Going against the Flow: A Fluid Dynamics Conference

APS DFD is the American Physical Society’s divisional conference centered on one main topic: Fluid Dynamics. And this year’s 71st annual DFD meeting was my first non-SICB conference and presentation. I have to say, this was quite an experience, for several reasons. I just wanted to recap my time at this meeting, as I usually do, because I feel like I grew as a scientist a bit. 

This recap will go all over the place: describing APS and DFD as a conference, recounting my presentation experience this round, talking about some conference-survival strategies I used, and highlighting some Women in STEM issues that popped up at the conference. It’s a long ride, but I hope it’s a good read.

Diving In

The American Physical Society is essentially the physics membership organization in the country. If you’re remotely involved with physics research, you’ll probably present at one APS-related conference, at least. It’s massive. The APS website boasts having over 55,000 members, with roughly 3,300+ choosing to attend the DFD conference each year. In comparison, SICB has 3,000+ total, with only 1200 members attending every year, and 600 members attending every other year (from the 2016 SICB Survey). Going back through the archives, it looks like APS hosts somewhere between 16 and 20 conferences each year. Some of those are division-specific, like Fluid Dynamics and Plasma Physics. Some of them are regional, like New England or the Northwest. And some are all-encompassing, like the March Meeting, where nearly 11,000 members will converge on Boston, actually, next year. (Last year it was in New Orleans.)

I pulled these from the 2017 APS Annual Report. For comparison, the two largest conferences in the US, according to some sites on Google, are the American Chemical Society, with 150,000+, and the American Geophysical Union coming in second with 62,000+. Also for comparison, the European Physical Society has 120,000+ members. 

APS’s 47 units are organized into four categories. Divisions are research topic specific. Sections are based on locality. Forums are based on career demographics or interests. And topics appear to be more specific research topics (e.g. Division of Plasma Physics, but the topical group of Plasma Astrophysics). 

Most of my friends from Georgia Tech physics (both undergrads and grads at GT, and undergrads who have become grad students at other institutions) are involved with APS. I never really felt the need to join or try to present my astrophysics work at APS as an undergrad, for three reasons. First, my adviser never asked to me present my work beyond a poster at a recruitment symposium for high schoolers (and I can’t remember if that was actually his idea or mine, but regardless I was fine with how that worked out). Secondly, I knew I wasn’t really going to continue in physics after I graduated Tech. I loved my biology classes, and finished the bulk of my bio degree about a year and a half before my physics degree–and I tolerated most of my physics classes. There are only a few that I truly enjoyed. I was completely cognizant of those feelings, and they informed my decisions about grad school. When people ask me why I even stuck around to finish my physics degree, I tell them it was because I was too stubborn to quit. Which is true. And then lastly, who has ever heard the words “physics conference” and “fun” spoken in the same sentence? I hadn’t. So I was plenty happy to get out of undergrad having never presented at a physics conference. 

Despite all that, and having joined a biology graduate department and lab, I still ended up joining APS somehow. It’s sorta funny, in a cosmic kind of way.

It was just George and I at APS DFD this year, and only a handful of his students and post-docs in the past, as far as I can cross-reference, have presented at APS or even DFD specifically. Not everyone is doing research that would entirely fit in with APS (you know, because we’re a bio lab), but I’d almost consider myself among that group (a robot in water doesn’t exactly equal a “fluid dynamics” study). I’m a little confused about that – my work fit in with other flapper stuff, but I definitely was not presenting ‘fluid dynamics’ research – but looking back, I am still happy I got to go. 

Surprisingly, it was fun. I suspect that this was partly because experiencing novel things, in general, is fun.

The schedule for this DFD meeting did feel a bit convoluted and crammed, compared to SICB. (But then again, I do only have the one conference to compare with DFD, so maybe SICB is the weird one.) The conference started on Sunday, and the reception wasn’t held until Sunday night. The first ‘day’ of SICB, on the other hand, starts with the plenary, and immediately after is the evening reception. 

