Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Goldschmidt Conference Report-A Blog-Along Conversation


I just discovered Terry McGlynn’s great blog, and he wrote about a geochemistry conference—the Goldschmidt conference—which I attend occasionally. I was there in Sacramento, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you, Terry. Here, conversation-style, are his comments and my response & discussion.
·       As far as I can tell from this conference, if it were not for the study of isotope ratios, we would know absolutely nothing about the earth of the Earth. There’s a scene from Being John Malkovich in which all characters just say, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” This meeting felt similar: “isotope, isotope, isotope, isotope.”
True—but remember that “isotope” is a tool (it’s just chemistry, after all, on an extended periodic table) and the scientific questions-and-answers are key.
·       A lot of geochemistry is about developing and assuring the validity of methods. It all comes down to the accuracy and reliability of methods. I’d say that the vast majority of the talks and posters that I saw were about methods.
This community is heavy on the methods-development. This is good—there is great scientific richness to follow when better & better methods are being developed. Perhaps the focus on methods-development is an indicator that the science itself is not overly-mature.
·       A not-uncommon conversation-starter: “What machine do you have?”
“How big is your machine? Mine is so big!”
Such an interesting conversation to me because I come from a community (mineral physics) where we have made the transition to shared community resources for much of our work. I prefer the term “evolved”, and many years ago discovered that I could really make a geochemist uncomfortable (if desired) by saying the words “Shared community resources”
Much of the state-of-the-art mineral physics measurements are made at synchrotron-based beamlines, which are one to three orders of magnitude more expensive than mass spectrometers, depending on how the accounting is done. What this has meant for our field is worthy for an entire post, but includes at least these four positives: 1. Shift in focus from the techniques to the “big science questions” 2. a semi-organized community effort to discuss grand challenges and seed community infrastructure and facility 3. the ability for mineral physics to exist at smaller institutions, not just large rich ones. 4. More camaraderie and cooperation in the early & now-approaching-mid-career generation than in our previous pre-synchrotron advisors’ generations.
I think at least partially adopting this model would very very very (x100) good for isotope geochemistry.
 Geochemists are beardier than ecologists. But perhaps less scruffy.
Is the gender balance similar? Are there more beards simply because there are more men?
·       When conference registration costs about what I imagine you could get for a kidney on the black market, you get what you pay for. Very well organized, copious snacks of the non-cheap variety (including fresh raspberries and blackberries) and always fresh fruit available, constant coffee, and lots of drink tickets for the poster sessions. Which serve good beer. (Then again, the Entomology meeting is only one hundred bucks cheaper or so, and they don’t have any of that). And the students who volunteer not only get free registration, they also get paid!
The student-volunteer aspect is a good reminder for those who kvetch about costs.
·       I’m used to ecologists battling for fame and status by being the champion of an Important Theory. At least from the view of an outsider, I didn’t see this so much of it in Geochemistry. People weren’t selling theories, they were selling methods. (Then, I was told by insiders, once a method is unassailable, then it can be used to make all kinds of claims.) There still are crazy politics and personal agendas, but from my perspective, this meeting seemed a little closer to the false stereotype of the careful and passionless scientist.
Don’t worry! Grandstanding abounds!
·       These folks are, on average, fun and laid back.
Aren’t first impressions great? My guess is we’re the same…

·       Geochemistry has the same ethnic diversity problem as the fields of science with which I am familiar. And maybe a little worse.
Insert frowny face here. Note: perhaps existence of some community resources  will help diversify the field? Not sure if it has or has not for my field.
·       I was surprised to not see a super-duper emphasis on over-fancy statistics. There was plenty of modeling, and of course a well-reasoned treatment of variance and sampling errors. The approaches to stats were definitely not shoddy, but lacking the statistical machismo that I’ve grown accustomed to among ecologists. I walked away from the meeting with even greater confidence in our stated understanding of the historical chemical conditions on the planet.
Interesting—I think those with extra-worthy statistical chops can clean up in certain areas of geochemistry. Also big-data approaches might be useful.
·       When insect abundance increases in response to nutrient availability, then this is best summarized by saying that insects are “indicators” of nutrients. (To me, that’s a little bit like saying that a delicious meal home-cooked meal is an indicator of a quality grocery store.)
Oops—did someone misunderstand one of the points in your talk?

