Many scientists and students attending Fall Meeting for the first time find it a memorable, inspiring, and perhaps even life-changing experience. In room after room of an enormous convention center, scientists from around the world give talks about their latest findings. Simultaneously, thousands of posters highlighting much more of the latest Earth and space science research line rank after rank of display boards filling a vast hall. Attendees include some of the world’s leading scientists in their discipline.
Aside from adjusting to the busy and energetic atmosphere that is Fall Meeting, students may also be presenting their research for the first time at a scientific conference. The Outstanding Student Presentation Award (OSPA) program provides students attending the meeting the opportunity to receive feedback on their presentation skills as well as network with other scientists.
The program is open to students working on their bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degree. Students may opt to participate during the Fall Meeting abstract submission process. They sign up to have their presentation, poster or oral, evaluated by anonymous judges who provide feedback and ratings. They may benefit from unbiased feedback from those who are outside of their own academic institutions. In addition to providing feedback to students, OSPA, which previously stood for Outstanding Student Paper Awards, strives to encourage student participation in scientific research by recognizing those who demonstrate excellence in research and presentation skills. The majority of those judged are Ph.D. students, comprising 84.6% of participants in 2017.
Feedback to Grow On
Judges provide feedback in areas including presentation, content, and communication style. The feedback can help influence future presentations by helping students continually refine their increasingly necessary skills at communicating their science. Volunteers in each section select the top presenters to receive an OSPA.
The program itself has grown dramatically since its beginning in 1999. In 2017, there was a total of 2,935 student participants from 51 countries. As described by Dr. Gaëlle Gilson, a postdoctoral researcher at Université Catholique de Louvain and a 2016 OSPA student participant, “In such a big conference it is nice to have interactions with judges. The feedback itself was good, but interacting with more experienced researchers from your field of study was also immensely beneficial.” Fall Meeting was the first conference Dr. Gilson attended in which she presented a poster. “Registering for OSPA helped me interact with attendees I may not have otherwise,” she said.
Aleya Kaushik, now a postdoctoral fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., participated in OSPA every year she presented at Fall Meeting as a student, a total of six times. She recounted her longtime participation: “Any feedback [received] from the OSPA judges I tried to take into consideration when I was designing my next poster, so it’s always been helpful from that perspective.” Students can receive feedback that helps them build upon presentation skills that serve them well into the later stages of their career.
Guiding the Next Generation of Geoscientists
The OSPA judging process is accomplished solely by volunteer judges, who are an integral part of OSPA as they give their time and expertise to help students progress in their field. Three judges are recruited for each student. The recruitment process is a large collaborative effort by OSPA coordinators, OSPA liaisons, and section presidents. Judge recruitment begins in November and actively continues through Fall Meeting to fill any remaining judging slots.
This process allows senior scientists to connect with a younger generation of student geoscientists and provide invaluable networking opportunities for students. Laurie Brown, professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and president of the Geomagnetism, Paleomagnetism, and Electromagnetism section, commented on one of her favorite parts of being an OSPA judge: “What I really enjoyed was talking specifically to students about their work and particularly some of the topics that I may not have gone to on my own. [The presentations] weren’t close to what I’m doing, but those are always really interesting because you can learn a lot from the student and see what the students are doing.” Increased interaction between students and senior scientists promotes additional engagement across disciplines and career stages, facilitating scientific collaboration.
Those working in the professional scientific community for many years can impart some of their own wisdom as well as provide important feedback to students nearing their career debut. More than 80% of volunteer judges who were surveyed about their participation in OSPA from Fall Meeting 2016 responded that they felt that the greatest benefit of volunteering was being able to interact with students and being able to give back. Many judges volunteer multiple years and look at OSPA as one of the pillars of their Fall Meeting experience.
An Essential Part of the Process
As with any growing program, there are difficulties in scaling. Not all students who opt in to OSPA have three volunteer judges sign up to evaluate them. Recruiting enough judges for nearly 3,000 students in different sections is sometimes challenging. Gilson recognizes the difficulty in recruiting enough volunteers and is willing to give back now that she has earned her Ph.D. “I realize it is an important process and OSPA has helped me, so I will volunteer as a judge when I have the opportunity,” she said.
Analysis of Fall Meeting data from 2013 to 2017 shows that students who participate in OSPA are more than 12% more likely to present research at future meetings. OSPA winners are nearly twice as likely to present at future meetings compared with students who did not participate in the program. The confidence students gain in their presentation and research skills from participating in OSPA encourages scientific collaboration and engagement within their field.
Through engagement with the scientific community at Fall Meeting, students who participate in OSPA are able to share their research with a wider network of scientists and receive invaluable feedback. AGU and former participants recognize the positive impact that OSPA can have on the development of a student scientist in the early stages of his or her career.
—Lauren Atol-Patton, Fall 2018 Talent Pool Intern, AGU; and Leslie Marasco (email: [email protected]), Student Program Coordinator, AGU