ideas to me as well, the social aspects of the meeting are important to and people need to sleep.

    In any case, keep the good ideas coming. Also, thanks for the generous compliments on our speaker-ready/presentation system. Our contractor, Warp Speed, has worked with us in one form or another since 2006 to develop this service and we are working with them to expand provision to other science and engineering meetings for mutual benefit.

    • Angie Wolfgang Jan 17, 2013 @ 0:03

      I can understand the difficulty with this issue. I personally think that making the conference 5 days rather than 4 would be the best solution to alleviate overlapping sessions – from my perspective, when you’ve already been conference-ing for 4 days, one more day to finish out the week doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially since the standard work week is 5 days anyways.

      Other less drastic suggestions:
      – If you have to offer overlapping sessions of similar theme, please please please make sure they’re in rooms right next to each other!!!!!
      – To facilitate session-hopping, write the time each talk is supposed to start underneath the talk number in the schedule booklet we get at registration, and really emphasize to the session chairs to stick to those times, especially if talks end early. I got a little frustrated this meeting with a) having to guess when talks were going to be in the different sessions, and b) finding that I’d missed half the talk I wanted to attend because its session was ahead of time. I realize the the online abstract booklet had the times listed, but I don’t have an iPhone/iPad and so couldn’t access that on the run. Besides, I actually prefer having a hard copy of the schedule so I can take notes on it.

      Also, a suggestion to address poor attendance on the last day: you could split up the pre-conference workshops/meetings so that some are the weekend beforehand *and* some are the Friday after. This would give some people an extra motivation to stay until the end . . . or at least to choose to forgo the first part of the meeting in favor of the last part, which currently seems to be an unpopular choice for those who can’t stay the entire week. And you wouldn’t have to pay for the entire convention center on that extra day, just some hotel meeting rooms. Otherwise, I think having the late posters on the last day is a good compromise – it’s definitely motivation to submit an abstract on time! Although, if there’s a way to take care of the logistical issues preventing the Thursday poster session from going the entire day, please pursue it. I tend to check out the posters primarily in the afternoon.

      I feel compelled to comment that I, too, was *really* impressed with the speaker ready room, in particular how easy it was to get everything set up and make changes if needed. I especially appreciated having the exact same system set up there for practice as what was in the actual session rooms. Nice job!!

      Also, thank you, thank you, thank you for offering so many career/professional development sessions and events at this AAS! The conversation at the “careers in aerospace and industry” session about encouraging academics to expand their views of acceptable “Plan A” career paths (i.e. so that “Plan A” =/= academia and “Plan B” =/= everything outside academia) was especially welcome and needed. Please continue to offer these career-centered opportunities – you’re offering a valuable service to graduate students!! Keep up the good work!

    • Joey S. Jan 17, 2013 @ 15:09

      I understand all that and I think the parallel sessions makes sense given time constraints. Something that can alleviate, although not fix, this is to put parallel related sessions next to each other. That way, I don’t have to spend the time of an entire talk walking from one session to the other; I can just hop over during questions.

  • Kevin Marvel Jan 14, 2013 @ 18:45

    We tried (abortively) to have a talent show in Anchorage, just for fun, but got no takers despite the amazing talent of our members….would people like (and attend and perform at) an open mic night? With free beer? Thoughts on scheduled extracurricular activities? Tours? 5 day meetings with a half-day off mid-week for personal or other activities?

    • D Jan 20, 2013 @ 5:23

      Offhand I would guess AAS meetings are just too large for scheduled extracurricular activities. Meetings with 50 participants, could be fun, but with 2000-3000? No. Also no to the 5-day meeting, because this forces everyone to stay longer. People who want to stay longer for sightseeing already can. But not everyone wants to stay longer, or has grant money to do so (at hotel rooms that can be $200/night).

      Thursday should be a real day, though. I gave my dissertation talk on a Thursday a few years ago, and attendance was quite sad, as many people had already left the meeting. It would make some sort of sense if Thursday presenters were being punished for late submissions or something, but they’re not (or it’s not only late submissions, anyway).

  • George Jan 14, 2013 @ 18:52

    One solution for the Thursday poster problem, and Thursday attendance in general, is to eliminate Thursday. AAS attendees have been voting with their feet for years, by leaving the meeting on Wednesday night or Thursday morning. It isn’t fair to those folks having presentations scheduled on Thursday. Maybe 3 days (4 if you attend a Sunday event) is enough.

    As for the 5-minute talks, presenters have gotten much better over the years. Most talks I attended were quite good. And, with Eilat’s time breakdown, these can be even better.

