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Geodynamics

Wit & Wisdom

Conferences – so near and yet so far

Conferences – so near and yet so far

Attending conferences is expensive and time consuming, so going to all the conferences relevant for your research topic(s) is an impossible mission. One solution might be to attend (parts of) conferences remotely. Suzanne Atkins, postdoc at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, discusses the pros and cons of remote conferencing.

Last month the Geological Society of London live-streamed their celebration of 50 years of plate tectonics. Here at ETH we joined the love-in, camping out in the lecture theatre for two days. This follows the trend of many conferences to live-stream sessions or make them available on-line afterwards. But can video conferences replace the real thing? And would we want them too?

On paper, there are so many reasons to support video conferencing and replays. The most obvious one is financial. Many students are limited to local conferences and even professors have to watch their expenditure. The eye-watering cost of a large conference like EGU makes annual attendance unfeasible for many scientists, especially when extras like beer are factored in. If you’re only interested in one or two sessions, dropping in remotely makes far more sense than dragging yourself halfway across the continent for an afternoon.

But there are plenty of other reasons. Here at ETH, our flights make up around 60% of the department CO2 budget. Yes, I could take the train but I’m too lazy and impatient (I know, I know), especially if I’m only interested in half the conference. This doesn’t even take into account the vast carbon footprint of the hospitality industry, to which we are contributing every time we stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant. Remote conference attendance is therefore the only really defensible environmental option.

The attraction of attending a conference where I can sleep in my own bed is high, but for academic parents, or even just academics with a life outside work, the benefits of cutting a few trips off the yearly circuit without missing out are obvious. Especially in the summer season, when we’re all trying to cram in holidays and a bit of teaching-free research time, the seemingly endless round of meetings and workshops can end up feeling more of a chore than a pleasure.

This brings me to my final point in favour. For a remote conference, etiquette is far more flexible than in person attendance. No one at the conference can see you checking your emails, or dipping in and out to talk to students. The university WiFi is nice and reliable. And the quality of the coffee is just so much more … predictable.

So, what are the drawbacks? Why don’t we all switch over immediately? Obviously attending conferences remotely can make it difficult to present your own work and get feedback, which is invaluable for us. We will never be able to fully replicate digitally the experience of a long poster discussion, chatting to someone after a talk, or the serendipitous meeting in the coffee queue.

But there may also be some subtler disadvantages. At cash-strapped institutes, remote conferencing will allow staff and students who otherwise couldn’t attend to see the talks. But it might also lead to pressure, particularly on students and junior researchers, to cut expenditure by never leaving the building. That deprives them of the networking and presentation opportunities that conferences offer. The flip-side of this is that conferences would get boring scientifically. The same few faces would attend every time, starving the community of new ideas and input. Both of these seem somewhat extreme endpoints, which could be guarded against by careful management within institutes and by conference organisers, and the availability of grants and scholarships for attendance.

So all in all, I think I have to conclude that live streaming conferences seems a sensible way to go. I can even head off to my post-conference Friday beer in the common room afterwards. Cheers!

The quest of a numerical modelling hero

The quest of a numerical modelling hero

Numerical modelling is not always a walk in the park. In fact, it resembles a heroic quest more often than not. In this month’s Wit & Wisdom post, Cedric Thieulot, assistant professor at the Mantle dynamics & theoretical geophysics group at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, tells the story of his heroic quest to save the princess from the dragon clear a code from bugs and shows that failed models can be the best models.

Heroes are also artists. I am a hero, therefore I am an artist. Sometimes against my will. In other words, sometimes the code works; most of the time it doesn’t.

A true hero embarks on his noble steed upon a long and perilous quest as the fire-breathing dragon who keeps the princess hostage awaits him in its lair.
“I am a hero too!” says my programmer ego although I spend most of my time sitting on ikea chairs looking for bugs. Yes, bugs. Bugs I have put there myself. Yup.