The reception was amazing. This conference was held in Atlanta, GA, organized by two GT professors (one of whom I had worked with briefly on the Antarctica pteropod project, Don Webster). And when you have 3000+ people who all research some aspect of fluids, the only place you could consider to hold the reception was the Georgia Aquarium, of course. (The scuttlebutt around the water cooler, from the organizer himself, is that this reception alone cost six figures! Jeezus.) It was crowded, but oh so marvelous. And George was a walking encyclopedia! Some engineers thought the whale sharks were whales, for example, and George happily chimed in after hearing that. I didn’t do too bad, myself, correcting people here and there (like the lady who thought the small sturgeon in the fresh-water exhibit were baby sharks!). It was fun to be the biologist in the rooms of engineers.

Talks at APS are arranged into sessions, like SICB. Each session is roughly two and a half hours each, accommodating about 10 speakers. And then sessions go from 8am in the morning to 6.30pm, compared to SICB ending at 3pm and letting out to a two-hour poster session. I’m not sure how the poster sessions at DFD worked, because I didn’t go to one, but the exhibition hall worked pretty much the same way. 

APS is very authoritarian when it comes to the sessions and timing the speakers. Each speaker has 10 minutes to talk, and 2 minutes for questions. There is a large countdown clock in the front of the room, angled to be visible by both the audience and the speaker. It starts counting down from 10. For the first 10 minutes, the background is green. For the last 2 minutes of ‘speaking time’, the background is yellow. Then the background turns red and starts counting down for the 2 minutes of Q&A. The moderator for the rooms can be quite…vocal in getting you to finish at the 2-minute mark. 

George, in fact, attempted to talk for all 12 of his minutes! “They can find me afterwards to ask questions!” But alas, the moderator of his session was about to get the shepherd’s crook and yank him off the stage after the 11th minute, just to get him to stop, haha. It was really funny, because only someone as well-established as George could get away with something like that. 

Yes, I’m working on my PS skills. They’re very beginner at present, as they would be with a beginner. Judge away.
George using a video of a leopard shark breathing, which he took at the GA Aquarium, to discuss denticle shape throughout gill structures. 

Just Keep Swimming

This was my third conference presentation, and it was my first 8am conference talk. 

And the team I went to Antarctica with gave the last talk! 

Flashing back to my first SICB talk, this talk started off with a technological hiccup. I had tested my set-up in the ready-room, and all my videos worked. However, when I started my talk, the first slide was a video, and it didn’t play. Just ex-ed out and hopped back into the presentation, and it worked fine! And I still managed to finish on time. I had two or so people come up to me afterwards and say how a glitch like that would have messed up their talk/frame of mind a lot, but they were amazed it didn’t seem to faze me. And it didn’t! Compared to that first SICB talk where everything seemed to go wrong and I almost had a panic attack, this was nothing. 

While I rarely ever think that something good came out of my first SICB talk experience, I might be wrong. I seemed to have gained some amount of resilience when giving talks! 

Another reason I felt so relaxed when giving this talk, I think, is because I’ve been doing this all semester. I’ve been teaching a really fun class (post incoming) and in it, I’ve been leading a nearly-weekly discussion section. And by ‘discussion section’ I mean, I stand at the front of the room and lecture for a good bit, and pause here and there to ask questions and do the good ol’ think-pair-share with my students. This class isn’t really set up well for a true discussion, but my co-TF and I found a happy intermediate spot. Unfortunately, this intermediate spot means that I’m creating slides for a 60-min lecture each week, often from scratch and always the night before/morning of. And then I stand at the front of the classroom in the morning and talk. With no prep. 

I have known for ages that I’m the bad-type of public speaker. I’m the type that needs to write a script, memorize that script, and then not deviate from that script in any way lest I start stammering, pausing, and tripping over words. I have known that I was horrible at improv-speaking, but this semester of improv-speaking an entire lecture every week has certainly done wonders!

