9 April 2020

Getting Real About Going Virtual 

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel American Astronomical Society (AAS)

From the Executive Office

I’m so proud of the AAS staff and our volunteer leaders at this challenging time. Despite the anxiety induced by the coronavirus and its impact on the world, on our nation and on each of us, everyone has stepped up to keep our organization operating and even innovating as we go.

We just wrapped up the April Board of Trustees meeting, where reports from the Historical Astronomical Division, Employment Committee, and Education Committee were discussed. The Employment Committee, anticipating a need for greater career advice for our members, is working with Alaina Levine, who gives workshops and provides career counseling at our semiannual conferences, to create online content, live and archived webinars, and other professional-development resources over the coming year. Her first took place on 8 April; another will occur in two weeks, with the exact date yet to be determined. The Education Committee has proposed (and the Board approved) a continuation of the AAS Education & Professional Development (EPD) Mini-Grant Program and will soon have descriptions of the results from prior EPD grants available online. These are just two examples of the value delivered by our organization.

AAS 236 BannerElsewhere on our website is a summary of how we plan to carry out our first-ever virtual conference following a rapid assessment of available tools and our ability to utilize them effectively given our resources. We’re also announcing an opportunity for AAS members to record a performance at home and upload it to our Virtual Open Mic Project. Inspired by the Open Mic Nights we hold at our winter and summer meetings, as well as by Yo Yo Ma’s #SongsOfComfort, this asynchronous experience will allow attendees to enjoy a bit of entertainment before, during, and/or after our virtual conference.

During our virtual meeting, to be held Monday-Wednesday, 1-3 June, we plan to use Zoom Webinars for our plenary talks, town halls, and contributed oral sessions; iPosters for all poster contributions; and a combination of Zoom Webinars and iPosters for iPoster-Plus sessions. We will also have a virtual exhibit hall and are working with our exhibitors to help them make the transition to this compelling new mode of presentation and interaction.

Abstract submission is open through 14 April, and we already have well over 300 abstracts in hand — with plenty of room for more. If you weren’t planning to attend the Madison meeting, please consider submitting your latest exciting research for remote presentation at our first-ever virtual meeting.

Registration is open too, through 29 May. The cost to participate is low for members of all types. We are hopeful that many who would not otherwise have joined our gathering in Madison will take this opportunity to join us for our virtual conference, even if only for one of the three days. We need your from to explore this new mode of interaction through participating, not just because we might have to do it again, but because we envision some form of virtual content playing a part in all future AAS meetings. This will help Earth’s climate, allow greater participation, and remove the barriers to attendance imposed by the costs and inconveniences of travel.

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that, despite the recent decline in the stock market, the Society is financially sound. We have no plans to lay off any of our employees (including our colleagues at Sky & Telescope), and we do not envision needing or taking relief funds from the government. We’ve worked very hard for more than a decade to ensure that the Society can continue to operate despite significant economic challenges. We have adequate reserves and have not seen any decline in the number of manuscripts submitted to our journals or subscription renewals for Sky & Telescope. We expect our summer meeting to break even or do slightly better as long as we have good participation from our community. This could change, of course, but for now, we think we’ll be fine.

What the future holds is never clear. The specifics of what we may face in a week, month, or year are totally unknown. What we will do now and will continue to do is to focus on our mission, value our staff and volunteer leaders, provide benefit to our members, and advance the astronomical sciences. Succeeding will require that we adjust what we do and how we do it, and that's what we’re doing.

For now, let’s bask in the positive outcome of just two short weeks of volunteer and staff effort: the invention of a viable plan for an engaging, exciting virtual AAS conference in just two months’ time. Please join us as we explore this exciting new realm!

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