“I remember being exhilarated and afraid at the same time,” said Jamie Austin, recalling his first trip to AGU’s Fall Meeting as a student. He was earning his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology–Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program at the time, and he walked into the meeting room to present his work expecting that only his peers would be there, “which is intimidating enough.” In addition to scientists, though, a slew of reporters had taken interest in his research, and newspaper photographers were snapping his picture. “I didn’t feel up to it,” he said, remembering that terrifying moment.
Not only was he up to it, Jamie found it a formative experience in what has become a long and successful career as a research scientist, now at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, he’s working hard to make sure the next generation of geoscientists has opportunities like this. He believes only an event like Fall Meeting can provide serendipitous moments for so many people to meet others from around the world in the same field, to seek out mentors and future funders, and, occasionally, to be pushed right into the deep end like he was. That’s why Jamie collaborated with AGU to launch the Austin Student Travel Grant Challenge during our yearlong Centennial celebration.
A longtime AGU member, Jamie volunteered to become the inaugural chair of the organization’s Development Board in 2004. “Supporting student travel was the one unanimous stance of leadership, and that was 15 years ago,” Jamie said. When he rejoined the board in 2018, Jamie said it was obvious what to pursue as a landmark program for AGU’s Centennial. “Even before we had fears about the future and climate change, it was always about supporting the next generation, and so it was an easy call for me.” Jamie is all in for this cause: He is generously matching all gifts up to a total of $1 million to make sure these grants are available to students permanently.
Why does he want to support students specifically through travel grants for Fall Meeting? “I see the Fall Meeting as a lighthouse.” As an oceanographer, Jamie knows a little bit about being at sea. “You’re navigated by the lighthouse,” he says. “You don’t need to be around it all the time—we don’t need a Fall Meeting every week, but once a year it’s a lighthouse.” Every December, nearly 30,000 people in the Earth and space sciences gather in one place to share their knowledge and experiences. “It’s an example of what we should all support because of its diversity, its size, its extent, its reach, its global nature, and the important thrust it has for scientists everywhere.” What could be a better place for a student to dive into their career?
The first class of Austin Student Travel Endowment grantees was announced in October, and the recipients are headed to Fall Meeting 2019 in San Francisco next week. Jamie is eager to hear how the experience affects them but also hopes that simply receiving the grant will give them confidence. “I think they begin to look at themselves in new ways,” he said. “They begin to realize, ‘Wow, I might be able to make a contribution to this profession.’” Jamie wants them to know that the grant is “a stamp of reassurance that they belong in this profession.”
Supporting AGU programs “is about contributing to civilization,” Jamie said. “If not for science, none of what we take for granted would work; none of what we use in our civilization would evolve.” He sees the Student Travel Grant Challenge as just one piece of AGU’s value to society, along with other pieces like the Thriving Earth Exchange and the Congressional Science Fellowships. “There are answers to big questions, and we’re part of the solution.”
Jamie is extraordinarily grateful for everyone who has contributed to the Austin Student Travel Grant Challenge so far this year. “I had no idea we would have thousands of contributors.” But this initiative isn’t over. “I want this challenge to be a calling card” for everyone who believes in supporting the next generation of scientists. “Ultimately, every student who wants to come to the Fall Meeting should be supported,” said Jamie. “It’s never been more important than it is now.”
—Heather Goss ([email protected]), Editor in Chief, Eos