UCAR Communications


staff notes monthly

December 2002 / January 2003

Coffee for 1,200?
JOSS group provides logistics for conferences, field programs

When about 1,200 scientists and public policy experts gathered for a national workshop in Washington, D.C., in early December, UCAR’s Joint Office for Science Support handled complex logistics that ranged from reserving sufficient conference rooms to making sure the latest audiovisual equipment was properly set up and running.

Brian Jackson, Gail Kasic, and Melanie Whitmire of JOSS's Program Support and Operations group staff a conference registration table in the Mesa Lab.

Given that conference attendance had been initially projected at about 500, JOSS meeting planners found themselves scrambling in the weeks leading up the event to make sure everyone could be accommodated. “When you have that many people, just preparing for the coffee breaks can be atrocious,” says JOSS’s Cathy Clark, who coordinated the event. Nevertheless, she adds, “It went very smoothly.”

December’s climate science workshop, which focused national attention on the debate over climate change issues (see sidebar), marked a coming of age of sorts for JOSS. Its Program Support and Operations group specializes in coordinating workshops, conferences, and field programs, but the approximately 12-person office had never before handled such a large event.

JOSS Program Support and Operations staff: (standing, left to right) Cathy Clark, Melanie Whitmire, Kyle Terran, Tara Jay, Loretta Quinn, Diane Lask, Paula Robinson, Gene Martin; (sitting) Brian Jackson and Jill Reisdorf. Not pictured: Chrystal Pene.

JOSS, which is part of the UCAR Office of Programs, consists of two principal divisions. One, Field Operations and Data Management, wins high marks from NCAR scientists for its critical work managing data for major field projects. The other is the program support group, which has existed in one form or another for 20 years, organizing meetings and logistics for field experiments for NSF, NOAA, and other scientific organizations—but remaining little known to many people in UCAR and NCAR.

Now, the group is starting to spread the word within the institution that it can help with meetings.

“If you decide to hold a conference and you turn to people who have expertise, you increase your chances of holding a successful meeting,” explains Gene Martin, manager of the group. “You’re freed up to focus on the content, while we’re handling the logistical work of getting meeting rooms ready, setting up the technical equipment, and handling all those other details that are important.”

JOSS’s services run the gamut from scouting out potential meeting sites and designing name badges to typing up meeting notes and conducting follow-up surveys. For international conferences and field trips, simple tasks can turn into major challenges, such as figuring out how to communicate with the home office from isolated Pacific Ocean islands on the far side of the International Date Line, or persuading customs officials that suspicious-looking gas canisters are going to be used for nothing more dangerous than studying the atmosphere.

Gene and his fellow meeting planners also focus on holding down conference costs by negotiating deals with hotels, caterers, and vendors—gaining less-expensive lodging room rates, for example, in exchange for agreeing to use a set number of meeting rooms.

ATD director Dave Carlson, who collaborated with JOSS when he was working on TOGA COARE (the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere Program’s Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment) in 1992–93, gives the office high marks. “We couldn’t have done that project without the services they provide,” he says.

Getting the risotto done

One thing JOSS staffers have learned in the course of handling about 400 meetings a year is that things don’t always go exactly as intended. “No matter how much you plan, there’s always some glitch that’s outside your control,” says meeting planner Loretta Quinn. “You can’t be in this business unless you have the ability to step back and respond to the unexpected.”

Consider, for example, Paula Robinson’s experience several years ago at a 300-person meeting in Washington, D.C. She had worked carefully to ensure that the keynote banquet would start right at noon, giving instructions to the kitchen staff and mobilizing volunteers to hold up signs directing attendees from the main meeting room to the banquet in a nearby building.

And then, as she was standing in the back of the meeting room at 11:15, she heard the speaker suddenly declare that the meeting would break for lunch 45 minutes earlier than scheduled. “I ended up running and alerting everyone I could find,” she recalls with a smile. “Much to my relief, it all went off without a hitch and the risotto was just a little bit underdone.”

Then there was Gene’s rather dramatic experience during a field project in the Solomon Islands, when close to a dozen members of the crew of a Chinese research vessel were thrown in jail following a fracas. Gene got them released by explaining to local authorities that the whole thing was a misunderstanding that resulted partly from the language barrier.

On the other hand, some meetings are calm—uncommonly so. Cathy says her favorite meeting, held several years ago in Albuquerque, focused on the impact of climate change on Native American populations. Many of the attendees were Native Americans, and they had a distinctive approach to the event.

“Every morning before the meeting, a young man in a loincloth walked through the lobby playing a traditional flute,” she recalls. “It was very calming. To me it was a much more pleasant experience than having people charging in and complaining about the traffic.”

The meeting planners say the work can be intense sometimes, especially right before and during a large conference when they may find themselves working 12- to 14-hour days. “You have to stay one step ahead of what’s actually going on in the meeting, like making sure the breakout rooms are set up while everyone’s still in the main session,” Loretta says. “You can’t always depend on the hotel staff.”

But the planners also say they thrive on the work—the excitement of travel, meeting people from other countries, and above all the satisfaction of seeing a conference through to completion.

Cathy, a one-time bank manager, puts it this way: “I always wanted to do something like this because it calls upon all your creativity and imagination, and it’s always different.”

Then she leans forward and, in a stage whisper, adds: “It’s a lot of fun.”

•David Hosansky

For more information

If you are planning a meeting and would like support from the JOSS Program Support and Operations group, call Gene Martin (8682), Paula Robinson (8665), or Cathy Clark (8667), or visit the JOSS Web site at www.ofps.ucar.edu/joss_psg.

Also in this issue...

The Outstanding Accomplishment Awards

NCAR supercomputer joins list of world’s fastest

From Africa and South America

Scientists explore fundamental building blocks of the atmosphere

NCAR's influence: Way beyond its size

Sittin' with Santa

Delphi Questions

Climate convocation mulls the state of U.S. research


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