The EGU Experience 2021: a PhD student perspective

Max Coleman – m.r.coleman@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Chloe Brimicombe – c.r.brimicombe@pgr.reading.ac.uk

The European Geoscience Union General Assembly is one of the big annual conferences for atmospheric science (and Earth sciences more generally). The two of us were fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present our research at this year’s vEGU21 conference. As has been done in previous years like in 2019 we’re here to give you an account of our EGU experience 😀 (so you can compare our virtual experience with the previous posts if you like 😉) 

Entrance hall to virtual EGU (Source: Linda Speight) 

What was vEGU21? 

EGUv21 was the general assembly for 2021 online. It took place from the 19th to the 30th April EGU. Through an impressive virtual conference center and mostly Zoom. 

What was your presentation on? 

Chloe –  I presented borderless heat stress in the extreme heat events session, which is based on a paper currently under review at Earth’s Future, where we show that heat stress is growing in the area during the month of August. The invited speaker to the session was Laura Suarez-Gutierrez and it was a great presentation on the dynamics of increasing heat extremes with climate change across Europe. I really enjoyed learning about the latest research in the extreme heat area. 

Max – I presented on my work using model nudging to study aerosol radiative adjustments. I presented in the session ‘Chemistry, Aerosols and Radiative Forcing in CMIP6-era models’, which was convened and hosted by Reading’s very own Bill Collins. There were many interesting presentations in this session, including presentations on the balance between climate and air quality benefits by Robert Allen and Steve Turnock; a summary of the Aerosol Chemistry Model Intercomparison Project (AerChemMIP) findings by UoR’s Gill Thornhill; and a personal favourite concerned the impacts of different emissions pathways in Africa on local and global climate, and local air pollution effects on mortality, presented by Chris Wells. 

Chloe presenting: would win an award for most interesting screenshot. (Source: Maureen Wanzala) 

What were your favourite aspects of the conference? 

Chloe – Apart from my session one of my favorite’s was on climate services. This focused on the application of meteorological and hydrology data to services for example health heat impacts and growing grapes and olives. I also enjoyed the panel on the climate and ecological emergency in light of COVID-19 including Katherine Hayhoe and the session on equality, diversity and inclusion; it was interesting how ‘listening’ to those impacted was an overlapping theme in these. The weirdest, loveliest experience was my main supervisor sending me a colouring page of her face

Max – As with any conference it was a great opportunity to learn about the latest research in my specific field, as well as learning about exciting developments in other fields, from machine learning applications in earth science to observational studies of methane emissions. Particularly, it’s a nice change from just reading about them in papers.Having conversations with presenters gives you the opportunity to really dive in and find out what motivated their research initially and discuss future applications. For example, one conversation I had went from discussing their application of unsupervised machine learning in classifying profiles of earth system model output, to learning about it’s potential for use in model intercomparisons.  

Katherine Hayhoe in the session Climate and Ecological Emergency: can a pandemic help save us? (Source: Chloe Brimicombe) 

What was your least favourite aspect? 

Chloe – I did manage to do a little networking. But I’d love to experience an in person conference where I present. I have never presented my research in real life at a conference or research group/department seminar 😱. We also miss out on a lot of free food and pens not going to any in life conferences, which is what research is about 😉. Also, I find it difficult to stay focused on the conference when it’s online.  

Max – For me the structure of two minute summaries followed by breakout Zoom rooms for each speaker had some definite drawbacks. For topics outside one’s own field, I found it difficult to really learn much from many of the summaries – it’s not easy to fit something interesting for experts and non-experts into two minutes! In theory you can go speak to presenters in their breakout rooms, but there’s something awkward about entering a zoom breakout room with just you and the presenter, particularly when you aren’t sure exactly how well you understood their two minute summary.  

In light of your vEGU21 experience, what are your thoughts on remote vs traditional conferencing? 

Max – Overall I think virtual conferencing has a way to go before it can match up to the in person experience. There were the classic technical issues of anything hosted remotely: the ‘I think you’re on mute’ experience, other microphone issues, and even the conference website crashing on the first day of scientific sessions (though the organisers did a swift job getting the conference back up and running). But there’s also the less obvious, such as it feeling actually quite a lonely experience. I’ve only been to a couple of in-person conferences, but there were always some people I knew and could meet up with. But it’s challenging to recreate this online, especially for early career researchers who don’t have as many established connections, and particularly at a big conference like the EGU general assembly. Perhaps a big social media presence can somewhat replace this, but not everyone (including myself!) is a big social media user. .  

On the other hand, it’s great that we can still have conferences during a global pandemic, and no doubt is better than an absence of them entirely. Above all else, it’s also much greener and more accessible to those with less available funding for conference travel (though new challenges of accessibility, such as internet quality and access, undoubtedly arise). Plus, the facility to upload various display materials and people to look back at them whenever they like, regardless of time zones, is handy.  

Chloe – I’d just add, as great as Twitter is and can be for promoting your research, it’s not the same as going for a good old cup of tea (or cocktail) with someone. Also, you can have the biggest brightest social media, but actually be terrible at conveying your research in person. 

Summary 

Overall it was interesting to take part in vEGU21, and we were both glad we went. It didn’t quite live up to the in person experience – and there is definitely room for improvements for virtual conferencing – but it’s great we can still have these experiences, albeit online.  

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