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December 8, 2016

Their days often start with breakfast meetings and end with working dinners. They give presentations to hundreds of their peers, debate fine points in crowded poster halls, and catch up with colleagues in long refreshment lines.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists also broaden their scientific horizons, get ideas for new projects, and plant the seeds for collaborations that might change the way we think about the Earth.

Image: AGU Fall Meeting Street Pedestrians
Pedestrians cross 4th Street outside the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco while traffic waits at a stoplight. In the foreground are street banners for the AGU Fall Meeting. In the background is the Moscone Convention Center - West building. (Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. Public domain.)

For the 2016 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, our scientists plan to give over 400 presentations to the largest gathering of Earth scientists in the world. The talks and posters span a wide range of topics, from reducing greenhouse gases by restoring wetlands, to extreme El Niño beach erosion in California, to earthquake early warning systems, including a late-breaking session on Oklahoma’s largest recorded earthquake.

USGS scientists have attended this conference for nearly 50 years, presenting keynote addresses, organizing sessions, and contributing scientific findings. New scientists gain valuable exposure and expand their professional networks. Side meetings with colleagues save travel time and money better spent on research. While our scientists are gearing up for this year’s meeting, we look back to the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting, attended by 24,000 scientists from around the world, including several hundred from USGS.

Image: AGU Fall Meeting Poster Crowd
Looking down on a large room crowded with people checking out AGU Fall Meeting posters on long rows of boards. (Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. Public domain.)

These USGS scientists choose to spend long days far from home because they want to share their science, and for many other reasons.

“The rest of the scientific community just really values our presence and our contributions at these conferences,” said USGS hydrologist Chris Magirl.

USGS scientists Halley Kimball (left) and Chris Magirl conduct a bathymetric survey of the Cedar River in western Washington.(Credit: Christiana Czuba, USGS. Public domain.)

Sharing science with 24,000 people

USGS scientists gave more than 500 formal presentations at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting. Conference topics ranged from atmospheric processes to volcanology; sessions started early Sunday morning and ran through Friday evening. Here are some perspectives from our scientists who participated in last year’s meeting.

How do you tell people what to expect from a creeping disaster? That was the subject of a poster by Christina Neal, a volcanologist and scientist-in-charge at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) on the island of Hawai’i. For nine months, lava flows threatened Pāhoa Village and the only road serving thousands of people.

“The USGS scientists were personally talking to emergency managers and talking to residents whose homes were threatened by this lava flow,” said Neal. “I've heard from so many people that the way HVO scientists were able to [communicate], both in writing and in front of large public community meetings, went a long way in helping people cope with this extended, slow motion disaster.”

Benjamin Jones is a USGS research geographer working in Anchorage, Alaska. A tundra fire had burned roughly 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers), including an area covered by detailed LIDAR elevation data gathered before and after the blaze. Jones and his colleagues discovered that one third of the permafrost in the burned area had melted and collapsed, because the fire incinerated vegetation and soil that insulated the permafrost.

Image: Ben Jones Drills a Core
USGS research geographer Ben Jones is dressed warmly as he stands next to portable core-drilling device in a snow-covered area. (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

“This was basically the first study that demonstrated the potential impact of tundra fires on cold permafrost terrain in the Arctic,” he said about his popular poster. “[I was] just constantly talking for five and a half, six hours,” said Jones.

Many presentations at the conference covered the powerful Nepal earthquake of April 25, 2015. Susan Hough, a USGS geophysicist and seismologist in Pasadena, California, helped arrange one session on short notice for the December conference.

Image: Susan Hough in Nepal
Susan Hough, a USGS geophysicist and seismologist, climbs a metal ladder going to the roof of a building. Below her and in the background are other people, forest, and fog. (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

“Everyone had been aware that Nepal was going to be hit by magnitude 8-ish earthquakes,” Hough said. “There was a lot of concern for the damage and the death toll that would be caused by an earthquake like that.”

“The question is ‘why wasn’t the damage even worse?’” said Hough. “It’s something that people are going to be working on for a long time.”

Conference organizers also invited Hough to give an “Ignite” talk one evening on the how the earthquake defied expectations.

“It’s kind of like a poor man’s TED talk,” Hough said. “And you’re supposed to give this bang-up, gee-whiz science talk in five minutes. Like speed dating.” Her presentation ended around 8:30 pm, capping another long day at the conference.

