Science on tour! The art of conferences

How do Earth scientists turn the scribbles in their field notebooks into a piece of coherent research?

It has been almost a year since our latest INTERACT field trip to Greenland, and we have been busy analysing the data and writing research papers. This week we are at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna presenting the findings from our fieldwork on Disko Island. We take a look at the transformation of data from fieldwork to conference presentation, and explore what life is like at an international scientific conference.

Time for an ice cream outside the conference centre

Time for an ice cream outside the conference centre


When we get back from Greenland, we type up our notes, enter our data into spreadsheets, draw our maps, and test for any patterns (or sometimes lack of patterns!) in the data. Once all of this is done, we can sit down and look at the data as a whole, and begin to formulate our interpretations and conclusions. For the EGU, we then presented our findings in a poster format that we will present to other scientists in our research field.

Our poster printed out and ready to display

Our poster printed out and ready to display

Why do scientists go to conferences?

Research conferences are not just a bunch of scientists gathered in a convention centre. Far from it! Conferences provide an opportunity for researchers to present their latest findings to a group of like-minded scientists. This can take the form of short oral presentations that last around 15 minutes, or poster presentations where large (A1 or A0 size) posters are displayed for other scientists to look at and discuss. To avoid confusion when there are over 10,000 scientists, large conferences are organised into themes or ‘sessions’ based around particular research fields. Some examples might be ‘Glacial geomorphology’, ‘Sea level change’ or ‘Research on Mars’. Each session will involve a series of talks as well as a poster session. Large conferences such as the EGU happen every year, and there are many sessions happening at the same time. It is a bit like pick-and-mix science. The audience can drop in and out of the sessions that are most relevant or interesting to them.


Tim writing our blog while overlooking the exhibition hall


If you find yourself with nothing to do for a while, there are always plenty of books, equipment, free merchandise, and fun to be had in the exhibition hall. This is where publishers and scientific companies hold promotional stalls. It isn’t uncommon for a researcher to come home from a conference with a handful of free promotional pens, some notebooks, t shirts, mugs, and bags. This year, our favourite is a key ring made from parts of a Google satellite!

As well as the formal scientific part of conferences (and the delights of the exhibition hall!), they are also an excellent opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends from across the world, and make new contacts through informal discussion with other researchers in your field. There are plenty of opportunities to chat over coffee (and other beverages!) through the day, and meet up with friends in the evening. In fact, it is often at conferences that the best networking opportunities arise, and it is a great time to discuss new projects. Sometimes, it is a bit like a game of Earth Science iSpy – spotting your favourite researchers from books and journal articles that you have read back in your office.


Above all, it is great to see the outputs of all of your hard work – even when months of fieldwork are boiled down to just a few minutes!


Kathryn enjoying an apple next to our poster


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