The AAS Meeting at the Cutting Edge of Astrophysics
by Colby Haggerty, SPS Reporter, University of Scranton
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Astronaut John Grunsfeld and the author in front of a picture of the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo courtesy of Colby Haggerty Astronaut John Grunsfeld and the author in front of a picture of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Photo courtesy of Colby Haggerty

In January, I had the privilege of attending the 217th American Astronomical Society Meeting held in downtown Seattle, Washington.  This was my first national physics conference and my first time traveling by airplane. I am a senior physics major at The University of Scranton in Scranton, PA. Even though the University is the only undergraduate institution in northeastern Pennsylvania that offers a degree in physics, it has a small physics program (there are four majors in my class, including myself) and struggles to support student attendance at conferences like the AAS meeting. I was able to attend the meeting and present my research because of opportunities like the SPS reporter and travel awards. I am applying to physics and astrophysics graduate programs and attending the AAS meeting provided invaluable information about what physics is like outside of the department.

One interesting part of the conference was the overwhelming student presence. It seemed as if one in every five attendees was an undergraduate student presenting research. The student body at the meeting offered a welcome relief to undergraduates that might be intimidated by the career researchers in attendance.  Even more impressive than the quantity of the students was how accepting the event and the greater astronomical community acted towards them.

  The Seattle Space Needle.  Photo courtesy of Colby Haggert The Seattle Space Needle.
Photo courtesy of Colby Haggert


The AAS and the SPS offered two major events specificity for students, an undergraduate orientation and the Evening of Undergraduate Science; I attended both. The first event was a well-attended meet-and-greet on Sunday night. The occasion gave students a chance to talks with professors and professionals from graduate institutions and major research groups. Debra Elmegreen (AAS President) and Tim Slater (AAS Education Officer) both spoke about how undergraduates can get the most out of the meeting. The Evening of Undergraduate Science offered students a chance to present their posters to one another and hear a talk by astronaut John Grunsfeld. Dr. Grunsfeld spoke on his work with the Hubble Space Telescope and reflected on his experience with the space program.  He concluded his talk by encouraging students to continue in astronomy and astrophysics and to generate and interpret data that will be produced by newer Hubble-like projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and LISA (The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna).

Beyond undergraduate opportunities, the AAS meeting offered a wealth of information about new research in astronomy and astrophysics. Contributed talks ranging from theoretical mass transferring binaries to observational exoplanets were given each day, along with select key note addresses. The first talk, and perhaps my favorite, was the Kavli Lecture on the Cassini mission findings and the study of Saturn's rings. Dr. Carolyn Porco spoke about observed standing waves throughout the rings, and presented outstanding photographs of the Saturn system.

On Tuesday morning I attended a press conference on Early Astrophysics from Planck, where Charles Lawrence, Elena Pierpaoli, and George Helou spoke about the early release catalog of data produced by the space observatory Planck. Dr. Lawrence talked about Planck's goal to map the cosmic microwave background radiation and Drs. Pierpaoli and Helou focused on detecting galactic clusters and cold cores respectively. Dr. Lawrence also gave an invited talk later that same day and discussed the project as a whole.

An illustration of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Photo courtesy of Colby Haggerty An illustration of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.
Photo courtesy of Colby Haggerty

I had the chance to sit down and interview Dr. Lawrence about his greater career as an astronomer.  Dr. Lawrence is one of the leading scientists on Planck. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and his doctorate from MIT. Dr. Lawrence expects a lot of new findings to come from the early release of Planck’s data, as well as numerous follow up observations. When I asked about the most rewarding part of the Planck project, Dr. Lawrence talked about his role in delegating project and group responsibilities, and how seeing the project come together was the most rewarding part.

The AAS meeting was nothing like I had ever experienced. From presenting my research at a national conference to the countless interesting talks and poster to the unexpected 800-astronomer dance party at the end, the AAS meeting was a powerful, fun, and instructional tool for undergraduates.

Free 1-Year Membership in AAS

When you join SPS national as an undergraduate, you get free one-year membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

SPS Reporter Program

SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

SPS Travel Awards

A limited number of Travel Grants, on the order of $200 each, are offered to help fund SPS members' travel to national meetings of AIP Member Societies holding a "SPS Session" co-organized by SPS and the Member Society.

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