Long, full days

With thousands of presentations to choose from, and tens of thousands of potential collaborators to meet, everyone attending the AGU Fall Meeting has a unique schedule. For most scientists, the days are a non-stop blur of giving talks and attending talks, cruising the poster aisles, and talking shop over quickly eaten meals. USGS scientists pack as much as they can into each day and evening.

Image: AGU Fall Meeting Morning Refreshments
Attendees at the AGU Fall Meeting take a break for morning refreshments. A crowd of people in a large room with snacks and drinks on tables in the foreground. (Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. Public domain.)

Chris Magirl, a USGS hydrologist and research manager stationed in Tucson, Arizona, described one day at the conference.

“I woke up, went over to the diner, and got an omelet. I got to Moscone [Convention Center] about 8:30, and saw Jim O’Connor’s talk on sediment transport and sediment load. Many colleagues and friends were giving talks throughout that session. I gave a talk at 11:20. We went out and got some lunch, and then headed back to a poster session in the afternoon. It wrapped up at 5:00. Then a couple of colleagues and I got some dinner and talked science at a Thai place. I got back to the hotel room around 8:00 or 9:00 to get some rest before doing it all over again the next day.”

USGS geologist and Mendenhall post-doctoral fellow Jessica Ball commuted to the conference by train.

Image: Jessica Ball with Instruments
USGS geologist and Mendenhall post-doctoral fellow Jessica Ball wears a safety vest and gloves while sitting on the bumper of an SUV filled with scientific instruments. (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

“Got up very early. Worked on the notes for my presentation while I was on the train. Walked in here and immediately started going to hydrothermal sessions. Then I met up with a few colleagues for lunch and went to posters in the afternoon. Spent a lot of time talking about people’s research at their posters. Zipped by the Exhibit Hall when I needed a break from talking, and then went to the blogging and social media forums.” That evening, Ball attended three receptions, including one for early career female scientists, before catching a late train home.

New ideas and collaborations

Nearly every day, USGS scientists at the AGU Fall Meeting learned new things, generated fresh ideas, and planted seeds for future work.

Benjamin Jones talked with scientists planning an international project to study coastlines influenced by permafrost. He also learned about structure from motion, a technique for making detailed elevation maps from air photos. “That’s probably my one take-home,” said Jones. “I should look into that more.”

Susan Hough chatted with an oil industry scientist about induced earthquakes in Texas. “It’s got me thinking it might be worth stepping back from Oklahoma and looking at Texas and Arkansas,” she said.

One talk surprised Jessica Ball during a session she helped organize. “They figured out that a whole bunch of lava domes had formed on this undersea volcano in something like a matter of days or weeks,” she said. “I didn’t realize that you could have lava domes that are underwater, and that they can form that quickly.”

Despite being a well-known blogger and Twitter user, Ball doesn’t believe that apps are the only answer. “I don’t think you make good connections and really form collaborations unless it’s in person. Humans work better with other humans. They don’t work quite as well through technology.”

Why attend AGU?

Working long days away from home, after wading through a thicket of meeting and travel approvals, would not qualify as fun for most people. Yet USGS scientists return to the AGU Fall Meeting year after year.

Ball said the 2014 conference was the most exciting. She was part of a round table for early career scientists that included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, acting USGS director Suzette Kimball, and Carol Finn, AGU’s president. “I got to have this amazing opportunity to sit down with these three women and talk about my science, why it was important, and where it fit into [the Department of the] Interior’s mission,” said Ball.

For Benjamin Jones, working in the 49th state can be a little isolating. The AGU Fall Meeting is “a good venue to get together with other people and other USGS scientists, and talk about some of our research and potential future plans,” he said.

“I like to branch out and go see a talk or two that I don’t really know anything about,” said Jones, “with the hopes that it’ll give me a new way of thinking about something I’m working on.”

Christina Neal attended the conference to learn the latest science and meet the top scientists in many different fields. “It feels good to be around all of your peers hearing the best of your peers,” said Neal.

She saved travel time and money, too. Neal spent a day before the conference at the USGS office in Sacramento, California, meeting with human resources staff to plan future hires.

Chris Magirl found other sources of inspiration. “You have a deep appreciation of how ubiquitous and well-respected the USGS is,” he said. “It's hard to walk down a poster aisle and not see a USGS logo on one, or two, or three posters.”

“We really have a fantastic presence, and a fantastic reputation that's been established by wonderful scientists,” said Magirl. “That’s a proud thing to be part of.”

Image: AGU Fall Meeting Poster Hall
Looking down on the large poster hall at the AGU Fall Meeting. Many rows of posters on boards with people reading and walking. (Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. Public domain.)

