EGU General Assembly Review

“In this blog post, BSSS representative Dan Evans reviews his experiences from the European Geosciences Union Conference in Vienna, communicating with Olivia Trani (EGU communications officer) and Stephanie Zihms (EGU Early Career Scientist Representative).”

Those of a certain age and nostalgic disposition will recall, with sentimental fondness, a time when a ‘party’ comprised of a few misshaped balloons, a slice of overly-sweetened cake clothed in a multi-coloured napkin, and of course, a succession of lively party games. That paradigm of partying seems to evolve as one finds themselves entering double digits and I expect the format for the most infantile party has transformed over the last twenty years. But I am happy to count myself in with those who can recollect parties for their unburdening simplicity. One of my favourite party games, I seem to recall, was Twister. For those who are not familiar, this involved a large mat of multi-coloured dots and a spinner. Players would take it in turns to place a hand or foot, as required, on a particular coloured circle as dictated by this spinner. Right hand, green circle; left foot, blue circle; and so on. The arrangement of the coloured circles was such that each player would often have to contort themselves in precarious positions around each other to be able to complete each move successfully. A player would be disqualified if they toppled over. It was, as I can testify, always very difficult to have two feet and two hands simultaneously on four different colours! Occasionally, one would strike lucky and be able to place all four limbs on a single colour.

Likewise, scientists are arguably at their most comfortable when they invest all their energies into one discipline, their niche specialism. However, there has been in recent times a progressive push towards interdisciplinarity and, like those required to touch different colours in Twister, it can at first be a challenge to take oneself out from the comfort of a niche and reach out to different disciplinary circles. For Soil Scientists, the spinner (in this case, the funding council) is increasingly demanding that researchers work with geochemists, hydrologists, microbiologists, geomorphologists (and many more) and this means stretching networks beyond the strict realms of Pedology. Unlike Twister, though, as more researchers join in this activity of interdisciplinarity, and networking matrices become more complex, so the chances of individuals ‘toppling over’ is somewhat reduced. We all acknowledge, after all, that a team comprising diverse skill-sets, experiences and perspectives is one of the ways we can better comprehend the world in which we inhabit.

Luckily there are, throughout the year, a myriad of opportunities to foster fresh, interdisciplinary associations and, in my opinion, one of the best is the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly. This weeklong conference takes places annually in Vienna, Austria and brings together geoscientists from all over the world. It’s a forum where scientists can present their work, discuss and debate their ideas, learn new skills and develop outreach opportunities. The General Assembly this year “was again a great success,” according to the Union.  “4,776 oral, 11,128 poster, and 1,419 PICO presentations, 666 unique scientific sessions, 68 short courses and 294 side events created an interesting programme”. And that spirit of interdisciplinarity was, personally, very notable. Many of the sessions I attended brought researchers from a variety of ‘programme groups’ together, especially those from Biogeosciences, Geomorphology, Hydrological Sciences and Energy, Resources and the Environment.

This year did not mark my first EGU General Assembly experience, but my first as the National BSSS ECR Representative and, as part of this role, I was keen to investigate what opportunities there are for Early Career Researchers. As part of my PEDcast, I was delighted to interview both Olivia Trani (the EGU Communications Officer who manages social media and writes for Geolog) and Stephanie Zihms (the EGU Early Career Scientist representative). I began by asking them what advice they would give for those ECRs who hadn’t attended such a vast, international conference before.

“I guess my first advice is to take a breath,” says Olivia Trani. “Make sure you relax and go outside. It is daunting but this assembly is essentially for the Early Career Scientists, so make it how you want it to be.”

Olivia touches upon a familiar feeling; that of becoming overwhelmed at the sheer magnitude of the weeklong meeting. I can speak from experience that even remaining within the Soil System Sciences division feels like swimming around in an ocean of knowledge. In reality, spending a week in and around Soil Science is akin to paddling in the harbour. Indeed, the General Assembly is an opportunity to sail out of this comfort zone and beyond the horizon, as Stephanie went on to explain:

“Don’t just hang out with your lab buddies; don’t just hang out with the other PhD students and Postdocs that you know. Go to some of the events that are organised for Early Career Scientists. On Tuesday, we had the ECS Great Debate which was fantastic because there was a really mixed group of people at each table, and you never know, you may meet someone that turns out to be a future collaborator. So basically, use this opportunity to talk to people outside you comfort zone and outside your research fields.”

And part of that ethos of reaching out may mean speaking to some fairly eminent scientists. Whilst this may at first sound quite a daunting prospect, Stephanie suggests that they are always happy to talk to you.

“If you have the opportunity, contact some people before the General Assembly, either through social media or through an email, and maybe arrange to meet up with them; that normally works very well. But also, if you’re not quite sure, if you find out who your division Early Career Representative is, you can always get in touch with them or, obviously, get in touch with me, I am always happy to answer your questions or point people in the right direction.”

As Olivia and Stephanie were talking, twenty or thirty EGU logos, stamped on the wall behind them, were in eyeshot. But I wasn’t at the EGU; I was at the EGU General Assembly. Indeed, the European Geosciences Union exists not for one week a year but all year round. Even after the last trampled pretzel is hoovered from the Vienna Conference Centre, there are still many opportunities for Early Career Researchers.

“On our website we try and highlight the most of what is available to our Early Career Scientists,” explains Olivia. “These include job offers, looking for opportunities for the next steps, for prospective students looking for courses and programmes that they would be interested in getting involved with or just resources for how to be a happy, healthy successful Early Career Scientist. And we have an active network of Early Career Representatives, Stephanie being the union-wide one, who work not only during the assembly but throughout the year to meet ECS needs and be a voice for our ECS community”. In elaboration, Stephanie explained the opportunities that exist to join the team of ECS representatives.

“We have a very active network of ECS Representatives at division level, and I think each division has one in place, but they are now starting to build little teams, because one person can’t do everything. So if you’re interested in getting involved in social media or perhaps a blog, find out if your division has that in place and ask to join the team. They would be more than happy to have the help. There would be opportunities for you to get involved in editing, or even writing yourself, interviewing people, or whatever you are interested in. If it’s not there already, you can also ask to start something. So if your division doesn’t have a blog, but you’re really keen on starting one, get in touch with the Early Career Representative and find out how that would happen. Through Olivia, we have the direct contact to the EGU office, and we would be able to help set that up and the rules that go with it, and so on.”

As I mentioned before, Olivia is also in charge of the Social Media channels and believes these are essential for those wishing to find out more about the conference.

“Definitely, definitely,” she confirms. “We’re active on many social media channels and blogs as well as mailing lists. It’s great because there are so many ways for Early Career Scientists to get updates on what is going on, and also what is happening at the EGU outside of the general assembly as well. I think we flood people with information too much sometimes, but it’s all for them so I’m very happy we get to do that.”

There is just one last thing. After a couple of years, you may feel inclined to run your own session at the General Assembly but I won’t detail the intricacies of this process here. Convening is, in many senses, one step up from attending but is very much encouraged, especially for those Early Career Researchers developing their academic CVs and bolstering their experiences. Those who do convene obtain VIP access to what is affectionately known as the Convenors’ Party. Quite what happens there will, for the time being, remain a mystery to me. I very much doubt there are party games, but if there are, perhaps Twister, with that interdisciplinary spirit of reaching out across different circles, is the first to be played. Right hand, Hydrology; left foot, Solar Sciences; right foot, Natural Hazards; left hand, Ocean Sciences…

Author: Dan Evans

Twitter: @DanEvansol

YouTube PEDCast programme: Dan also does a PEDcast segment each month. His latest episode can be found on the link in this section.