21 December 2014

AGU Fall Meeting: Day 4

Posted by Jessica Ball

Thursday was a really exciting day.

In the morning I sat in on a session about the hydrology of landslides, and especially how water storage in pore space affects landslide dynamics and discharge. It’s closely related to my research, which involves how the hydrothermal systems in stratovolcanoes can produced ‘perched’ aquifers – basically a lot of water in pore spaces in the edifice rock, but much higher up than you’d expect a gravitationally-controlled water table to be – and what effect they have on slope stability. The landslide talks covered similar ground with numerical modeling, but they paid much more attention to soil properties than I tend to (since on volcanoes, soils are a thin veneer compared to the rock and pyroclastic material in the edifice). I was reminded that I do need to ask some careful questions about where that water’s coming from, though, particularly with respect to rainfall intensity vs. infiltration, when I’m setting up the models I use!

At lunchtime was the main Union Lecture of the week, featuring my boss’s boss’s boss, the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. I’ve had the opportunity to hear her speak before in DC, and I was really looking forward to her comments – and not just because I work for her! In fact, since Dr. Carol Finn (the outgoing President of AGU) is on my Mendenhall committee, I got to see several of my bosses on the stage.

Two of my bosses on the stage!

Two of my bosses!

Secretary Jewell is a wonderful speaker, and I liked how she talked about the driving forces behind scientific discovery when she was young (the Space Race) and suggested that our “moon shot” should be understanding and dealing with climate change. (That’s been a big message from the administration as well in the past few years). She also took the time to remind the USGS employees in the crowd how important we are and that she appreciates the work that we’re doing, but she also had some “asks” for us. In inside-the-Beltway-speak, an “ask” is what you’re trying to get out of a conversation or speech, and the Secretary tasked us as geoscientists with three goals: Take credit for what we do, tell the importance of our work to everyone from neighbors to government officials, and take responsibility for nurturing the next generation of scientists. My past year in the policy world was all about doing the first two, and as part of that next generation, I also whole-heartedly agree with the third. I thought it was particularly appropriate that the Q&A a the end of the talk ended with a question from an undergraduate woman, who fits that bill even better than I do. (And you really can’t beat having the Secretary of the Interior tell the entire room of however-many-hundred scientists to give you an internship!)

But the Union talk wasn’t the biggest highlight of my day. A few hours later, I joined an absolutely amazing group of students and postdocs in a roundtable discussion with Secretary Jewell, Dr. Suzette Kimball (the acting director of the USGS), and Carol. (I am going to have to get my hands on some of the photos from that meeting – my three bosses all lined up and, at one point, listening to me!) The Secretary wanted to know about everyone’s research, but also asked us to suggest topics for her to discuss, and she had quite a diversity in that room – everything from carbon sequestration to ecosystems management to science policy to public outreach and engagement to ethics and transparency in research. As someone just getting started in the USGS, it was a pretty awesome opportunity to connect with the people who manage my agency, and I was thoroughly impressed by my peers in the room as well. (And not only did I get to introduce myself, Carol had me tell the Secretary about this blog and its horribly punny title. It’s a good day when you can get all three of your bosses to laugh!)

The roundtable went on for several hours and by the end of it, I think all of us were pretty excited about all the science and outreach and advocacy we’d been discussing. There are days that remind me why I’m a geoscientist and why I stay involved in all the other things that I do, and this was definitely one of them.

To top off the evening, I attended two receptions. One was for the Thriving Earth Exchange, AGU’s scientific cousin to the Kickstarter style of funding model. The TEX reception focused around stories from participants in the kind of community science the Exchange hopes to support, including projects like helping villages in Central Asia adapt their traditional agricultural calendars to changing climate, and monitoring and mitigating water quality in Native American communities with high rates of illness resulting from heavy metals. All of the speakers were both enthusiastic and inspiring, and I hope some of the audience was interested in joining the ranks of TEX’s “solvers”.

The second reception was specifically for USGS employees, and featured a panel of former and current USGS Directors and Acting Directors, including the one I work for now (Dr. Kimball) and one I worked for at the American Geosciences Institute (Dr. Pat Leahy). Secretary Jewell came to give the introduction and then they were off, talking about how the USGS developed during their tenures and what their vision for the future of the agency is. The discussions were really interesting (and at times pretty blunt), with everyone acknowledging the difficulty of working within the constraints of an unreliable congressional budget process, but also noting opportunities for the agency to evolve in the future with regard to collaboration and international work.

My three bosses again (in a different combination).

More of my bosses! From left to right, Dr. Suzette Kimball, Secretary Jewell, Dr. Pat Leahy, Dr. Chip Groat, Dr. Marcia McNutt, and Dr. Tom Casadevall.

It was a long but really rewarding day, and I had a lot to think about on the train ride home – including how proud I am to have been hired to work at the USGS, among such impressive scientists and administrators.