You Can’t Plan for This: A March 2020 Zone Meeting

Share This:



In The Zone - Regional SPS Highlights

You Can’t Plan for This: A March 2020 Zone Meeting


Keegan Karbach, Instructor, University of Colorado Denver and Former Zone 14 AZC, Metropolitan State University of Denver

The John H. Martinson Planetarium and STEM Center at the United States Air Force Academy.It started with a conversation—SPS director Dr. Brad Conrad and I had discussed the idea of a large, regional zone meeting during his visit to the Colorado School of Mines in Denver the year before the pandemic changed the paradigm of academic fellowship.

After our conversation, I began to plan; I envisioned participation from the entire mountain region, from the Dakotas to Arizona. As the date approached, there were solid attendance commitments from schools in Zone 14 (Colorado and Wyoming), as well as plans from schools in surrounding zones including Utah, New Mexico, and South Dakota. Thanks to the help of Dr. Gearba-Sell at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), who is also SPS president, and Dr. Devin Della-Rose, observatory director at USAFA, we set up a tour of their newly refurbished planetarium and observatory. Thanks to the Metropolitan State University of Denver physics department, we had access to labs for tours, research talks from professors, and a workshop from the Physics for Humans project. Everything seemed to be coming together. The zone meeting was planned for the final weekend of February to coincide with the APS March Meeting being held nearby. The intention was to enable students presenting research there to have a practice run presenting in a more informal environment during the zone meeting.

Travel is hard for anybody but especially for physics majors rapidly approaching finals. I began receiving cancellations as the date approached, which is understandable and not unexpected. I thought, that’s alright, we can plan around it. At the same time, we had just started to receive information regarding a virus that was spreading on the other side of the globe—not on my radar at all. The show must go on. However, as the day approached and more contributors began pulling out, I began to worry. My carefully laid itinerary was beginning to look like swiss cheese, so I got help. SPS National is an amazing organization for many reasons, and I can’t thank them enough for their help with this meeting.

SPS assistant director Dr. Althea Gaffney flew to Denver early the first morning of the conference and provided attendees with transportation from Denver to the tour site in Colorado Springs. Fifteen bleary-eyed, pre-coffee physics students piled into a large van and were off on the 90-minute drive south to the USAFA. The Academy tour was amazing; we were treated to a private show at the James P. Bruni Planetarium, followed by an exclusive look at the new 1-meter telescope at the USAFA Observatory, hosted by Dr. Della-Rose.

My planning came up short, after the tour, as I had no backup plan for food on the first day. The original plan was entrusted to one of the schools that had been unable to come, but the National Office came to the rescue again and we had pizza delivered to the Denver campus once we returned. We wrapped up the events for the day with an innovation workshop hosted by Dr. Randall Tagg, founder of the Physics for Humans project. Here we got into groups and came up with physics-based innovations that could potentially solve real-world problems.

That evening, APS made the call to cancel the March Meeting due to the risk of transmission of the novel coronavirus. In kind, we decided to cut the zone meeting short. The decision was sudden and surprising, but necessary—a cancellation that became a harbinger of things to follow in 2020. You can’t plan for this.

Despite the circumstances, I look back on this experience happily. The best-laid plans can change at the drop of a hat—global pandemic notwithstanding. Being agile in planning and executing an event is huge, and I cannot express how thankful I am for the support from SPS National to take a situation from disaster and salvage it into a meaningful experience, helping to support student members in trying and unprecedented times.

Zone meeting attendees visit the USAFA's new 1-m telescope.

Dr. Tagg speaks with students at the Physics for Humans workshop. Photos courtesy of Keegan Karbach.

More from this department

In The Zone - Regional SPS Highlights