Reporting on AAS from the Front Lines
by Justin A. Vasel, SPS Reporter, University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
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Undergraduates Vivienne Baldassare, Naomi Alpert, Alexandra Greenbaum, and Daniel Feldman enjoy the images from Hubble on a 3-D HDTV set.  Photo courtesy of Danielle Dowling.
An undergraduate social provided great networking opportunities among fellow undergrads and graduate schools.

Photo courtesy of Justin Vasal.


In Wisconsin, where I live, physics and astronomy conferences are generally out of reach. Attending one usually involves a cross-country flight and expensive hotels. My wallet is no suitable opponent for either of those things, so it seemed as though I would have to wait until graduate school to be able to attend such an event. That was before I discovered that SPS had an award that helped undergraduates like me make it to conferences. There was no time to waste! I applied for the award and before I knew it, I was planning a trip to Seattle, Washington to attend the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

I had the pleasure of attending the conference as a reporter on behalf of SPS. Although I had no previous experience writing articles, I was thrilled to learn new skills and take on the challenge. I used the schedule of talks to build a day-by-day itinerary for myself, with each day packed full of press conferences and presentations. The only thing I had left to do was make it to the conference. Armed with a suitcase, laptop, camera and a cribbage board, I boarded a train, left the frigid Midwest, and began my two-day journey to Rain City.

I arrived in Seattle the night before the conference officially began. My only plan for the evening was to attend an undergraduate social; I wasn't sure what to expect. The room was crammed with physics and astronomy undergraduates. Lining the perimeter of the room were representatives from graduate programs around the country. What I expected to be small gathering of undergrads turned out to be one of the best networking opportunities of the conference. Between take photographs and mingling with other like-minded undergrads, I had the chance to discuss graduate schools with the friendly representatives. Several of them were programs that I had recently applied to.

The next morning was the first day of the conference. Walking into my first press conference was a little intimidating at first. The room was filled with professional journalists, astronomers, and then me: a physics undergrad with virtually no reporting experience. I took my seat and readied my laptop. The first topic was about a fascinating phenomenon known as Hanny's Voorwerp (Deutch for Hanny's Object). What I found particularly interesting about the Voorwerp was the means by which it was discovered. In 2007, a high school teacher stumbled on the object while he was classifying galaxies for the Galaxy Zoo project. It's a clear demonstration of how useful citizen-science initiatives can be.

The Seattle Space Needle.  Photo courtesy of Colby Haggert

Geoff Marcy's talk on the new rocky exoplanet, Kelper 10b drew a large crowd.

Photo courtesy of Justin Vasal.


If there was a theme for the meeting this year, it would be exoplanets. I passed by countless posters that discussed the discovery of new exoplanets using the Kepler Observatory. The big talk at the end of the first day was given by Geoff Marcy, an astronomer from UC-Berkeley. He helped discover 70 of the first 100 exoplanets ever found and he was describing his discovery of the first rocky exoplanet. The planet, named Kepler 10b, is similar in composition to Earth, but too close to its star to be habitable. Still, it's only a matter of time before Kepler finds rocky planets that are suitable for life. Exciting research indeed!

Something that is of great interest to me is how modern technology can be used to enhance communication, especially scientific communication. I was pleased to discover that I was not the only one at the conference with that interest. A large number of attendees were using Twitter to keep tabs on what was happening around the conference. While I was sitting in on one presentation, I could get updates about another presentation that was happening simultaneously. This allowed me to monitor everything at the conference in real-time so that I never missed a beat. Twitter even helped me score some sweet science swag. I was grabbing lunch at Subway when I received an important message from Twitter: "We just got some more astronomy tote bags at the ADS booth. Get one before they're gone!" Suddenly, sub sandwiches were not at the top of my to-do list. Thanks to Twitter, I got myself a tote bag before they were gone and now I can do my grocery shopping in style!

On Tuesday night, I attended the Evening of Undergraduate Science where astrophysicist and astronaut John Grunsfeld spoke about his experience repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. It was very interesting to hear about a mission like that from an insider's perspective. What I found particularly interesting was how quickly NASA could devise a solution to a problem that they weren't expecting. Supposedly, there was some sort of lever on the Hubble that had become jammed. Within an hour, ground control found a way around it: "We think you should be able to break that lever off with about 60lbs of force." But how did they know that? They certainly didn't just have that information lying around. Turns out a few engineers built a crude replica of the lever and figured out how much force was needed to break it. The astronaut gave it a shot and pulled on the lever as hard as he could. Sure enough, it broke and the repair mission was able to move forward. After Dr. Grunsfeld's talk, the undergraduates participated in a poster session. Their research covered a wide range of interesting topics, from gravitational lensing to interstellar medium.

Undergraduates Vivienne Baldassare, Naomi Alpert, Alexandra Greenbaum, and Daniel Feldman enjoy the images from Hubble on a 3-D HDTV set.  Photo courtesy of Danielle Dowling.

A view of downtown Seattle taken from the conference center.

Photo courtesy of Justin Vasal.


The conference overall was a great experience for me. I had the opportunity to meet other undergrads from all over the country, mingle with professionals in my future field, explore the beautiful city of Seattle, and learn about some seriously exciting astronomy. Upon returning to Wisconsin, I gave a talk at my university about my experience at AAS and the research that was presented there. I look forward to presenting my own research at future AAS meetings, and highly recommend attending the conference to anyone who has an interest in astronomy. 


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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