Virtual Conference, Real Astronomy

Jacob White
6 min readFeb 22, 2021

An online academic conference in many ways can be much better than an in-person meeting.

Many aspects of my life have changed during covid. But one thing remains the same while working from home - I require (arguably too much) coffee to maintain my normal “science operations”. Astronomy conferences always have multiple coffee breaks, but during this year’s virtual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) — I was responsible for providing my own caffeine fuel.

Virtual meeting hub for the 237th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

So what’s it like to attend the world’s largest annual astronomy conference online? First off, I’m greeted with a virtual conference hall. From here, I can visit all the conference sponsors, check out the posters, and even drop off a resume! Everything virtual equals easy navigation plus no running around and getting lost in a giant hotel. Then I click on the Auditorium link, and I’m sent to a list of Zoom meeting rooms for the various presentations.

The first presentation I attended was the Kavli Foundation Plenary Lectureship. This prize talk is given at the beginning of AAS meetings and highlights “recent research of great importance”. This year the winner was Paul Demorest from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), where I work. Paul presented results from The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOgrav). This group times the arrival of radio pulses from pulsars to search for gravitational waves. Pulsars are one of the possible remnants after a star dies in a supernova. Basically, stellar zombies. Gravitational waves, Paul explained, are “more colloquially known as spacetime ripples” and can propagate outwards from pulsar mergers. By measuring the delay in the radio pulses received from multiple pulsars we can pinpoint where the merger happened. Wow!

Along with the BIG talks, there is still a more-than-you-could-ever-ask-for agenda of contributed science and education talks. All these talks are recorded — a significant advantage over an in-person conference. No more debating which talk to attend when 5 things you’re interested happen at once (and that happens A LOT at AAS).

Francisco Tapia-Vazquez’s AAS talk. Pictured are ALMA observations the gamma Vir system.

Francisco Tapia-Vazquez (UNAM) gave a talk entitled MESAS Meets KINICH-PAKAL: Measuring and Modeling Main Sequence Stellar Atmospheres. Francisco explained how cutting-edge stellar atmosphere codes are being used to model radio wavelength observations of stars. His research is leading to a much needed radio catalog of main-sequence — or “regular” — stars. Stars are very faint at radio wavelengths, making it hard to observe them. The unprecedented sensitivity of telescopes like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) are finally making the observations possible. Francisco’s work is also of key importance for determining the abundance of asteroid belts around other stars and how stellar processes can impact the habitability of exoplanets. Cool stuff!

The term “webinar” has quickly become commonplace since the start of covid. The AAS meeting had plenty of webinars to attend. From advice on how to write a cover letter to workshops on how to apply for telescope time — there truly was a lot to choose from!

I attended a webinar called A Discussion on Anti-blackness in Astronomy. This panel discussion detailed personal accounts of the struggles faced as a black astronomer in the US. “There aren’t enough black astronomers to advise the current and upcoming black astronomers,” says Ashley Walker. What does anti-blackness look like? — Caprice Phillips summarized it as “no support and purposely placed roadblocks… and [people] trying to convince you that you’re the problem”.

Since the AAS meeting was virtual this year, and this session was recorded, it allowed for a much bigger audience to view the discussion. This is key because we need many more people to prioritize equality. It is important to understand that astronomy is not immune from racism. The responsibility to both recognize and overcome anti-blackness in astronomy lies with everyone, particularly white astronomers in positions of power.

Poster sessions are a staple of an academic conferences. iPosters (interactive posters) aren’t new to conferences, but they’ve been underutilized in the past. iPosters can be viewed at any time throughout the conference, as opposed to only during a specific poster session. These are also coupled with poster “TurboTalks” that are similar to the 1–2 minutes poster pitches you would have during an in-person conference. The additional benefit of these is that they are recorded in advance. Like the research talks, these are available throughout the entire conference.

Image credit: NRAO NINE

One of the many posters I checked out was by Mauricio Rodríguez Alas (ULatine de Costa Rica). Maurico presented an iPoster entitled NINE Virtual Radio Astronomy Hub for Costa Rica and the Central America Region. The National and International Exchange Program (NINE) program seeks to create a pipeline of talent in radio astronomy by establishing radio astronomy ‘hubs’. Last year, Alpha-Cen (an NGO promoting Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean) was the host institution. They provided courses teaching Python, data analysis, machine learning, and radio astronomy tools. The hub also helped create teachers and mentors that can design/continue programs in the future. This program helps break down the barrier to entry into radio astronomy that many underprivileged institutions suffer from.

What about the social aspects of conferences?

The biggest complaint I hear about virtual conferences is the lack of networking. The social aspect of a conference is by far the hardest part to replicate. For the AAS Meeting, all of the talks and workshops were facilitated over Zoom. Zoom, of course, has it perks and drawbacks. The question and answer sessions, however, mostly occurred on Slack. This comes with a significant advantage of having the Q&A be more or less open-ended. Slack also allows for links to articles and can still be moderated. The conversations continued well past the presentation time slots. A question will receive a more thorough answer when the speaker gets a minute or two to think about it as opposed to being put on the spot. Slack should definitely be a regular component of conferences, virtual or in-person, moving forward.

My cat Snufkin made multiple appearances in the #pets-pets-and-more-pets Slack channel.

There was a separate Slack channel for each session where you could post questions and interact with the attendees. Some were specifically for networking, some were for getting help. It wasn’t all science though. There was even a #pets-pets-and-more-pets channel where everyone showed off pictures of their animals!

No, we didn’t have coffee breaks to chat with people. We didn’t have happy hours or pre/post meeting receptions either. There was undoubtedly networking connections that didn’t happen because of the virtual meeting. But there was likely many connections that only happened because the meeting was virtual. Moving forward, the social aspects of a conference have the most room for improvement. But the ability to networking and interact with people does still exists if you put in the effort.

Virtual meetings, networking, and conferencing may seem challenging or less enjoyable but it’s important to realize that we are doing this to save lives. Many aspects are still rough around the edges, but realistically this approach has many benefits even outside the safety of social distancing. For example, a virtual meeting dramatically decreases the cost of attendance (flight, hotel, food, childcare). This opens up the meeting to more astronomers around the world. It also makes it a more inclusive conference. We are dramatically decreasing our carbon footprint by not having thousands of people fly to an in-person conference. Flying is one of the biggest sources of carbon emission for astronomers. The carbon footprint of a virtual conference can be 3000 times smaller than an in-person meeting. This is an important consideration as virtual conferences will likely become standard as we move forward in a carbon-constrained future.

Overall, the virtual 237th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society was a huge success. Over 3000 people attended the conference, shared their exciting scientific results, learned lots of new things, and had some much needed social interactions. I look forward to virtually attending other AAS meetings in the future.



Jacob White

Dr. Jacob White is a software engineer working on atmospheric modeling and satellite data calibration. He has a PhD in astrophysics and is active in scicomm.