Travel

Attending the AIAA SciTech 2015…. on a grad student budget

During the first week of this month the American Institute of Aeronautics and astronautics (AIAA) hosted its annual SciTech conference. There were more than 2000 technical papers presented, panel discussions, keynote talks and plenary talks all attended by 3300 people. One thousand of which are students. SciTech is regarded as the largest event for aerospace research, development, and technology. And it truly was. In this post I will describe my experience through the week long event.

So you might be wondering why a graduate student goes to a conference of this size. Well, typically as a graduate student in engineering, and I am sure other disciplines, we have to conduct research to finish our degrees. Conferences are a great place to publish and present your work to get feedback from the research community on what you are doing. It is also a way to keep in touch with the cutting edge in the field and do some networking.

kick_off
SciTech kick off by AIAA president Jim Albaugh

So basically I had a paper accepted for publication at SciTech and traveled to Kissimmee, Florida to present my work to experts in aerospace from academia and industry. However, I had to do that on a tight budget. The reason for that is that when you are a graduate student working at a university, your paycheck is highly optimized (for non technical people that means your pay is low). But you can apply for funding from the department and university to support you during your travels. In this case it is safe to say that I was supported with an amount that required me to muster all my engineering skills for trip planning and decision making. So clearly in terms of accommodation I went for the cheapest motel in town, with reasonable walking distance (30 minutes) from the conference location. To my pleasant surprise the room was not at all bad; for under $200 for 5 nights the room was much better than expected and the motel staff were very friendly and helpful.

My motel room
My motel room

The conference however was hosted at the Gaylord Palms resort which I have to say is a great place to host such a large event. All the rooms used for the sessions were on one floor in the convention center, the exhibit where companies displayed some of their work was on the floor just below that which made getting to sessions and events on time easy. One issue was that the Gaylord was a bit far (again walking distance) from restaurants, and even if you had a car, you were charged for parking every time you left and came back. Which forced the idea of eating at one of the many restaurants at the Gaylord for lunch. Despite such a large variety, a steakhouse, sushi place, sports bar, and others the cost was very high. Now bear in mind I have already spent a couple of hundred dollars flying in from Texas and almost $200 for a motel room. I was already on the edge of the budget. This somehow was all forgotten when having lunch on an artificial boat deck under a glass dome with climate controlled air.

The entrance to the exhibit hall at SciTech
The entrance to the exhibit hall at SciTech
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The view when having lunch at Sunset Sam’s at the Gaylord

The technical information at the conference was overwhelming. There were more than ten technical sessions running simultaneously in the morning, followed by even more sessions in the afternoon everyday. At the same time there were panels of industry and academia experts on topics ranging from Big Data in aerospace to diversity in aerospace workforce. And every morning there was a keynote speech or plenary panel discussing the challenges that face the aerospace industry such as security and international collaboration and innovation. Issues in academia were also discussed ranging from engaging the students in design projects and how learning the first principals of engineering can impact decision making in the design process. The large diversity of technical sessions could be clearly noticed. At a given time there were sessions on unmanned systems integration into national airspace, flight control systems, detonation engines, aerodynamic optimization, design considerations, autonomy, big data, and so many other topics. One of the more interesting talks, I thought, was from George T. Whitesides the CEO of Virgin Galactic. The topic was “entrepreneurial aerospace” and how the company dealt with the past incident regarding their flight tests. As a person who is at this point seriously considering starting an engineering company, I found his notes on how you deal with failures and successes rather enlightening.

This wealth of information made it difficult to keep up with the schedule, and some times made me feel frustrated since I could not be in multiple places at once (wouldn’t that be a trick). However, I got a chance to sit in a lot of interesting sessions, and meet many people in my field and other fields. Some of the people I met were industry professionals, others worked for companies that conduct research for aerospace contractors, I also met many students from all over the world. I believe there were people from 40 countries attending the conference, which made it very interesting and enabled me to realize how truly global aerospace research has become. I was also able to meet astronaut  Sandra Magnus who is also an AIAA executive director. Safe to say that she was very involved in SciTech and that I was ecstatic about meeting someone who has flown 157 days in space.

One thing that made me feel this sense of global aerospace community was when AIAA decided to screen the SpaceX launch to the international space station at 5 am in the morning. Granted not all the conference attendees made it, but a substantial international crowd did. I thought that was a great moment at the conference when a group of global aerospace engineers can share an event that culminates what a lot of them work towards.

The panel on Big Data analytics in aerospace
The panel on Big Data analytics in aerospace
The screening of the SpaceX launch
The screening of the SpaceX launch

This conference experience was not my first one, but I really enjoyed it. It was great to meet people that I met at other conferences as well and find out what they were up to. Also meeting some students from other universities and understanding the work they are doing along with networking with them for future purposes; you never know, one of them might be a future colleague, boss, or friend. I was also glad to present my work and receive the feedback I did, it always gives me a sense of reassurance to see that what I am doing and how the community I belong to do is directly impacting the technology that makes peoples lives easier. This all despite the fact that my almost daily breakfast consisted of a coffee and a bagel at 5 am in an attempt to keep my spending within the “budget”.

Breakfast is served!
Breakfast is served!

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