Plenaries, Posters, Paintings and Some Gossips…

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American Astronomical Society Meeting

January 8, 2018

Meeting host:

American Astronomical Society


Talha Rehman

SPS Chapter:

I am an international student from Pakistan, who is currently a junior at Berea College. Berea College is a work-study, liberal arts college where every enrolled student pays no-tuition to receive an education. The SPS chapter here has been actively involved in the outreach activities for high school students.

I had a blast during the 231st Meeting of American Astronomical Society, which was the best conference I have attended to date. In case you have missed this conference, I would try my best to re-live my experience to provide you with some of the highlights. 231st AAS Meeting was my second winter AAS meeting, as I had previously attended the 229th AAS meeting in Dallas, a year earlier. This meeting took place in Washington, DC at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center from 8th – 12th January, 2018. It is worth noting that there were professional workshops going on during this conference, and many of these workshops took place on the 7th of January as well. During this conference, I also served as a volunteer to assist the organizers of the meeting. Most of my volunteer duties were to provide assistance in coordination of the question and answer sessions following the plenary talks. I considered it to be an honor for myself to perform these chores. As a volunteer, during the first day of the conference which was the 8th of January, I also helped out the registrants in picking up their badges. As a result, I exchanged pleasantries with people who had traveled from all around the world to attend this meeting.

There were many aspects of this conference which differentiated it from the other conferences I have attended in the past. During the other physics conferences, I have attended, I have mostly seen the attendees dressed in suits. However, this conference experience was different as I saw participants dressed in beautiful clothing depicting astronomy inspired artwork. The clothing of these participants was also appreciated by their peers. In the exhibition section of the conference there was a private merchant stall selling astronomy-inspired clothing and jewelry. Believe me, it was very hard to resist those beautiful merchandise!

Moreover, I found this conference as a morale boosting experience for the students. Most of the participants, I met during this conference were passionate about addressing the issues of diversity and low participation of women in astrophysics. Special meet and greet sessions were organized by the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, on 9th January, and by the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy on 11th January. This provided the opportunity for the participants to discuss issues faced by minorities and women in physics. Another significant activity during this conference included participation of local high school students in an education and outreach event. The children met with the exhibitors attending the conference and learnt from the scientists the basic principles of physics involved in their work. It was very inspiring for me to see these children showing immense interest in science.


Now I would like to highlight some other events which I found particularly interesting as an undergraduate. On the evening of 8th January, I attended the Student Reception – which included the Grad School Fair – since I am applying to college this year, I was excited to see all notable institutes represented by both professors, and graduate students. I visited most of the booths and learnt about ongoing research work at the different institutes. After this, I headed to the AAS Opening Reception where I found delicious food, and a great networking opportunity to meet some of the most notable names in the field of astrophysics. Later during this week, I attended the SPS Evening of Undergraduate Science where Kerry Kidwell-Slak of Society of Physics Students(SPS) shared information regarding some of the exciting resources available to students through SPS. Followed by Kerry’s presentation we had a trivia, and my team was the runners-up. We got to choose our prizes. I had just taken a Classical Mechanics course in Fall 2017 at my college, and rotational energy was still on my mind. And guess what I chose as my prize? A YO-YO! I could not resist it, and I have no regrets.

 Another aspect of this conference, were the detailed and easy-to-understand plenary sessions which I highly appreciated. Some of the plenary sessions of this conference which I found very exciting were: “Unveiling the Low Surface Brightness Stellar Peripheries of Galaxies,” by Annette Ferguson of University of Edinburgh; “Astro Data Science: The Next Generation,” by Chris Mentzel of Moore Foundation; “Illuminating Gravitational Waves,” by Mansi Kasliwal of Caltech; “HEAD Bruno Rossi Prize: Gravitational Waves Astrophysics,” by Gabriela Gonzalez of Louisiana State University; and “Lancelot M. Berkeley Prize: The Instruments That Launched Gravitational-Wave Astronomy,” by Peter Fritschel of MIT Kavli Institute. Since the plenary sessions covered a range of topics, by attending these sessions I was able to learn a great deal about various research areas. I would highly encourage any undergraduate attending professional conferences to try, and if possible, attend all plenary sessions.

Poster sessions were also well attended during the conference, and every participant was eager to share their research. Many of the participants had i-posters which I personally found very interactive. Other highlights of this conference included multiple receptions which provided great networking opportunity for the attendees. On the other hand, there was a painting session as well as an open mic night held during this conference. No doubt, the astrophysics community proved its talent and creativity during these sessions.

On a light-hearted note, I would like to share some gossips from this conference as well, to help my report get more coverage. Gossip # 1: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). During this conference, I discovered that if you are ever asked when JWST would be launched, the answer is always: Next year. Gossip # 2: Your physics professor’s cat. Before the start of a plenary session, I overheard a physics professor telling another physics professor, that his class is too bad at answering multiple choice questions that even his cat would be able to correctly answer more question than any student in his class. Well I don’t know what Schrödinger would think about it. Please decide for yourself!

Overall, my experience was very positive, and I am thankful to the Society of Physics Students (SPS), the internship and the President’s office at Berea College for making it possible for me to become part of this wonderful experience.