SAA 2017: A Quick Recap & Tips for Students

The 82nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) took place in Vancouver, Canada from March 29 – April 2, 2017. Each year the SAA hosts one of the largest gatherings of archaeologists in the world. In short, it is a massive conference with a lot going on.

I passed these boats every morning as I walked to the conference center in Vancouver harbor. It was a moment of calm before the conference.

I attended the SAAs this year because I was invited to speak at a symposium honoring Naomi Miller – the 2017 recipient of the Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Research.  The award recognizes a scientist whose interdisciplinary research has greatly contributed to American archaeology. The disciplinary focus of the award rotates each year among the zoological sciences, botanical sciences, earth sciences, physical sciences, and general interdisciplinary studies. 2017 was the year for botanical sciences and Naomi won!

My favorite picture of Naomi. Taken in Paris at IWGP 2016. Cheers to you Naomi!

Chantel White, Alan Farahani, and John Marston organized a symposium in Naomi’s honor. Papers reflected major themes in Naomi’s research including quantitative methods for archaeobotanical research, the integration of interdisciplinary datasets, dung fuel interpretations, public engagement, conservation through plant management, and more.

To give you an idea of the range of papers, here is the list of what my fellow presenters spoke about:

  • Chantel White, Alan Farahani, and John Marston—Naomi F. Miller and Applied Paleoethnobotany of Southwest Asia
  • Alexia Smith and Lucas Proctor—Dung through the Microscope: A Close-Up View of Sample Origin
  • Susan Allen—Halaf Seasonality and Mobility: An Archaeobotanical View from Fistikli Höyük, Turkey
  • Robert Spengler—Evidence for Dung Burning in the Archaeobotanical Record of Central Asia
  • Jade d’Alpoim Guedes and Kyle Bocinsky—Modeling the Spread of Crops across Eurasia
  • Chris Stevens and Dorian Q. Fuller—Agricultural Diversification, Perennials, and Complex Societies in Mesopotamia and the Yellow River
  • Smiti Nathan—Scrapyards, Curious Constructions, and Local Engagement: A Southeast Arabian Perspective on Building a Flotation Machine
  • Lisa Kealhofer, Peter Grave, and Ben Marsh—Changes on the Land: Gordion in the First Millennium BCE
  • John Marston and Canan Çakirlar—Provisioning and Agricultural Economy at Roman Gordion: Integrating Archaeobotany and Zooarchaeology
  • Arlene Rosen, Jennifer Farquhar, Joan Schneider, and Tserendagva Yadmaa— Holocene Vegetation Cycles, Land Use, and Human Adaptations to Desertification in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia
  • Virginia Popper—Cuisine of the Overseas Chinese in the Western United States: Using Recipes to Interpret Archaeological Plant Remains
  • Kathryn Gleason—The Lost Dimension: Pruned Plants in Roman Gardens

Most of the presenters plan on publishing their papers in peer-reviewed journals. As they become available, I will be sure to let you know.

I felt especially grateful to participate in this symposium. Naomi has had a tremendous impact on my development as an archaeobotanist. I’ve truly benefitted from her mentorship, advice, and friendship. In addition to her methodological rigor, I have always admired that Naomi is so open in sharing her experiences and insights in order to help young scholars. In that spirit, I want to share three tips for students who plan on presenting a paper at future SAAs.

Airplanes taking off on water in Vancouver.

3 Tips for Students Presenting a Paper at the SAAs

Tip 1: Apply and Ask for Funding

Many colleges and universities have established funds, grants, or programs to financially aid students presenting papers at conferences. Definitely apply for these funds! If your school does not have such awards or your conference is especially expensive,  ask your department AND larger program (college/school/division) if they can help alleviate the costs.

When I was an undergraduate, there was not an established award for undergraduate conference travel at my university. I asked both my department and college if they could make any sort of contribution towards my conference costs (SAAs 2008 in Vancouver!). To my surprise, they did and I was awarded a total of $200! While the award didn’t cover all my conference costs, it definitely helped.

