2018 Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop: An Out-of-This-World Conference

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences

2018 Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop: An Out-of-This-World Conference


Mark Giovinazzi, SPS Member, Drexel University and PhD Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Within minutes of accepting an offer to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I was told, “You need to go to this conference. And by the way, it’s across the country, you’ve got to find your own funding, it’s three months away, and you’ll want to present some research you’ve done.” A grad student’s gotta do what a grad student’s gotta do. So I made it work.

The Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop provides opportunities for students, postdocs, and researchers to learn about the exoplanet- related techniques used in NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program. Held at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), the 2018 Sagan Workshop hosted more than 150 exoplanet scientists from 18 countries.

The first four days focused on a different exoplanet detection method: transits (Monday), radial velocities (Tuesday), direct imaging (Wednesday), … microlensing (Thursday). The final day was dedicated to the future of the field. The days included POP talks (brief, two- minute talks given mostly by students to highlight research results), poster sessions, lunches with the speakers, and group projects.

I have been to numerous physics conferences, but I have never seen anything quite like the POP talks—they were great. People who did not yet have concrete results could quickly highlight the direction of their research, and people who were not enthusiastic about public speaking could give a more relaxed talk. In addition, most of the POP talks occurred before the poster sessions, so those who were also presenting posters could encourage interested listeners to stop by for a more in-depth discussion.

As always, I enjoyed the poster sessions and the chance to hear about interesting research. These poster sessions were held outside— evidently in Southern California you don’t have to worry about rain. Also held outside were lunches with the day’s speakers. I met with an array of exoplaneteers over lunch, from those who do what I hope to do in graduate school (detect and characterize exoplanets using the radial velocity method) to those working on the opposite side of exoplanet research (by using the microlensing method, for example).

The final segment of the workshop was an ongoing group project. Attendees had split into teams of five to ten participants at the start of the workshop and worked on projects using one of two exoplanet data- fitting software programs. My group used the program EXOFASTv2 to sift through data and demonstrate that in order to properly constrain measurements of exoplanets, it is imperative to collect multiple observations from multiple techniques. We worked on our projects a little each day and then gave 10-minute presentations during the closing session. The best part of this, aside from collaborating with the authors of the programs we were using, was getting to work in CalTech’s beautiful new astronomy building.

When I attended the workshop, I had been working at the University of Pennsylvania (and in the field of exoplanets, for that matter) for only about a month. It was an incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the exoplanet community and learn what it takes to succeed in the ever-growing field of exoplanets. I cannot wait to apply my newfound knowledge, and I look forward to presenting new work at next year’s Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop!

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences