Valley with steep rocky cliffs

Yuhan Rao: "Why I joined the Austin Challenge"

Yuhan Rao: Why I give

I cannot imagine having gone through my career in the geosciences and the academy without involvement in AGU meetings on a regular basis. My first AGU meeting was over 42 years ago, at a time when Spring Meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., was the “big” event of the year. I was fortunate, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, to be among many friends as peers, most of whom would participate in the Spring Meeting. Thus, it was simple for us to pile into a departmental van and head to D.C., camp out in one, or at most two, hotel rooms, and then return. That said, things have changed, a lot, and for many students in many settings, travel to AGU meetings is far more complicated. At that 1977 Spring Meeting, I remember listening, with some of my paleomagnetist student colleagues, to Walter Alvarez talking with my dissertation advisor, Rob Van der Voo, about how the now very famous Alvarez’s and others’ hypothesis for the end-Cretaceous extinction event had been sorely misinterpreted by members of the press who were attending the meeting. This was during a time when sessions in the then Geomagnetism and Paleomagnetism section were a bit livelier than today. I remember a certain individual, on the faculty at a university in Montreal, Que., routinely showing demagnetization data that were completely uninterpretable, claiming that his rocks had very complicated magnetizations associated with them. I also remember another individual, on the faculty at a university in Columbus, Ohio, who routinely showed completely unintelligible magnetic polarity stratigraphy results, and certain members of the audience stating, unabashedly, “Darn it, no one can read any of that junk!” These were truly unforgettable learning experiences for a student, experiences one would never get from reading a scientific paper! The 1978 Fall Meeting in San Francisco was a truly enjoyable one. I gave talks in both GP and VGP sessions, with the subject of one of those talks becoming my first sole-authored paper. That was the year I discovered that AGU Fall Meeting also included a most “special” evening session, at the Edinburgh Castle Pub on Geary Street! The 1979 Spring Meeting in Miami was a very special one for me, as I was presenting what I thought was an impressive set of data from my dissertation work in western Nevada—a set of data that demonstrated beyond any doubt that listric normal faults could penetrate to midcrustal levels and result in the wholescale tilting of crust by over 90°. I presented those results in a GP session, but later in the meeting I sought out one of the giants of extensional tectonics and, in a quite shy fashion, introduced myself and asked whether I could show him some new data. After about 5 minutes, I realized that my years of hard work in the field and the laboratory really had been worth it. He made me feel important! That was an experience far, far better than a positive review of a manuscript. At this time in graduate school, I was uncertain about what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. That uncertainty went away a day later at the Miami meeting when David Strangway from the University of Toronto asked me whether I wanted a postdoc at Toronto for a couple of years, if not longer. He said that he heard my talk earlier in the meeting and knew that I was perfect for the position. I basically said yes, and when I told Rob Van der Voo, he simply said, “I am very, very proud of you!”

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The Austin Student Travel Endowment helps students in financial need share their research at Fall Meeting.


At the end of the meeting, I was quite pleased with the work I had put into my meeting plan. Not only did I learn about others’ research, I also met many new and old friends who has later helped me along my career path. That was the moment when I fully realized that AGU is more than just exciting science.

Fast forward to today, I consider myself a relatively experienced AGU veteran and have received my doctoral degree. I am also involved in different parts of the AGU community, including sectional event planning and helping to plan the AGU student and early career scientist conference. Some of my friends have asked me why I would volunteer to help with these efforts. My answer: I want to give back for what AGU has done to help me with my own career. As just one example, I indirectly found my current job as a researcher through 2018 Fall Meeting after connecting with some of the colleagues at my current institution. At the time, I was trying to juggle between finding a job and finishing my dissertation as well as some personal health issues. I only learned about the job posting after the colleagues that I met during AGU forwarded it to me. Beyond my current role, AGU also provides me with a platform where I can meet new people who share the same interests with me and connect with old colleagues. These are just some of the reasons that I decided to commit to be involved in AGU as a volunteer.

I have been fortunate enough that I could always attend AGU meetings. But there are many others who are not as lucky as me because of financial burdens. I understand how AGU can change a student’s career path. That’s why I decided to help AGU support more students to attend AGU meetings through the Austin Student Travel Grant Challenge.

Yuhan (Douglas) Rao, Ph.D.

Woman explains poster to another woman attendee

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