Reflections on the AIP 2017 Summer Meeting

Every two years, the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) holds their congress: a conference to share current research by national and international groups (the next congress in in Perth in 2018). But the congress is a big event with big names in attendance, and so it can be too pricey and too competitive for a lot of early-career researchers. To get around this issue the AIP have introduced the Summer Meeting: a smaller and more affordable conference. This year, I had the honour of attending the inaugural 2017 Summer Meeting in Sydney with a travel scholarship provided by the AIP. I got to present my poster for the RGZ work again, but unlike the Canberra conference, I also got to network with plenty of undergrads this time. As these are the peers who I'll be seeing for hopefully many years to come, they're also the most important people for me to meet and network with. 

 The Sydney Harbour Bridge: a fantastically large bridge

The Sydney Harbour Bridge: a fantastically large bridge

The event kicked off with the Undergraduate Symposium on Sunday, packed full of introductory talks on a lot of areas in physics, plus panels with graduate students and members in industry. These discussion panels were really the highlight of my week, and all of the students got to ask questions that will better prepare us for what's ahead. Physics can be quite a general subject to study, and those who don't end up working in academia can find themselves in a wide range of fields that seem completely unrelated to physics. Knowing how to advertise our skills to various industries is a very important thing, but is not often taught. 

There was a poster session on the Wednesday, and I got a few interested people asking questions and joining discussions. The great thing about the RGZ work is that it has two streams for people to chose between: the astrophysical jet research and the citizen science. Depending on their interest people can ask about either, and I had a lot of great discussions on both sides. I also got quite a lot of good feedback for the poster design used in the astrophysics group at UTAS, but I'm feeling more confident in what makes an engaging poster design and might change things up a bit in the future. In any case, this poster has done the rounds at both a National and International conference now, so it's probably time to retire it and begin presenting other work. 

Throughout the rest of the week we were treated to talks by academics in a host of fields, although I spent my time shuttling between those in Astronomy and Education. This is one of the hardest parts of multi-disciplinary conferences: should I go to the talks for my field, or those outside of it? We can understand more of the talks within our own field, but by going to those for other fields we may end up learning something completely new. Whilst not in the field of AGN, all of the talks I saw taught me something new and something useful. We were instructed during the Symposium to take note of which talks we liked, which we didn't like, and the reasons why for both. And so:

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The best:

Both of these talks were incredibly engaging, and they both started with a brief background to the topic. Everyone in the room had at least an undergraduate understanding in physics and many may have had PhDs in the topic, but a solid grounding is still always appreciated. We need context for the research we're being presented, and it's always important to make sure that when we present we answer the question "why?". Why is this topic interesting/important? Why are the results of this work worth talking about? Why should we care? These talks also had quite a clear direction or "story" to them, and didn't get bogged down in unnecessary detail. We got a snapshot of the field as it stands and a snapshot of the work being done. Talks at conferences seem to be less about presenting results of research and more about advertising the work being done. If you want a thorough explanation of all of the methodologies, you can simply read the academic paper, but conferences allow you to get a synopsis. Almost like an ELI5 (explain like I'm 5), but not quite. 

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The worst:

Of course I won't actually list the talks I didn't enjoy, mostly because they simply weren't memorable. The worst talks delved far too far into specific details and results, most of which would be inaccessible to the majority of the audience. Whilst our research might seem so natural and easy-to-digest to us, we've also had far longer to consider it and build up a picture, but the audience may only get a few seconds to digest everything on a slide and everything you tell them, and so less really is more. It's better to pick one or two key results or themes rather than give information and data on every single avenue you explored. Having too much on slides was an issue, especially when 10 plots are shown side-by-side, with font far too small to read. It's content that isn't really content, and only tires you out by trying to keep up with it all.