Epistemic status: I report my experience, and add what I understood from talking to others. Comparisons to other conferences are based on two US-based and two European conferences.
In the last few days I attended the “KITP Conference: Planet-Star Connections in the Era of TESS and Gaia” that took place at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, CA, USA. I had a surprisingly good experience that I am sharing here.
On average, four out of five talks had excellent quality. They were clear, picked everyone up in the beginning, did not run overtime, and did not seem to oversell results. All talks, except for mine, which was 10 min + 5 min long, were 20 min + 10 min (talk + discussion). There was plenty of time for discussion, clarifications and comments. I noticed little status signalling during the sessions. The overall atmosphere was mutually respectful.
My own talk went well for me, although I could not help but notice that the level of my talk did not quite fit the rest. Most talks were review-ish, while mine just presented a particular tentative result from my most recent project. But the organizers made it play well with the other talks, as they carefully selected the speakers and invited them to give talks on specific topics. The questions I was asked were rather suggestions on what else to look for in the data. Some I had thought of before, others were new. On balance, I believe it was a good feedback to work with at my stage.
All talks, includind mine, were recorded. I find most of them worth re-watching. Update: While reviewing the talks I found both more flaws and more interesting content that I had missed previously. My overall impression, however, remained as described.
Punchline first: Chairs in panel discussions that take their job seriously are key. Whenever they managed to provide guardrails and good starting points the discussion was fruitful. There are, of course, some who always raise their hands first, but no-one hijacked the conversation entirely. Those who talked a lot added value to the panel overall more often than just grabbing attention.
20-30 posters were on display throughout the conference in the hallway between the lecture hall and the courtyard, so that one could pass by during the breaks and have a look.
Before the poster session we had a round of lightning talks. I felt that they were too many to really appreciate every single one of them. But it was a good ice breaker for the session.
During the poster session, however, everyone was crammed into the narrow space between the poster walls. It was very noisy. I talked to three other students about their posters during the session, and to another one later during the week, and got to chat over mine as well. I believe, I could have had more interesting conversations, but I began to lose my voice. Fortunately, the reception after the poster session extended the poster chats into the evening.
Coffee breaks and receptions
Coffee breaks were 30 min, lunch breaks 90 min. Receptions were open end, but ended after around 2 1/2 hours. Mid-conference we had a free afternoon with an open house hosted by Las Cumbres Observatory in the evening, which I did not attend. The breaks allowed me to follow up on various people’s talks in person, chat with many others sitting at the round tables in the courtyard. I bumped into random people, and started conversations. Others approached me and took interest in the work I presented, or my “early PhD life” experiences.
The catering is worth mentioning: There was little alcohol, and many vegetarian options. For the first time during a conference, I could maintain a healthy diet on site.
Compared to what I have so far seen at astronomy related conferences, there was an excess of women and luminaries in the field (with a considerable overlap between these two groups). There was a bunch of PhD students, but I confidently place myself far into the junior tail of the years-in-science distribution.
The crowd was inspiring! So many expert minds at my fingertips, openly discussing the most recent puzzles, questioning long-standing paradigms, and suggesting ways to make progress with the most pressing questions.
From first steps to spotlight solos to group choreography
The thread that ran through the week was a sense of revolution powered by Gaia, TESS, Kepler and other recent, as well as future missions and surveys like PLATO and Luvoir/HabEx. The data treasury has been growing exponentially over the past years and the missions ahead promise that the trend will continue. On the other hand, there is a lack of coordinated programs that would obtain complementary observations needed to lift various degeneracies in our current findings. We might be leaving the era of poking in the dark, and entering a data-rich time with growing coordination across institutes and projects. If this trend continues, more coordination will eventually allow us to tackle the parallelization of programs and observations relatively soon, and make telescopes come together to dance beautiful choreographies.
What to expect from future conferences?
This conference was ideal for sparking new ideas, bringing together different subfields, and collectively taking a bird’s eye perspective on the planet-star connection. All of the conference’s features surprised me, and I do not see how I could have predicted them before applying. The sole robust update is that a conference associated with a KITP program is a relatively safe choice because I learned that these conferences all follow a similar pattern. As for the characteristics to look for in a conference I would now make the following ranking:
- topic (personal interest, fit to own work, broad/narrow theme, redundancy with other conferences)
- invited speakers, chairs, and participants
- opportunity to make an own contribution
- variety in formats and break duration
- the LOC’s commitment to creating a welcoming environment (code of conduct)
Caution: priorities shift significantly with the total number of participants, the remaining duration of your contract, and the type of input you are seeking out.