I’m still the needs-a-script type of speaker, but I’ve learned to incorporate wiggle-room. I had practiced a few different ways to say/explain things for my talk, and because of that, I was able to accommodate spending a non-trivial amount of APS talk time fixing the problem and getting back to rights, and still finished within the allotted 10 minutes (I’m still proud of myself for this, if you can’t tell 😉 ). 

Finding the Shallows

One of the reasons I think SICB is so much fun is that I can hang out with all my friends from across the country. Granted, I met most of them during grad-school interviews (so not that long ago), but the ones I’ve kept in touch with, I love. And I pretty much only get to see them at SICB. Even though SICB is a long conference (3.25 days), friends make it so much more enjoyable than if I were going at it alone. Misery loves company. 

At APS, it was George and me. I knew very few people at this conference going in, and most of them were from GT. And so, I was facing this situation: talks from 8am to 6.30pm, no one to suffer the conference with, and the subject matter was fluid dynamics. Let’s face it, no one sane hears “fluid dynamics” and thinks “fun stuff”, either. And yet, I’ve said I had fun. I tried out a few different strategies to survive this conference, and surprisingly, they worked out! Here they are: 

Pick a room. There are a lot of sessions covering a lot of topics, and a few here and there might be relevant to your research. Pick the session that seems to be most in-line with what you do (outside of the session that you’re presenting at, of course), and just stay there. Don’t try to run all around the conference hearing sequential talks in different rooms. It’s not always worth as much as you think it is, and you’ll just end up so incredibly tired. Don’t worry about what you’re missing. You can only be at one place at a time – accept that limitation, and pick the room that, on average, will give you the best bang for your buck.

Seek out some fun talks. When/if there are no sessions/talks that are relevant to your research, go to some fun talks! Don’t worry about taking notes, just relax and enjoy some funny/interesting/befuzzling research talks. 

Why Antman and the Wasp need masks in order to breathe at small sizes. Here’s a good write-up! 

Get away. Escape. There’s no law that you must be at the conference for the entirety of the conference. In fact, that’s the best way to feel burnt out – trying to go to all of it. It’s not feasible, you will miss something, and the FOMO monster will never be appeased. So don’t try. My recommendation is, after going through the program and highlighting all the talks you should see and all the talks you’d like to see (fun ones, friends’ talks, etc.), find a block of 2 hours or more where there’s nothing you’d like to attend. Use that time to take a nap, explore the city, or go to the movie theaters! 

After I scoured the APS program, I discovered that all the sessions and talks I needed/wanted to attend were either in the morning or the 4-6.30pm session. That meant I had about four hours everyday where I didn’t feel the need to be at the conference. So I wasn’t. I visited my friends and professors at GT (the ones I could find, at least), and I went to the rock climbing gym. It was a massive relief, not forcing myself to stay for talks I knew I wouldn’t enjoy or even be able to truly understand, since I have no actual fluid-dynamics training. This was the first conference I’ve attended where I didn’t feel like I needed to hibernate for a week afterwards, and I’ll definitely be using at least one if not all or more, new strategies at SICB this coming January. 

Lonely Female Fish in the Pond

As you might have seen in the first demographic image, APS is mostly male: 18% female in general. DFD is even more unbalanced: only 13% total. APS Fellows are “members who may have made advances in physics through original research and publication, or made significant innovative contributions in the application of physics to science and technology. They may also have made significant contributions to the teaching of physics or service and participation in the activities of the Society.” And looking at the stats below, there are roughly 325 fellows in DFD, and only 5% of those fellows are women. The other divisions seem equally skewed. I don’t know what the applicant pool looks like, but when people are talking about the need to get more women into STEM fields and fixing the issues of gender equality, they aren’t talking about biology or psychology departments, where the split among graduate students at least can be closer to 50/50, or have a majority of women. They are talking about these “harder” sciences, where the gender gap is so obvious a blind person couldn’t miss it. 