On my quest, I sometimes get lost in impossible mazes!

I have to cross mysterious mountain ranges

… but I am rewarded by a beautiful sunset on another planet.

I can’t believe what I C(++)

My quest can be dangerous.
Sometimes the enemy is tiny but viruses can be deadly too!

I sometimes feel like I am drowning in a petri dish.


Sometimes I encounter weird beings on my quest…



I even have to fight improbable gnu-snakes!

And the spirits of old viking warriors creep up in my models…

I need some candy to keep my spirits up.

And then… I find the bug and defeat the mighty bug! Fireworks!


Time to switch on the disco balls!

It’s party time!

Poster presentation tips

Poster presentation tips

Being a scientist is more than just doing research and science. You also need to be able to communicate your findings to your peers and/or the general public (outreach). At conferences, you usually have two options for presenting your work: a talk or a poster (although at EGU, you also have the PICO sessions). A poster is often preferred if you would like to start a discussion and get lots of feedback on your work. So how do you ensure that people will come to your poster, stay to read it, and take the most important messages home? Charitra Jain, PhD student at ETH Zurich, Switzerland and winner of the Outstanding Student Poster Award at NetherMod 2017, gives some tips.

Charitra Jain

Some things I consider important while making posters:
• Break down the text in concise bullet points
• Use a non-white background to make your poster stand out among hundreds of posters
• Find the right balance between text and figures (depending on if you are planning to stay at your poster)
• Make sure your poster is easy to navigate
• Highlight the keywords
• Use 2-3 font sizes to represent hierarchy
• Think about “breathability”: don’t overcrowd your poster
• Demarcate different sections clearly
• Use perpetually-uniform color scales (also see this post by Fabio Crameri. I am trying to integrate these colour scales in my future plots/figures)
• Zoom 100% in on your poster on your screen and try to read it from 2 meters away to get an impression of what the poster will look like eventually

Besides tips from Charitra Jain, it is also useful to know what the jury deems important in a poster. Therefore, the list of criteria that Susanne Buiter presented at the Outstanding Student Poster Award Ceremony at NetherMod 2017 is reproduced here:

Poster design
• Clarity
• Aim and motivation
• Key findings
• Large figures
• Readable text
• More figures than text

Presentation and knowledge of the subject
• The story
• Figures supportive of the story
• Discussion/ability to answers questions

Charitra Jain’s winning poster at NetherMod 2017 on the generation of primordial continental crust (click to enlarge)

Why there should (not) be more women in geodynamics

Why there should (not) be more women in geodynamics

Nowadays, equality is cool. Everyone is always going on about how women and men should get the same opportunities. In science, and hence, geodynamics, women are still a bit behind men for both historical (women only recently started graduating more in exact sciences) and unconscious-bias reasons. Therefore, there are lots of programs in order to stimulate women to go into science and, more importantly, stay there.

However, no one really considers the negatives of having more women in geodynamics. And that’s why I’m here. Let me present to you a very comprehensive and entirely unbiased list of reasons why there should not be more women in geodynamics:

  • There would be a queue for the ladies toilet during coffee breaks at conferences.
  • None of our male colleagues would be able to focus on work any more, because we are distractingly sexy.
  • Ultimately, peer review would be less strict, because men would be afraid they might make us cry with their criticism.
  • More posters would be pink or purple (so mine won’t stand out any more).
  • The science would be better and there would be more discoveries, and who wants that, really?
    • And now the floor is yours: I hope I initiated a healthy discussion (without a weak seed! Or potato!) – surely you agree there shouldn’t be any more women in geodynamics, right? Leave a comment below!



      PS: For those less trained in sarcasm or irony: I mean the complete opposite, of course – these are all silly reasons! I also wanted to highlight some recent comments on women in science that reached the media, to show that there still is a significant bias against women in science. There should be more women in geodynamics! Although I would be devastated about the toilet queue.