30 January 2024

DC-Area Astrophysics Graduate Student Conference Revived!

Rachael Stewart George Washington University

Alexander Lange George Washington University

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The student-run DC Consortium Astrophysics Graduate Student Conference (DCAGSC) resumed this August at the George Washington University (GWU), after a hiatus due to COVID-19. The 2023 DCAGSC saw representation from the majority of DC Consortium schools with active astrophysics graduate programs and drew over 30 graduate students. 

The two-day conference adopted a peer education format, enabling students to take central roles in organizing sessions, presenting research, engaging in informal mentorship, and coordinating with other students regarding their academic and professional goals. The event featured three poster sessions and four oral session blocks on gamma-ray bursts, instrumentation, binary star systems, and tidal disruption events, through which students refined their research presentation skills. Students shared their own developed tools, software, and analysis experiences, imparting best practices to newer astronomy students as they embark on their research projects. Additionally, the conference hosted a discussion-based town hall on fostering inter- and intra-department communities, a workshop on grant and telescope proposal writing, and a panel discussion featuring five postdoctoral students currently working in the area. The conference concluded with a group trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. 

Captions: Top left: Jon Hulberg, a PhD student at The Catholic University of America, showcases his poster on his research of Asymptotic Giant Branch stars and their circumstellar environments to onlookers. Top right: Graduate students relax with some tater-tots and beers at Tonic after a day of presenting research and networking! Bottom left: Erika Hammerstein gives an oral presentation on her work on Tidal Disruption Events to attendees. Bottom right: A post-doc panel answers tough questions and gives advice featuring (left to right) Dr. Jeremy Hare, Dr. Nazma Islam, Dr. Jordan Eagle, Dr. Noel Klingler, and Dr. Michael Moss. Image credits: Alexander Lange and Rachael Stewart.

Dedicated to empowering graduate students through the peer education model, the DCAGSC provides a platform for sharing research, networking, and building connections within the broader District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area. The student-led initiative began almost 10 years ago when two University of Maryland graduate students recognized the need for a space that exclusively focuses on the experiences and research of DMV astrophysics graduate students. As future experts in their fields, graduate students stand to benefit from a peer-to-peer format wherein they can actively democratize knowledge and create collaborative learning environments with others who share similar challenges and insights. Following its inaugural run, the conference evolved into an annual event, rotating among host schools each year until its several year-long hiatus. 

Participating in a graduate program offers valuable connections among students, especially in the astrophysical field, where collaboration across different research specialties is crucial for investigating complex systems and macroscopic problems. However, the pandemic hindered the ability of graduate students in the DC Consortium (an alliance between universities in the DMV Metropolitan area) to engage organically with each other. Conference co-organizer Rae Stewart (PhD candidate, GWU) noted that the majority of engagement she had with fellow DC graduate students was at national or even international conferences. The DCAGSC seemed an optimal and cost-effective opportunity for students to connect locally while providing a stage for early career students who have yet to attend national events. Additionally, several students commented on the positive experience they had with the non-traditional student-centric model of the conference. 

Alex Lange, DCAGSC co-organizer and PhD candidate from GWU, remarked on the great turnout from the University of Maryland, George Mason University, the Catholic University of America, and GWU:

Over 30 graduate students joined us over the conference, with 11 speakers and 13 posters presented. Even a few significant others and friends of attendees showed up! I think that it is so easy to get lost in one’s own research group, it’s important to see what other graduate students are doing without being overshadowed by professors, advisors and career scientists. Often, I find it hard to ask questions or speak about research at a conference frequented by award winning physicists and experts. I’m glad Rae and I were able to provide a space where more questions were asked than we had time for almost every talk!

Several participants also shared their impressions of the conference.

  • Thunyapong (M) Mahapol, a PhD candidate at George Mason University, shared:

The consortium conference gave me a splendid opportunity to connect with individuals in the similar field. Sharing and discussing scientific research and university life with fellow attendees were an enriching experience. This gathering reminds me of how productive we can be when we come together to exchange ideas. I hope the astrophysics student community in the DMV area will keep growing so we can keep doing something great, cool, and astronomical in the future.

  • Erika Hoffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, highlighted:

I had a great time at the DC Consortium meeting network of early career astronomers right next door to me that I hadn’t even realized existed! It suddenly made my local community feel so much larger, and gave me a window into the life and work of my fellow astronomers in the city [of DC, me being at UMD]. I thought the discussions about graduate students rights and environment were extremely important, because the only way to make sure we’re treated fairly and properly supported is through transparency. And the professional development aspects of the Consortium helped me better conceptualize future parts of my career and set more reasonable expectations for my PhD. For example, hearing multiple people in a panel of postdocs say they only had one published paper by the time they applied was extremely comforting. Now whenever I worry about the pace of my PhD and wonder whether I will publish or parish, I remember that one good paper is enough to get to the next stage, and that feels very obtainable. I had a great experience at the DC Consortium and I really hope we can organize another. 

  • Alex van Kooten, a PhD student at the George Washington University, expressed: 

This was a great conference! I really enjoyed meeting fellow astronomy grad students from other DC area schools and getting to hear about their research. We had some very interesting presentations, and a handful of poster sessions with excellent posters, and some fruitful panel discussions about our department environments, how to write proposals, and what postdoc positions are like. A trip to the Smithsonian Air and Space museum topped off the conference nicely! The fact that it was only grad students attending made it a more informal and lower pressure conference, which I think helped everyone make connections and practice their presenting skills. Looking forward to similar conferences in the future! 

The conference stands as an example of the effectiveness of peer education initiatives as a compelling educational approach that other universities may wish to consider implementing. Post-conference surveys revealed an overwhelming enthusiasm among participants for both repeating the conference in the future as well as self-organizing additional student events throughout the year. 

Future DCAGSC goals include even greater participation from local students, expanding events beyond the conference, and establishing a platform for students to easily share resources, publications, and local events with each other. To efficiently and impactfully address these goals, a DC Consortium Astrophysics Graduate Student Committee composed of graduate students from various schools is being assembled this fall. Organizers Rae Stewart and Alex Lange aim to host the event again at GWU, followed by a rotation of schools in the coming years. 

Special thanks to all who made this event possible, including former GWU Physics Department Chair Chryssa Kouveliotou, faculty representative Alexander van der Horst, event consultant Oleg Kargeltsev, and the GWU Physics Department administration team. Stay tuned for updates and opportunities to shape the future of DC Astrophysics graduate student collaboration.