How to Attend a Conference as an Outsider

Share This:

American Astronomical Society Meeting

January 6, 2013 to January 10, 2013

Long Beach, CA

Meeting host:

American Astronomical Society


Jill Pestana

SPS Chapter:

Astronomers, astrophysicists, educators, and students gather in the Long Beach Aquarium for the opening reception. Photo by Jill Pestana

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) 221st Annual Meeting at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California had a record attendance, with presenters and exhibitors from around the world. It was impressive.

I came into this meeting as the ultimate outsider. First, I had not traveled from afar to attend the meeting like most attendees; I went to California State University, Long Beach for my undergraduate degree in physics. Second, I was not a student or professional; I graduated with a bachelor’s degree the previous month, but had yet to be accepted to a graduate program. And finally, I am not an astronomer; I am applying to PhD programs in materials science and chemical engineering. So why was I at a AAS meeting?

I came as an exhibitor for the NASA Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Program. In summer of 2010, I interned with this NASA program—the SOFIA Education and Public Outreach Department hired me to create educational videos for their website. Since I was local to Long Beach, I attended the meeting to film a video tour of the SOFIA Boeing 747 aircraft, as well as present information to people who stopped by the SOFIA booth in the exhibit hall.

On the first day of the meeting my coworker Stephanie Sodergren and I had the job of filming a tour of the SOFIA aircraft and facilities led by the program’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Eric Becklin. As the buses unloaded astronomers and educators at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operation Facility (DAOF), Stephanie and I prepared the video camera and tripod. We followed Dr. Becklin and his group to the hangar, where he discussed the Boeing 747SP’s christening, and continued up the stairs and into aircraft. The tour group of about 15 fit comfortably in the main cavity of the aircraft, facing towards the bulkhead, which connects a science instrument to the 2.5-meter diameter telescope. Dr. Becklin and Dr. Ted Dunham, the PI of the science instrument HIPO, discussed the telescope’s capability to observe in the visible or infrared spectrum, and the unique aspects of the flying observatory. This includes its ability to fly to a particular location to watch a specific event, as demonstrated in the Pluto occultation mission. We continued to walk through the science instrument testing room, learn about the German science instrument, GREAT, and go into the mirror coating facility.

The tour group seemed amazed at the capabilities of this flying observatory and the work that has gone into establishing the SOFIA Program. Dr. Becklin spoke with passion for this program and astronomy in general, which reminded me of the rewards that hard work brings. The duration of his investment in the SOFIA Program and Kuiper, its predecessor, has lasted for almost 20 years. In that time he has contributed significantly to the investigation of the center of our galaxy.

The rest of the AAS meeting was a time to greet old friends and make new acquaintances. My boss, the head of the SOFIA Education and Public Outreach Department, Dr. Dana Backman, pointed out his colleagues and roommates at the meeting, and I saw many other wizened astronomers greeting each other with strong hugs. I, the outsider, even ran into a physics friend from Fresno and coworkers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I recognized others from various conferences. As you begin attending conferences and building a network, you cannot help but make acquaintances that you will see again at similar events. I am amazed how two days of conference interactions, combined with communication through Facebook, can yield long-time collaborators and friends. The first time I attended a conference, I set up a “Physics Network” category on Facebook, and if you are reading this and know me personally, you are probably in it!

The meeting’s social events were fun and full of opportunities to network. For the opening reception we filed through the back entrance of the Long Beach Aquarium, past the sharks and stingrays to tables of food and drinks. I talked to several students and professionals, who remarked on the large attendance. Drinking beer, talking physics, and looking at sea life simultaneously was a very unique and enjoyable experience. The undergraduate reception had many informational booths from astronomy graduate programs across the country, while the graduate reception had good food, friendly students, and wise mentors offering practical advice. After I mentioned that I was not yet a graduate student at the graduate reception, a mentor put me on the spot by inquiring why I attended this reception. I couldn’t think of an answer other than curiosity. On another night I had dinner with my SOFIA coworkers, the SOFIA Program Manager, educators that flew or will fly on SOFIA missions, and the CEO of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Program. It was an interesting night, talking and laughing about SOFIA, science, education, and other miscellaneous topics. At the infamous AAS party, hundreds of astronomers crashed “salsa night” at a Long Beach nightclub and the dancers had to move to the stage and dance around the DJ. My friends and I decided to ditch the loud, chaotic venue, and went to my house for a night of card games, discussions about our university’s physics departments, and laughs over silly jokes that only physicists would find humorous.

Attending only the conference sessions results in limited time to meet people and establish connections. The nightlife of the conference brings you closer to people in a more personal environment that can also lead to great collaborations. For example, while we played cards, students from Fullerton, Pomona, and I discussed plans to share an astronomy research program between the universities, as well as coordinate Society of Physics Students events.

While the research presentations and the exhibitions were interesting, to me the most beneficial aspects of the meeting were the career center, workshops, and receptions. Throughout my undergraduate education I have attended many resume workshops and consultations, but a presentation about resume design at this conference stood out because the career consultant offered straightforward instructions and tips. I also attended a one-on-one career consultation where the career advisor looked at my resume and offered advice about my journey toward becoming a materials science researcher. One piece of wisdom she shared with me was to seek out and talk to people who passionately do something I find interesting, and ask them about their experience, skills, and who they are. This can help me discover their passion while also building a network.

The AAS 221st meeting helped me to network, motivated me academically and professionally to keep my goals high, and opened my eyes to the many opportunities and programs available to students and professionals in astronomy and astrophysics. My experience demonstrates that “outsiders” can have valuable experiences at a professional event as long as they actively seek opportunities and make an effort to network. Regardless of your area of expertise, if you ever have the chance to attend an AAS meeting, go and listen, converse, and learn with an open mind. Just remember to prepare an alibi explaining your attendance if necessary, such as, “for the free food”. 

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

SPS Reporter Jill Pestana discusses the SOFIA Program with an astronomy student at the SOFIA display.