Matthew Wood

PhD candidate in the School of Earth Sciences, Matthew Wood, reflects on his time in New Orleans attending the world's largest gathering of Earth and space scientists.

Hundreds of students examining posters
Poster Hall at AGU17. Picture: American Geophysical Union

My name is Matt and I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. I have recently participated in international experiences that have shaped my career and research. In December last year I travelled to New Orleans in the United States to attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting.

As far as conferences go, AGU is overwhelming in scale: 20,000 Earth scientists from far-flung corners of the globe bustling in and out of countless sessions, perusing the vast poster halls and huddling awkwardly in hallways to charge their devices, using the (typically unreliable) free Wi-Fi to check in on the happenings of their lives back home. The sheer volume of science that is presented, discussed and debated is almost unimaginable in scale and yet the five days fly by at whirlwind speed.

I feel that expending the energy, both personal and fossil fuelled, to go halfway around the world for such a fleeting gathering of academics brings with it the responsibility to seek out additional opportunities that give you more ‘bang-for-buck’ on your travel. Especially when being generously supported by your school or faculty as I was with university funding. In a world of routine international collaboration this can take the form of meeting distant colleagues face-to-face for the first time.

En route to New Orleans I visited Professor Kelin Whipple at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Kelin and I have a shared interest in the millennial-scale erosional history of the Himalayan range front in Bhutan as evinced by cosmogenic radionuclides in river sediments. After corresponding by email for over two years it was fantastic to put a face to his name and get some last-minute technical appraisal on my upcoming presentation, while also chatting casually about our wider fields of research and the natural wonders of the American Southwest.

A cityscape, with a rocky hill in the foreground
Arizona State University - Tempe campus. Picture: Supplied

Then it was onwards to New Orleans, where I had lived for a summer back in 2009. Arriving in the early winter this time around, the usual reveries of that particular city were no distraction from the packed-full schedule of the conference. Understandably, the attendance appeared to be skewed considerably towards US researchers and I was struck by how their charisma and relaxed confidence (perhaps stereotypical of Americans) made for many engaging oral presentations and poster sessions. Of course, the rest of the world was also in attendance, and on one unexpected occasion I bumped into an Indian friend and colleague who I had last seen in 2015 after working together in the devastation of the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal.

In my opinion, the true value of conference attendance is to be found on the poster hall floor; through networking with peers both long known and newly met… and, if you’re lucky, you might just have the opportunity to shake the hand of someone whose work has been truly foundational to your research.