Divisional demographic data for APS. Source.

If you follow my twitter at all, you probably saw my comments and observations as I went through this conference. If not, here’s a recap: the very first morning, walking from the hotel to the conference, was just me and a river of Asian males, with a few caucasian men sprinkled here and there. The next morning, I opened my session at 8am. I stayed for the entire session and I was the only woman speaker. I can’t even recall if there was a woman in the audience. I checked the list of authors for my session and out of 45, there were 5-6 women total. Same with George’s session: two female speakers. Granted, I only attended these two sessions fully, and I bounced around others. It’s very well possible that some sessions had a majority of female speakers, and I’m just not aware of them. (If you went to APS and attended such a session, let me know! I’d be very curious what the subject matter was.) 

I also attended a Women in Fluids…thing. It was part lunch, part networking, part seminar. Six people sat at each table, and then we were meant to discuss ideas and solutions regarding mentoring women, retaining women in all levels of academia, reducing the load of being a woman in a male-dominated department, and so on. 

I certainly enjoyed meeting the women I sat with, but I was annoyed because women should not be the sole bearers of the responsibility of fixing this broken system. We came up with good ideas, sure, but there were only a few that we could carry out ourselves. A lot of the ideas required the cooperation or depended solely upon the men in the department, requiring them to act as our allies in this fight. And they should be! I want allies! 

This entire luncheon had a “preaching to the choir” thing going on, and because of that, I just didn’t get a whole lot out of it. An ‘allies’ seminar in which men were asked to participate (only one man came to this luncheon), where they could contribute ideas that they themselves would feel connected to and work on, would be amazing. I feel like that would actually be making progress. 

The very last thing I want to touch on is that the cultures at a male-dominated conference are very different. Things are changing, slowly but surely, and remembering what happened at ASIH last year (tl;dr American Society of Ichthyology and Herpetology, old white guy professor gave an huge award acceptance talk and all the images of his female students/assistants were of them in bikinis, supposedly, while they were doing field research At The Beach. The conference slide-master thought adding blue boxes over the bikini bits would be the best solution. ASIH didn’t have a code of conduct at the time. Source), it seems like it takes a big, public mistake and a lot of public backlash in order to actually get these conferences to start making adjustments to what is acceptable. 

And this year at APS, one of the women I met at the luncheon thing pointed out this awesome conference talk title. 

Up-skirt photos are when men bend over under one pretense or another and take a photo under a girl/woman’s skirt/dress. It is usually done without consent, in a public place. Unfortunately in a lot of states, laws specifying this act as a crime don’t exist until after someone is publicly caught. This happened in GA in 2016. 

Three things. One, a ‘skirt’ is a technical word for something to do with bubbles. Actually. Two, I like how the he got rid of the ellipsis to make it more kosher in this second round. And three, I could have blurred out the author’s name, but then a google search of the title would show you the answer quickly enough. 

The awesome woman (a fellow grad student) who pointed this out to me also pointed it out to several others involved with the administration of this conference, and it was all done quite quietly. But this should never have been approved as a title to begin with. 

This conference did really help open my eyes to the position of women in science and how we’re going about improving the situation. 

TL;DR

This conference has been the one where I felt myself grow as a scientist the most, I think. In past SICBs, I was just hanging on for the ride and trying to stay above water by surrounding myself with friends. This time, I was forced to discover and use some strategies to help prevent myself from suffering the conference burn-out. Because of them, APS DFD was not nearly as bad as I thought it would have been, and was even enjoyable. I was enlightened about the struggle women face in “harder” academic fields, and the way I want to approach this in the future is by reaching out to men and getting them involved again, not excluding them from the discussion. And I realized I had grown, even if marginally, as a presenter. Teaching this semester has just helped me feel more relaxed in front of a crowd, and has given me some minor improv-speaking skills, which is cool!

Cheers,

Z

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