Hard work and a lot of fun: The USGS booth at the AGU Fall Meeting

It’s a lot more work than you might imagine.

Liz Colvard has run the US Geological Survey (USGS) exhibit booth at the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting for more than a decade. A program and information specialist with the USGS Office of Communications and Publishing in Menlo Park, California, Colvard starts preparing for next year’s booth a couple of weeks after the previous meeting wraps up.

Colvard sat down for a short interview just after opening the booth on the last day of the 2015 meeting in San Francisco. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Image: USGS Booth at AGU
Liz Colvard (left) and Kristin Ludwig staff the USGS booth at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The booth has tables with handouts, vertical panels with displays, and a video screen.(Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. Public domain.)

What can people find at the USGS booth?

The meat of our content is in the handouts and in the people that staff it and answer questions. Most people who come to AGU are already fairly familiar with USGS. There’s a huge focus on new publications that are of interest to this audience, so I’ve got a lot of new publications on display, and we’re giving away copies, or else telling them how to find them online. There are just a few informational handouts that we know people are going to ask [about] every year.

You have a video rolling silently in the background. What’s playing?

When people are walking past your booth, you’ve got about 5 seconds to catch their attention. I ask [USGS video producer] Steve Wessells to put together a highlight video. Sometimes you’ll see people glance at the video and then do a double take because something has caught their eye. People very rarely stand there and watch [the whole thing].

What kinds of questions do you get?

These are generally professional scientists with pretty straightforward questions. They need to find some information and they don’t know where to find it. Or they need to make some kind of professional connection with the USGS and they don't know who to contact, or how to navigate a website. I’d say about 40 to 50 percent of our questions are about employment.

How many visitors did you get this year?

The first night, the icebreaker session, was a feeding frenzy. As many as three to five hundred people came to the booth. We gave away 150 copies of one map within the first hour or so.

How do you staff the booth?

We always try to have at least one information specialist in the booth. Here at AGU it’s usually either me or Jan Nelson from EROS [Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.] Then we recruit about two scientists to help handle all the people. Often we get science questions that they can answer and we can’t.

The scientists in the booth are volunteers?

Yes, I send out a call about a week or two before the conference and ask for volunteers [from USGS scientists already attending AGU]. I usually get all the people I need.

How do you prepare for AGU?

It’s a very detail-oriented job, and I am a very detail-oriented person. I think spreadsheets are gifts from the gods.

Beginning in January, I keep track of all the new publications that come out of USGS.  Then about three to four months before the conference I’ll start reviewing that and seeing which publications might be good to have in the booth. AGU is mostly about hazards, water, and satellite imagery. Mapping is always of interest to everybody.

I create a handout listing all the new and featured products that we have in the booth with our [web addresses] so somebody can just take that piece of paper. I made a special employment handout this time. Every year I keep track of how many copies of everything we give out, so I know next year how many I need. It’s a lot of work.

If all of our information is available online, why do we need a booth?

Sure, it’s all online, but who’s ever going to know it’s there, or where to find it? Even I discover things about our website that I don’t even know existed.

Do you have to do a lot of work to set up the booth?

We came in on Sunday and we set up the booth for about five hours. Then we came in on Monday and spent another three hours finishing up. There’s a real science to laying out an exhibit, because people tend to only see what's flat on the table. You want to put all the most important information flat on the table and then the less important information up on the racks.

Image: USGS Booth at AGU Closeup
Jan Nelson (left) and Liz Colvard staff the USGS booth at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Peter Haeussler is shown on the video screen. The booth has a table with handouts and vertical panels with displays.(Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. Public domain.)

Every morning I come in one to two hours before the conference starts. I get our computers set up and I clean up from the previous day.

The USGS booth is right across from NASA’s very large booth. What’s that like?

I very deliberately picked a space facing NASA because they are the hub of all activity in the exhibit hall. Our booth gets so much more business when we’re right by NASA than when we’re down on one of the aisles.

Do you enjoy this?

I love it! I enjoy chatting with people and having that face-to-face interaction with the public. Sometimes people are so excited with the information that you’ve given them. People love the USGS. It makes you feel good about your job.

Anything else people should know about our booth?

Most of the scientists who volunteer to work in our booth, when they leave, they say things like, "That was a lot of fun, I didn’t realize," or, "I've learned so much about the USGS doing this." I don’t think our scientists realize what a great opportunity it is for them when they work in the booth, how much they learn and get out of it, and how rewarding it can be for them.