Going the Distance – First ever virtual GCC organized jointly by UW and MIT students explores climate research through climate policy and DEI lenses

The 14th Annual Graduate Climate Conference (GCC) was held virtually for the first time ever over the weekend of October 30 – November 1, 2020, bringing together graduate students across a wide range of disciplines with ‘climate’ as a research theme. This conference is known across the graduate climate community as a “conference for students, by students.”  A team of volunteer graduate students organizes the conference, which is attended exclusively by graduate students at no cost. Since its debut in 2006, the GCC has been an annual opportunity for graduate students to come together, share their respective research, and make interdisciplinary connections. 

Sarah Ragen and Greta Shum
A group photo of some of the GCC 2020 attendees all gathered together online.

Joint organizing between MIT/WHOI and UW/PCC

Since 2010, organizing and hosting responsibilities have alternated each year between students in the UW PCC and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Program on Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students from both institutions made the decision to delay an anticipated in-person conference, which would have been held at UW’s Pack Forest Research Station, and instead hold a virtual conference, co-organized by a larger group of students from both institutions.

The conference attracted a total of 96 participants from 10 different countries and 25 U.S. states. Because of a lack of travel expenses, the conference financial (and carbon) costs were dramatically reduced. However, financial aid for any logistical barriers to participation and other aspects of the conference was made possible by the generous support of the PCC, and other units across UW and MIT. (For a full list of sponsors, see the GCC website). 

Exploring the role of climate policy and advocacy

To kick off the weekend, Dr. Geeta Persad delivered the first keynote address. Persad is an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. She encouraged the graduate student listeners to look beyond a linear path in academic climate science and explored the idea that key changes in environmental policy and technology could act as inflection points in the history of climate science.

Persad is an alumna of the 2014 Graduate Climate Conference.

An explicit focus on DEI

While in the past, the GCC has always strived to create an equitable and inclusive environment for all attendees, this year the organizers felt it was particularly important to emphasize and center diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. In advance of the application period, the organizers published a Statement on Diversity, which details specific actions they would take to acknowledge and address failures in the field to achieve a standard of diversity and equity. Those actions included providing relevant background information about the problem, inviting an additional Keynote speaker who would deliver an address focused on these DEI topics, and hosting a discussion session following the Keynote. 

Dr. Kuheli Dutt, who is the Assistant Director for Academic Affairs and Diversity at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was invited to address the GCC as the DEI Keynote Speaker. Her talk explored ideas including the lack of improvement in diversity across STEM fields, particularly in the geosciences, the path toward anti-racist policies, and examples of programs at Lamont that promote achievement in climate science across race, gender, and sexuality.

Additionally, the organizers collected demographic data to hold the conference accountable for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. These data included information about racial and gender identity self-reported by participants, which will be used to compare to past and future data to track progress (or lack thereof) in diversity and inclusion.

Challenges of building community in a virtual environment

The GCC prides itself as a community-building opportunity for graduate students. Even in a virtual setting, the GCC workshops served as a platform for interaction in smaller groups between students. Four different workshops were hosted simultaneously by participants and explored the following topics: connections between COVID-19, racism, and climate change; strategies for climate action advocacy; inclusive fieldwork practices; and machine learning techniques in earth science.

The conference also hosted social activities both evenings, including small room ice-breakers, where participants could meet and get to know each other, a Halloween costume contest, a game of trivia, and an online multiplayer video game. 

We also took advantage of more interactive online platforms, using a Discord server that hosted lunch/break rooms, a ‘lounge’, a help channel, and a general chat. On this server participants could converse and ask questions via text chat, and meet up in smaller groups  on video calls if they wanted to follow up on research questions or just get to know one another. 

Virtual conference format 

Hosting a virtual conference came with both drawbacks and benefits. Participants confronted time zone differences and “Zoom fatigue”, leading to lower rates of attendance during the presentations than past, in-person GCCs. The social events and workshops were also online, so if participants needed a break from their screens, they did not have the same opportunity to interact with other conference attendees in smaller group settings. Despite these challenges, the graduate students at the GCC this year were incredibly engaged.

A benefit of the virtual format was the relative ease with which students across the world could attend the conference this year more easily. While certain presenters had to stay up late (one speaker answered audience questions at 2:00 AM local time), the financial and carbon costs were largely removed. The GCC has drawn students from outside the U.S. and offered travel funding in the past, but the funding did not always cover all of a participant’s expenses. This year, there was no cost associated with attendance. Participants were also sent stickers and cloth face masks with the conference logo before the start of the conference.

Feedback from the conference has been positive so far, and attendees noted that, despite a few technical hiccups, the conference went smoothly. Some even noted in a feedback survey that it was the best virtual event they had attended. While challenging to organize an online conference, especially when the GCC is traditionally a place where attendees spend a lot of time together, the virtual conference was able to recreate the interdisciplinary, welcoming, and fun climate inherent to GCC.

For a full list of talks, view the GCC 2020 conference schedule here.


Contributed by: Lyssa Freese (MIT Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science), Cora Hersh (MIT Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science), Sarah Ragen (UW School of Oceanography), Claire Schollaert (UW Dept. of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences), and Greta Shum (UW Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences), all graduate student organizers of the 2020 Graduate Climate Conference.