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Maddie Ecker
Earth Applied Sciences Writer

From travel logistics to catering to renting easels for posters, the details that go into planning a conference are not always apparent but are necessary for its success. When the carefully laid plans come together, a seamless experience is created for those in attendance.

And when it comes to wrangling conference logistics, Laurel Fletcher is a seasoned pro. Fletcher is a department administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) at the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE). She helps plan and support the semi-annual NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST) meetings for over 100 attendees. HAQAST is a collaborative team of 14 primary investigators working with public health and air quality agencies across the globe to use NASA data and tools for public benefit.

cat on woman shoulder
Laurel Fletcher manages the semi-annual HAQAST meeting logistics. Credits: NASA/Laurel Fletcher

Fletcher works closely with Tracey Holloway, HAQAST team lead and professor at UW-Madison, to manage logistics and ensure the success of each conference.

While managing administrative tasks such as communicating reimbursement timelines or booking flights, Fletcher keeps multiple plates spinning at once to ensure participants can attend the conference and enjoy their time there.

“It’s all one big experience for the participants, so if they have a hiccup — like their plane gets delayed or canceled and they have to be put on a different flight — that’s something they have to deal with that could eat into their time at the conference,” said Fletcher.

two people talking in a crowded room
Tracey Holloway and a conference attendee chat during the HAQAST4 meeting on July 16-17, 2018 in Madison, Wis. Credits: NASA/HAQAST

While the work she does often remains behind the scenes, Fletcher’s attention to detail and years of conference planning expertise help ensure a positive conference experience for attendees.

“Laurel is the master of the black arts of how to get these little pieces taken care of,” said Daegan Miller, previous HAQAST communications coordinator. ”She’s been exceptionally good at thinking about timelines and how long it takes to get any task done.”

For example, one of the many items on her checklist for these conferences is easel rentals. Easels — critical for displaying research posters at a conference — are specialty items that cost about the same amount to rent as they do to buy. For one HAQAST conference, Fletcher hit a legal snag in securing easel rentals. It was down to the wire on Christmas Eve, but she faxed the paperwork in on deadline, and one week later the easels were delivered on time.

two people viewing a poster
HAQAST4 meeting participants discuss findings on a research poster on July 16-17, 2018 in Madison, Wis. Credits: NASA/HAQAST

To Miller, Fletcher’s contribution to planning the HAQAST conferences has resulted in something much larger than the event’s success. Each HAQAST conference takes place in different locations across the country to ease the burden of travel for attendees. Even still, travel funds for members to attend the conferences can be difficult to obtain. That led the planning team to secure additional funding from the Applied Sciences Program, and it fell to Fletcher to distribute it.

“Laurel made sure [attendees] received funding in a way that was okay for UW-Madison and for the organizations these folks worked for,” Miller said. “It’s hard to overestimate how much goodwill this created for both HAQAST and the Applied Sciences Program in the stakeholder community. Money was part of it, but without Laurel in the trenches of getting that money into people's hands, it wouldn’t have happened. She was the lynchpin there.”

Once conferences come to a close, the HAQAST team disseminates a call for anonymous testimonials from participants to better understand attendees’ experiences. After the HAQAST5 conference in Phoenix, Arizona in 2019, the team received a testimonial as evidence of the value of additional travel funding: “I was the recipient of a travel scholarship and would not have been able to attend if not for this financial support, so thank you! Meeting in-person in a university setting has been a great way to dive deeply into this subject matter.”

Without Fletcher, the HAQAST conferences would not be an inclusive, far-reaching event that brings together the public health and air quality stakeholder communities.

group of people in a meeting
The HAQAST4 meeting in action on July 16-17, 2018 in Madison, Wis. Credits: NASA/HAQAST

Recognizing her achievements in 2020, NASA honored Fletcher with its Unsung Hero award for her work over the past four years with HAQAST.

“I don’t have any science background, but it’s really nice to be able to do something that supports the scientific work that the NASA HAQAST team is doing,” Fletcher said. “It’s good to think that certain situations will be improved because of some of the work that team is doing. When it seems like everything is really overwhelming in the world, I can throw myself into routine daily tasks and feel like they’re having an impact.”

Learn more about HAQAST here.

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