It is hard to imagine so many like-minded environmental and earth scientists all in one space together. When I first started in UBRP right out of freshman year it had been a goal of mine to have such an experience, but it wasn’t until about a month ago (and I am a senior) that I finally got the opportunity to present my work at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual fall conference, this year hosted in San Francisco. I did not expect to learn as much as I did from the experience, but I would even go so far as to say that this was an even bigger step for me than the time I flew across the world. To begin with, finding the funding was difficult and I found that the grants AGU itself offers are highly competitive and difficult to receive as such a young undergraduate. I finally found my funding source from our very own Honor’s College- and a HUGE shout-out to their honor’s legacy grant, for which I am extremely grateful and could not have gone without their help. Then on top of all the stress associated with grant applications, of course I had to make the poster itself, which is no easy feat given that the restrictions on size and formatting are far stricter than our annual conference. I remember sitting at the end of the semester with dean’s excuses and extremely apologetic emails to my professors begging for my finals crammed in early (for which I of course had hardly studied because my time was sapped by making the poster) wondering if this was all worth it. Then I had to fly out entirely on my own, navigate the rather scary San Francisco train system and yes, plop down in a hostel that was on a street right across from an ‘adult’s boutique.’ Yeah, I took Uber to get around at night.
Spoiler alert: it was absolutely all worth it. I walked into day one with my heart jamming out in my throat and my jaw dropped when I saw the thousands upon thousands of students and professors going to what were called ‘sessions.’ There were hundreds of these sessions each day for the whole five-day period, each of which were like mini lecture series or seminars centered around a specific topic of interest. Seminars were broken into sections: everything from ocean to planetary science. I found myself mostly drawn to the biogeosciences and cryosphere sections, and received much insight into my own climate change driven project. You could say I geeked out… a bit. As if that wasn’t enough, hundreds of colleges and companies also set up booths. Google and NASA were there presenting on Google Earth and the Mars explorations respectively, but more importantly provided me with free swag. I found booths for the University of Alaska and Toolik Lake Research Station, which is where I would like to end up in graduate school. It was the perfect way to network; I found and met with my top choice for a possible future graduate professor there. AGU also had an app that I downloaded that told me about the larger events that I might want to see – I unfortunately had to miss the Governor of California’s speech, but could attend a session with the Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell. Many of the scientists in the room clearly had a mutual feeling of unease from the political climate in the room, but she made a fantastic case for how well the previous administration worked to protect science, such as the open data initiative. The hope is that these provisions will remain intact for at least some time, and the number of scientists in the room who showed deep concern for our future gave me hope in numbers. I finally got up the courage to ask a question about the DAPL pipeline near the end: I wanted to know if the administration was considering the view of environmental scientists and risk assessment analyzers like me when the pipeline is unfortunately inevitably built. Her response was what Carol has been preaching for years: the government wants our input but we have got to write letters and attend community meetings to get our voices heard! Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences also came to discuss the idea of convergent thinking- that people with seemingly opposite points of view such as historians and geophysicists can combine knowledge to create an even stronger case for a topic such as climate change. It’s easy to see who both could bring different perspectives to this circumstance, but essentially Ms. McNutt was calling for a general mutualism between fields of study.
And of course, finally, the presentation. I was surprised to see how well I handled myself under pressure. The judges were impressed by how young I was, and much to my relief, understanding of how terrified and new (and utterly alone for the most part) I was. I received some fantastic feedback from people who could ask in depth questions about my work because they specifically specialized in a similar area. There was a sweet man I met at one of the sessions that took the time to come by my poster because I told him how interested I was in his presentation. A graduate student who worked under one of my potential graduate advisors gave me her contact information for help on applications. Overall it was a fantastic networking opportunity.
If anyone ever gets lucky enough to go to a national conference and has the funding, I would not hesitate to tell them to go. The weeks leading up were a new type of stress that I have never experienced before, but I would absolutely go through it all again because I believe that my new network with professional level scientists, presentation experiences and targeted sessions I attended are irreplaceable. This is an experience I will not soon forget!