Monday, 29 May 2017

EGU: A First Impression

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) is the most established geosciences organisation in Europe. Created in September 2002 as a merger of the European Geophysical Society and European Union of Geosciences, EGU now hosts over 17 different scientific journals and has over 12,500 members from students all the way up to retired seniors. However, EGU is probably most well known for its Annual General Assembly, which is the biggest geosciences event in Europe. Held in April every year, it attracts over 1,100 scientists to attend its event from all over the globe. This year, I had the chance to attend EGU as a representative of Bristol Earth Science's Diamond group. This was my first multidisciplinary international conference and with just six weeks of planning (I was asked to attend at fairly short notice), I couldn't wait to tick this off my academia bucket list.  

In 2017, EGU brought together 14,496 scientists from 107 countries (two from Bangladesh, woo!) to Vienna, Austria. Since the first General Assembly in France, it has now always been held in the Austria Centre Vienna (the largest conference centre in Austria). Participants are in charge of arranging their own accommodation and transport but luckily EGU provides a free public transport pass during the days of the conference and it's easy to get to the centre via the U-Bahn (stop Kaisermuhlen). I actually made the mistake of thinking that the conference was held at the Vienna International Centre so when I exited the station, I saw a huge crowd turning left and walking into the "visitor" entrance of the VIC. So like a fool, I followed them into the security check. This should have set alarm bells in my head but instead I was naive enough to think "Huh, this is pretty high level security for a geology conference". None of the guards thought my presence was odd even though everyone else in the queue was at least twenty years older than me and it wasn't until I made it all the way through that I realised I was in the UN centre... d'oh! After a smooth exit and a lost in translation moment (damn, five years of German did not pay off), I found myself at the correct venue.

At the entrance of the EGU General Assembly

With almost 5,000 oral presentations and over 11,000 posters, EGU can be overwhelming for newcomers, especially early career scientists. The EGU General Assembly website posts the programme on their website and you can filter the events by division, date and time. The best part of the website is that you are able to build your own personal programme by "starring" the talks you are interested in. The only criticism I have for the personal programme is that if you have quite a few sessions you are interested in and they overlap in time, the list design can make it difficult to plan. If I had more time, I would have made a timetable but perhaps it's something the EGU web designers can integrate into the website.

It was the session titled "What do diamonds and their inclusions tell us about processes in the deep Earth" that lured me to the EGU General Assembly. Although it was a small session, it had speakers from the US, France, Italy and Amsterdam. Conferences are a great way to see the current research and progress that has been made in your subject but also to keep check of what you know: when you're a PhD student, it can be easy to focus your reading in a certain direction. In the recent years of diamond research, there's been a lot of progress in the understanding of diamond forming fluids-melts (DFFM) and Graham Pearson's talk showed that DFFM found in fibrous diamonds have also been found in monocrystalline diamonds, suggesting that both the diamonds were formed through the same process(es) and went on to suggest that perhaps trace elements in fluid inclusions can be used to "identify" diamonds.  

I also took advantage of exploring other fields and dropped into talks ranging from studies into craters on Ceres to the impact of North Atlantic warming on European Summers in the early 20th century and even more familiar topics such as evidence of magmatism in Burma during the Cretaceous and Cenozoic. How much I gained from the talks really depended on the level of technicality and enthusiasm of the speaker, for example I didn't enjoy much of the talks on Kimberlites as I expected to (despite being the sessions most related to my field) but quite a few geophysical talks were really insightful. Regardless of your scientific background, I would encourage everyone to attend as many of the talks presented by EGU medal and award winners. I'm not sure if they aim for their presentations to be accessible to general audiences but I found all the ones I attended really easy to follow and every speaker was so passionate about their subject which reverberated in their talks. I would warn members next year to get to your favourite talks early because there were a number of cases where a talk was too popular and members were blocked from attending.

"Make Facts Great Again" symposium

As it has such a large attendance with members from a range of experiences, EGU is able to hold quite a few "union wide" events everyday and these include sessions on outreach, networking and debates. Initially, I never investigated these events because I was so focused on the academic talks but while I was at EGU, I was kicking myself for missing out on certain talks or prioritising one event over another. Some of the great debates and symposiums are based on how the scientific community can progress (such as the "Make Facts Great Again" symposium about how the scientist can engage with the general public - I was very unsatisfied with this talk, more on it another time) while others are about changing the structure of academia (group debate about if ECS should be judged on their publications). There are also chances to meet fellow Earth Scientist bloggers and tweeters as well as opportunities to explore your creative side with poetry and photography sessions. The special scientific events are really what makes EGU enjoyable.

Obligatory selfie with my first poster presentation in an International Conference

Every day, the Exhibition Halls host posters of the sessions that were held earlier in the day. You can view the posters any time of the day but if you want to speak to authors, the best time to come drop in is between 5 - 7 pm when scientists are required to stand by their posters. This was my moment to shine because I was specifically at EGU to present my results on lithospheric diamonds. Although a poster isn't as prestigious as a talk, the main advantage is that you're more likely to interact and receive feedback from other scientists. Speakers are only given 15 minutes to present including Q&A and I noticed that the majority of speakers actually didn't have enough time to answer any questions. During the poster session, I managed to personally meet quite a few scientists in my field and discuss my work and have the odd debate over a contentious summary. I actually found this the best way to network especially as someone who is very shy and didn't have their supervisor to introduce them to others.

One of the many networking events at the General Assembly

For some, EGU is their favourite conference while for others it's an experience only worth one visit in their academic career. The types of sessions are so diverse and how much you will get out of it will depend on your field of research: for a petrologist like me studying silicates in diamonds, there was only one session relevant to me but volcanologists on the other hand may find there is a lot to gain from the conference. This could make networking very difficult - every young scientist I met prior to my session was a Climate Scientist. The EGU conference however is great if you have a broad interest in Geosciences and would like to understand what is happening in a variety of fields or you are interested in extra-curriculum activities such as outreach. It is a conference that is definitely worth considering if you have the opportunity.

When my supervisor asked me to attend EGU in his place, I was very apprehensive. No one in my department was going to attend the General Assembly as a participant and there was only one small session I was interested in. In the end, I do not regret going at all and I found myself most times as giddy as a child in a candy store as I ventured into all the different sessions. In all honestly, there is so much going on at the conference that it doesn't feel lonely at all (though having lunch by yourself can feel a little awkward, you can go check out some stalls, posters or even work to ease the feeling). I spent two full days at the General Assembly and I felt exhausted by the second day - if you're going for a full week, I recommend breaking up the time with a bit of sight seeing - after all, EGU General Assembly is held in a very beautiful city.

I'm not sure if I would attend EGU conference as a PhD student again but if anything, it has prepared me for future multidisciplinary conferences I may attend in the near future.

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