In this post I want to try and capture all the incredible stuff that was part of or related to the OSA Leadership Winter Conference.
In summary the stuff I loved:
– the conference
– the people
– the plenaries
Held once a year in Feb in Washington DC (which one could say is not only the capital of the United States but also of OSA whose HQ are based in the city) this conference is an essential part of the nuts and bolts machinery of OSA. As members we don’t often think of how all the OSA activities get organized, planned and delivered. Many of the activities or services we see directly, but there is a ton of stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make all that happen. And all of it takes some doing.
To manage its many publications, meetings, awards, student chapters, local sections, outreach, member services, website, public engagement, and much more OSA has several committees/councils. Each of which has oversight of that specific service. Members of these committees are volunteers and OSA employees. Through various meetings (including this one) each committee sets goals, how to achieve these, reviews progress and outcomes, debates on new challenges and opportunities facing OSA etc. A big chunk of the work is done by the OSA personnel (who are fantastic! I should know now, since I had the chance to meet some of them face to face).
When invited to collect my award as the OSA Young Professional for the year and attend the conference, I was a bit worried about the conference. Given its non-technical nature, I was a bit skeptical about how much I’d enjoy it.
Was I wrong!
The sessions I attended on Member Education Services (MSE) council, Publications Council and the Public Policy Engagement council were absolutely fascinating. To see the working of the committees that produce the journals I read and submit papers was cool. To hear the debates on how to improve opticsinfobase for users, compare performance of OSA journals with others, and the capabilities of the enhanced html files made me think for the first time not about the research itself, but what goes into making that research accessible in the way OSA does. I missed out on the sessions of International Council, which has oversight of how OSA functions as a global body.
The running theme throughout the conference for me: it was all about learning how OSA does what it does.
This experience brought home that every scientific body, to differing degrees influences policy and trends in Science and Technology. Which technical areas it priorities influences members (their research) and journals (what gets published). How it delivers its services and the mechanisms used, determine the degree of access for user groups. Its engagement with the public, the policy makers and industry can give it direct influence. For large global bodies the challenge lie in meeting the needs of a diverse membership spread across the world. The sheer logistics of managing these are immensely demanding.
But it’s never just the business, is it?
I met so many fantastic people: volunteers from South Africa, Chile, Peru, Korea, and Japan… I think some of my most enjoyable conversations were with members of the Library committee (these are professional librarians who are not OSA members or optics researchers). I met a librarian from MIT, and we had fun talking about open access publication and the future of the gold route (you may have read my post: Open access: needs more work!). I met a statistician who works on membership data of APS/AIP and we spoke about how important modeling is for science (yes, especially Photonics)
I briefly spoke to Donna Strickland, the president of OSA. It was incredibly inspiring to see a female scientist reach the top in the profession and be recognized. If she can do it, I guess many of us can too!
The surprise package though was the plenary talks.
I had expected serious, technical plenaries on some hot area of optics. We for serious and exciting talks for sure. We had Marc Kaufman , a senior journalist and reporter for the Washington Post talk about the search for extra-terrestrial life. The images he projected from the Curiosity mission and even of the work scientists are doing to find life on earth in extreme conditions (that might mimic some places in space/other planets etc.) was fascinating. My childhood ambition was to be an astronaut, so this talk just really hit the spot for me. Perhaps more so, because I was not expecting something like it.
And yes, DC itself.
The capital is a beautiful city, well connected by metro allowing visitors (who can’t drive) access to its many attractions. Over the weekend that I stayed in DC after the conference, I chose to do a ‘highlights of the East building tour’ in the Gallery of Art and a walking tour of the Mall (DC by Foot). Both were free and for someone short on time, an excellent way to sample some of the good things DC has to offer. With the gallery tour I got to see some of the best pieces of art in the gallery and learn about them. On the walking tour, I learned about American History: to see some key memorials that mark the birth of a nation, the actions of men such as Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, King and others, and the results of these actions were great experiences.
I hope to return to the city. I hope to return to the conference! And I hope that in some way I can apply what I learned in the city to my life, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’