·       I suspect it’s harder to be a geochemist at a smaller institution than it is to be an ecologist. Geochemistry seems to always require one or more expensive machines that require constant love and maintenance. (This machine apparently measures isotopes of some kind, in some way.) So, you first need the cash to have the machine, and then you also need to keep a full-time lab tech. Without a tech, then faculty end up being mechanics rather than manuscript and grant machines. I suppose fancy private colleges can keep machines running if you’re blessed with a good technician.
·       You’d think that geochemists get to tramp all over the world for fieldwork. But from what I could tell, a bunch of people work locally. Moreover, a bunch of people are relying on samples collected by others. There is plenty of fieldwork; I talked to a grad student whose thesis is about dating volcanos and glacial periods in Iceland. I met a really cool guy who’ll be spending time working in super-remote Siberia. And people who go scuba-diving on coral reefs. But, it seems like a lot of it is in the lab, based on core samples that someone sends to you in the mail.
See my response about shared community resources. They permit participation from a wider variety of institutions. Less focus on instruments for some scientists means more focus on questions & science & samples = better geoscience.
·       Every person was extremely generous with their time in explaining very basic things to me. There were many terms and acronyms that they knew that I didn’t, and basic mechanisms or analyses that I hadn’t seen before. And big theories too. Bigwigs, postdocs and grad students all were both interested in sharing with me and took their time to make sure that I really understood what they were doing. I had the opportunity to ask a bunch of questions, and I did far more listening than asking. It was refreshing that this non-specialist was not only accepted, but also welcome, at the conference.
I found the same to be true (in general) when I first started doing isotope geochemistry experiments. There was some hostility, but balanced by support.  
·       What a bummer that it was in Sacramento this year. Vienna would have been nicer.
I have the opposite opinion about this. I liked the fact that I could drive to my state capitol, rent a cottage a few miles away, and bike back and forth to the conference.  Vienna—especially—is one of my least-favorite cities I have visited.
·       I met some folks at the meeting who I know internet-knew through this site, and they were really cool. I also failed to cross paths with some people, too, since I was only there for a short time. And since there are presumably a few geochemists reading this now, they’re well prepared to correct my misconceptions, I hope!
I’m sorry I didn’t meet you in Sacramento. Looking forward to meeting you at another Goldschmidt conference

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thanks for the thoughtful responses! I felt really welcome at the meeting and people were always willing to share with me at whatever technical level I required to understand.

    About insects being an 'indicator' - oh, no, they understood just fine! It's just humorous to me that the thing that I consider to be a key response variable is a merely a correlate or indicator to someone in another field.

    Actually, if the meeting were in Europe, I wouldn't have gone - I also appreciated just being able to drive up the 5 to arrive and leave at a time suiting my schedule. Most of what I know about Vienna only comes from John Irving, but I hear Prague is amazing, and hope to have an excuse to go there at some point for a meeting.

    About the diversity thing - the Ecological Society started, several years ago, a program called SEEDS. It basically pairs up students from underrepresented groups with someone to help/guide/mentor/introduce them around the meeting. With travel awards. http://esa.org/seeds/ I think most professional societies would benefit from similar efforts, but I don't think it's common (?)

    I don't think gender ratios are all that different from ecology or entomology - but among the men, there were even more beards at Goldschmidt. And since ecology is a beardy crowd, I was a bit surprised. Maybe a bit more geology than chemistry? I've always thought of geologists at the prototypical facial-hair-laden science.

    That's exciting about shared and community resources becoming more common. It makes a lot of sense considering how difficult it is to get certain kinds of samples, and how fancy some machines are.

    Hope to see you around at some point, too!

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