If you’re applying for a conference travel award or directly asking your program for assistance, make sure to include the following in your request:

  • The research/paper topic you’re presenting on
  • Why this specific conference is important in your field and to you
  • An itemized budget
  • An explanation of how presenting your paper at this conference contributes to your development as a scholar
  • *BONUS*: Plans for publishing or disseminating your paper

Tip 2: Apply for the SAA Student Paper Award

The SAA Student Paper Award is awarded annually in recognition of an outstanding student paper based on original research. If that sounds a bit daunting to you, don’t worry! I applied and didn’t win, but I would totally apply again if I could (no longer a student at the next SAAs!). Why? Here are a few benefits of simply applying for the award:

  • The evaluation criteria for the award provides guidelines to help you craft a quality paper and presentation. This is so helpful if you’re struggling with where to start in writing your paper. Check out pages 8-9 in this issue of the SAA Archaeological Record for more tips on writing an award-winning paper.
  • You have to submit your paper and powerpoint around a month in advance, which means you will have completed your presentation early! You can tinker with it to make it better or just enjoy the fact that you don’t have to scramble at the last minute to produce a paper.
  • Even if you don’t win, you get solid feedback from the committee. This can help you improve your paper if you plan on publishing it (which you totally should!).

If you’re an undergraduate student, check out the IFR Student Paper and Poster Award. The criteria and deadlines are similar. Thanks to one our readers, Scott, for bringing this award to my attention.

Tip 3: Remember This Checklist (Or Just Refer To It)

If you’re nervous about presenting your paper, don’t worry! You’re not alone. Most SAA sessions don’t have time for Q&A so your main job is to simply present your paper. Here is a checklist of things to do before, during, and after the conference (Here is a printable PDF):

Before the Conference
  • If your session has a discussant, submit your paper to them by the deadline set forth by the organizers.
  • If your session doesn’t have a discussant, try to complete a solid draft of both the paper and PowerPoint about a month in advance (and apply for the SAA Student Paper Award).
  • Practice your presentation with colleagues and advisors to get feedback. There might be other students at your university who are presenting too so it might be worthwhile to organize a session where everyone presents their papers and gives each other feedback. Also, make sure to time these presentations so you know the length of your talk.
  • Print a copy of your paper BEFORE you leave for the SAAs. While it is possible to sort this out at the conference, you’re better off doing this in advance. If you’re reading your paper off of an electronic device, make sure you pack the necessary chargers (and converters/adaptors if you’re coming from outside of the USA and Canada).
  • Upload a copy of your paper and PowerPoint to your e-mail or cloud-server of choice.
  • Pack a thumb/USB drive and save your paper and PowerPoint to it.
  • Save both your paper and powerpoint as a PDF in case the original document can’t be read by the conference computer. This might not be ideal if you’re showing a video or have a lot of animations, but still do this as a last resort backup plan.
  • Send the PowerPoint (both as a .pptx and PDF) to the session organizers by the given deadline.
During the Conference
  • If you’re awarded funding that requires receipts, make sure to keep them in a designated place (e.g. wallet, conference tote, clear Ziploc bag). If you’re worried about some getting lost, take a picture on your phone as an extra measure (though most funding bodies require originals if they request receipts).
  • Double check the time of your talk in the final program. Sometimes things are shifted due to cancellations (this happened to me at this past SAA) and your talk time might have changed.
  • Practice your talk the night before and make sure you are keeping to time.
  • On the day of your presentation pack your paper (print out or electronic device), pen (for last minute edits), a light snack + water, and your USB drive. If you want to be extra safe, pack your computer. I’ve seen personal computers save presentations (often in aid of other colleagues) that wouldn’t open.
  • Show up to your session about 10-15 minutes before it starts and, if possible, make sure your PowerPoint opens and works.
  • Take a deep breath a give your paper.
  • Once you’re finished presenting your paper, make sure to treat yourself!
After the Conference
  • If your session had a chair or organizers, thank them. They put in a lot of work that you didn’t see. A small thank you goes a long way.
  • If you were awarded funding, fulfill any post-conference reporting requirements.
  • Thank any funding bodies that supported your conference travel (Thanks to NYU’s CSHO and Dean of GSAS for helping with my SAA 2017!).
  • Find a way to publish your paper. You’ve done a lot of hard work already so go ahead and make sure the rest of us can read and access your efforts!

Have questions, comments, love for Naomi, or your own SAA tips to share? If so, let me know in the comments below!

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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