    Does anyone find the registration fee an obstacle? Or, is it just part of the conference cost that gets funded somehow? Personally, I would prefer to see a more limited opening reception dinner and a reduced reg fee, or re-allocate the funds to better coffee breaks. The aquarium was great, but there was too much food.

    Overall, this was one of the best AAS meetings I’ve been to – the scientific content was high, the venue was excellent, and the organization was very good.

  • Roy Kilgard Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:05

    A little late to the party, but I thought I’d chime in with my thoughts.

    1. Scientific content: The meeting was very lacking in high-energy science. I know this is not the fault of the AAS, just sort of strange. There weren’t even enough XRB talks to form a single session–they got lumped into “High Energy Binaries” on Thursday afternoon, which was a real grab-bag session. I had to put on my AGN hat to find interesting non-exoplanet science at this meeting.

    2. Thursdays: We need to decide what we want this meeting to be. My preference would be for a full scientific program on the 4th day, with a full-day poster/vendor session and a full scientific program in the afternoon. Presumably the closing reception is a signal that the AAS would like people to stay for the full day, but the abbreviated poster session and limited oral sessions (10 instead of 16) send a different message. We could reduce the problem of simultaneous parallel sessions earlier in the week by moving some of them to Thursday.

    3. Chambliss judging: I judged abstracts this year and found it to be incredibly difficult compared with past experience judging posters. This process clearly does not work. If we’ll never get enough judges, limiting participants is the only answer. Building on Steph’s comment: perhaps graduate students could be limited to submitting 1 poster sometime in their first 2-3 years. Then we could strongly encourage 4th+ year grad students to be Chambliss judges on undergrad posters.

    4. Location/logistics: a) I actually like Long Beach better than I expected or remembered, and it’s definitely preferable to a huge resort complex that’s not actually in a real city. I love the other cities in the last rotation and will be VERY sad to see them go. Also, the likelihood that I can convince my family to come with me to a future meeting at a large resort complex that’s not actually in a real city is basically zero. b) As an extreme coffee addict, I hate the coffee coupons. I’ve actually never used one because I’ve always had to pursue other coffee before I could use them in the morning. When there were organized, ticketless coffee breaks, more people attended the morning poster sessions. c) I loved the opening reception at the aquarium–it was the best opening reception I’ve been to at a AAS in my > 15 years attending AAS winter meetings. d) I appreciate the meeting cost breakdowns that the AAS has provided, but I would like to know to what extent food & beverage service is required by the venues.

    5. Hack Day: Like others, I would have loved to participate but didn’t bring my laptop to the meeting. Can someone post a Hack Day post-mortem?

  • Reed Riddle Jan 17, 2013 @ 13:41

    On Chambliss judging…giving judges a bonus, like free coffee for the meeting, would probably bring more people out to judge.

    Limiting participation among early grad students sounds like a good idea, except that some students don’t get to an AAS meeting until their last year or two; it doesn’t really seem fair to penalize them just because their advisor didn’t (or couldn’t afford to) send them to a meeting. Maybe it would be better to divide students up into early and late grad students. I do think that allowing people to decide of they want to participate at all is a good idea, odds are enough students will opt out to lessen the burden on the judging a bit.

    • Steph Jan 17, 2013 @ 13:59

      free beer?

      Students aren’t automatically entered into poster judging, so those who enter the competition have chosen to do so. (At least that’s the way it was when I was a grad student. I presented posters but never entered the competition. I don’t know if this has changed in the last couple of years)

  • Rick Fienberg Jan 17, 2013 @ 14:09

    The problem is that when you multiply any significant compensation by 100+ judges, you’re talking thousands of dollars (even a single drink ticket costs nearly $10 at most convention venues!), and that potentially impacts the meeting budget, which is always delicately balanced.

    I’m not sure most AAS members realize that we already have 100+ judges at every meeting (that’s been a pretty consistent number for many years). The problem is that we also have 300+ student posters, so each judge has to review at least 3 posters in order for every poster to be judged 1 time. But judging each poster *only* 1 time isn’t fair — as I wrote in my earlier post, there are “easy” judges and “hard” judges, so you need to have multiple reviews of each poster to have any hope of getting fair scores. To get each poster judged twice, though, each judge has to review 6+ posters, which begins to be oppressive in terms of the time commitment. Also, you can imagine the nightmare of scheduling the judging — there are so many posters and judges to match up! It literally takes 2 to 3 full workdays for me to match judges to posters. Having more judges and/or more posters would only make the challenge more daunting.

