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Why YOU should attend the Graduate Climate Conference!

GCC_logoI arrived in Seattle on the Thursday before Halloween and stepped out of the SEATAC (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) terminal into a very wet autumn night. After an interminable voyage on Seattle’s public transit that included a bizarre encounter with a drunk, international man of mystery (who, it seems, was not allowed to leave the state) and block upon endless block of rain-streaked neon signs, I finally arrived at the home of Andrew and Hayley, my gracious hosts for the Graduate Climate Conference (GCC).

I first heard about the GCC through a friend in GDPE working in David Cooper’s lab. Dr. Cooper primarily works in wetland and riparian ecology, hydrology, and restoration, and so the GCC seemed like an unlikely place for one of his students to present her work. I came to discover, however, that the GCC is an interdisciplinary conference designed to bring together graduate students from all corners of climate change research. My friend’s experience sounded rewarding and interesting and when the request for abstracts came across the wire, I jumped at the opportunity to attend. Having now attended the conference myself, I am here to tell you why you, my fellow graduate students, should prioritize attending the GCC in coming years.

The stated goal of the conference is to “to provide a discussion forum for graduate students undertaking research on climate and climate change in an array of disciplines, including atmospheric, biological, earth and ocean sciences, social sciences and humanities.” Most importantly, the conference is organized by graduate students for graduate students.

November in Washington is gray and rainy.  This scene is from Mount Rainier National Park.

November in Washington is gray and rainy, perfect for a secluded climate conference. This scene is from Mount Rainier National Park.

The 2014 edition of the GCC was the eighth iteration of the conference. Started in 2006 by a group of graduate students at the University of Washington (UW), the conference now alternates between UW and the joint hosting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, amusingly pronounced hooey). The stated goal of the conference is to “provide a discussion forum for graduate students undertaking research on climate and climate change in an array of disciplines, including atmospheric, biological, earth and ocean sciences, social sciences and humanities.” Most importantly, the conference is organized by graduate students for graduate students.

GCC participants, who totaled about 100 this year, gathered at UW on the morning of Halloween to bus down to the Pack Forest Conference Center, the site of this year’s conference. I came to Seattle expecting an invigorating intellectual environment, but I was pleasantly surprised to also relive my cherished summer camp experience; the only thing missing was my mom waving goodbye and braces. The Pack Forest is damp and lovely at this time of year, and is located outside Eatonville, WA, a short drive from Mount Rainier National Park.

The Pack Forest Conference Center, Eatonville, WA.

The Pack Forest Conference Center, Eatonville, WA.

Under towering Douglas-firs, we slept eight to a bunk cabin, shared locker room-style bathrooms, and ate surprisingly good cafeteria food. The days were structured around speaker sessions, which generally featured four to five 15-minute talks. Towards the end of the day, we transitioned from the main hall to the poster hall where the posters and a fresh keg of beer awaited us. Unlike the oral sessions, the posters were not grouped by topic and intermingled research from all fields; my poster on mountain pine beetles was stationed next to a poster describing how aerosols affect the formation and persistence of ice and mixed-phase clouds in the atmosphere.

The author posing with his poster during poster session A.

The author posing with his poster during poster session A.

As was promised, the conference featured research spanning myriad disciplines that are exploring aspects climate change. Research was grouped into seven categories, which also represented the themes of the seven oral sessions: Carbon Cycle, Paleoclimate, Ecoclimate, Climate Dynamics, Cryosphere, Human Dimensions, and Biological Change.   Each session featured an introductory presentation on the basic principles of research in that field, and these introductions helped orient everybody around important jargon and key concepts of that particular theme. While there were certainly presentations that I struggled to follow, for the most part, participants sufficiently dumbed down their research to make it accessible for the broad audience present.  Though it is tempting to try and recount all of the cool stuff I learned—did you know that the Southern Ocean carbon sink represents approximately 40% of the net ocean carbon sink!?!?—I will instead encourage you to skim through the abstract booklet and check out some of the research for yourself. Overall, I was very impressed by the research, and scientists, at the conference.

Beyond the research presentations, one of the highlights for me was the keynote address on Friday night, given by Dr. Dennis Hartman, the only non-graduate student attendee and professor of Atmospheric Sciences at UW. Dr. Hartman was a lead coordinating author for the recently released IPCC Fifth Assessment (AR5) report, and in addition to an entertaining personal account of his life replete with humorous old photos of himself and his family—“here is a photo of me killing things with guns when I was a kid”—he provided a fascinating behind-the-scenes recounting of his experience working with the IPCC. His unique insights included tidbits about the representative from Canada (she was particularly constructive), perspectives on participating in the IPCC (a great thing to do but it comes at the expense of professional opportunity), and the life of an IPCC author (an intrepid voyage around the world from conference room to conference room).

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Sexy polar bear #1: master of ceremonies at the GCC Halloween party.

Dr. Hartman’s address was not the only highlight of the weekend however.  In addition to the great research, the GCC made an effort to keep things light and fun.  Saturday night featured a Halloween party with research-themed costumes that included a gentleman from Florida dressed as the Doppler Effect with a Mexican luchador twist, a woman from Berkeley adorned with a bag of dirt around her torso to transform her into soil organic matter, and multiple sexy polar bears. After the sessions on Sunday, the conference concluded with some optional recreational activities. I chose to hike in Mount Rainier National Park, though many others returned to Seattle and toured the Fremont Brewery.

The GCC was fun and informative, and I would encourage all of my friends and colleagues to attend the conference during their time in graduate school.

Back at Andrew and Hayley’s house on Sunday night, wet and tired from the hike at Rainier, I took some time to reflect on the conference. Overall, the conference ran smoothly and mostly on time, there was ample beer, and we were encouraged to enjoy ourselves. The conference hosted attendees from the around the globe (USA, the Netherlands, Australia to name a few) and provided a relaxed, casual atmosphere to present and discuss research to a diverse audience. It also provided the opportunity to learn about fields that we, as ecologists, may have little exposure to. In the end, after days of explaining my research to oceanographers and atmospheric scientists, I was able to more clearly conceptualize my own research while also learning about theirs.  The GCC was fun and informative, and it is a great opportunity to learn about climate research and network with peers outside of ecology.  The conference was a terrific experience that was pulled off with aplomb, and I would encourage all of my friends and colleagues to attend the conference during their time in graduate school.

To check out all of the GCC action on Twitter, search #GradClimCon14.

Aaron Sidder, a member of the Ecopress team, is a MS student in NREL in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.  He studies forest disturbance, specifically the role of climate in recent mountain pine beetle outbreaks.  He is a master s’mores-man and steely-skinned swimmer of mountain streams.

One comment

  1. amandazwest

    I couldn’t agree more! I attended the GCC in 2012, and greatly appreciated the broad array of research I was exposed to regarding climate change while there. Any graduate student with research directly or indirectly related to climate change (which is likely the majority of us) would benefit from this experience.

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