    Now you see why we tried to cut the number of posters to be judged on site. I checked with several other scientific societies that run student-poster contests and got the idea from them of using abstracts to winnow the entries. Nobody had complained about our using dissertation abstracts *alone* (nobody looks at the dissertations) to judge who wins the Doxsey travel prizes for new PhD’s at our winter meetings, so I figured we could try a similar approach to the Chambliss awards. The difference is that the Doxsey prizes have always been judged that way, and new PhD’s are (mostly) well trained in writing good abstracts, whereas the Chambliss awards had never been judged that way before, and many undergrads and early-stage grad students don’t yet know how to write good abstracts (though we do provide a link to an article with tips for doing so in our abstract instructions).

    One thing you can be sure of is that we will *not* do the Chambliss judging again the way we did it in Long Beach. That was an experiment, and the results didn’t give us confidence that it’s worth repeating. (That said, I feel confident that the on-site winners genuinely deserved to win, based on the high scores and positive comments from the on-site judges.) We are actively discussing ways to go in the future, and we’re noting all comments on AstroBetter and elsewhere.

    Thanks for your input — keep it coming!

  • Brooke Jan 21, 2013 @ 23:07

    I’m a little late to this, but here goes anyway.

    First, I think this meeting was very successful overall. The tech behind the presentations was as close to flawless as it realistically gets, and that is no mean feat. The Long Beach venue worked really well and I also agree with others who said the logistics were generally good.

    Second, frankly, I don’t want a longer meeting if all that means is room for more talks. By the time Thursday afternoon rolls around, I’m pretty much scienced out for a little while. So unless we’re all going to get an entire afternoon off mid-week (EWASS seemed to do that and it worked), let’s *not* add another day, not without calling it Zombie Day. I’m already trying to figure out how to build up stamina so I can also go to the NSF symposium for the 2 days before AAS gets going, now that I know how good that is and that it’s open to all.

    Third, I know how hard it is to give a good 5-minute talk, and I know how unlikely it is that all the people I want to see my talk will be able to fit it into their schedule (should they all want to), *and* I’m not even on the job market this year, but I still gave a talk instead of a poster, so that’s my own stupid fault. It did get me to thinking, though. For an incremental improvement in the format I agree that 5+3+2 should be more like 6.5+3+0.5, but if we want all presentations to be potentially accessible by all as well as more fruitful, things need to change more radically. I have a suggestion, or rather more like an initial thought.

    What if, aside from dissertation and plenary talks, every other presentation was a poster plus a one-slide, one-minute talk? Uploading your slide to the ready room would include a one-take recording of you spending 60-seconds using that slide to explain why people should find your poster and talk to you about it. (And, as now, you could upload that in advance too.) Instead of scurrying between talks given at one pre-arranged time, people could view the short videos on demand, perhaps in morning sessions, and then afternoons could be spent in the poster hall(s). Fewer parallel sessions would mean the people who should see a presentation could all actually do so, and that presentation would be more tailored and interactive, and still allow those on the job market to showcase their skills and research.

    I’m not saying the above is the answer — mainly I’m trying to say that the current model is getting less and less tenable as the AAS membership grows each year. Adding a couple of minutes to each talk (or changing the timing to 5+3+0 and adding a couple of talks to each session) is just a band-aid. I think a better solution may very well involve less (or less obvious) structure, not more.

    Lastly, I had no idea the AAS only pays for those coffee tickets that get used. I don’t drink much caffeine and I tried to give my tickets away for most of Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday – without success. On Thursday morning, thinking AAS had already paid for 2 drinks I was about to waste, I had a tea and a juice just to use up the tickets. Sorry. Next time perhaps there should be a better way to connect people like me with people who want more coffee?

  • joequant Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:12

    One thing that would be useful is to start thinking about how to integrate AAS conferences with massive online courses. Scientific conferences would be a great place for people that are taking online courses to meet each other. It would also be useful to try to pull people from the amateur community. Also, it would be good to encourage high school science fair people to come, and that would involve outreach with Science Service and the international science fair.

    If you want me to describe what I think AAS conferences might be like in 20 years, think Burning Man or the Superbowl.

  • Harold Jan 29, 2013 @ 15:07

    Re Chambliss judging: why not have the undergrads submit complete, short papers (like contributed papers a small meetings) of length around 5 pages (max) BEFORE the meeting? Then pre-judging, winnowing on that basis seems much more fair. Many of the undergrad posters are already part of an undergrad thesis…..
    And why not REQUIRE everyone submitting a poster paper upload a copy of their poster to the aas meeting site before their assigned date and time. Most (or at least many) of us have been doing 81/2×11 versions of our posters to hand out for years now anyway.

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