Due to efforts to contain the impact of COVID-19, many scientific conferences and large scale events have been canceled or moved virtual. As a result, I attended my first virtual scientific conference last week, Science Talk 2020. Personally, I really enjoyed the conference, from interesting plenary and lightning talks to side discussions about why the conference’s mascot should be a flying bear (yes, seriously) and am excited about the potential of virtual conferences.
I could afford to attend!
Typically, the cost to attend a scientific conference is over $1,000 per person once registration, food, travel, and hotels are taken into account. As a graduate student, we often have limited grant money to attend conferences and any costs often have to be temporarily taken on by the student until we are reimbursed by our university. As many graduate students don’t even earn $1,000 a paycheck, taking on this much debt isn’t practical.
However, registering for Science Talk cost me less than I’ve paid at some conferences to travel from the airport to the conference hotel! Without having to pay for hotels or airfare, attending the conference was feasible without taking on large amounts of debt. During discussions about the conference, many attendees expressed similar sentiments.
Unlike many conferences where talking during a presentation is discouraged, Science Talk actively encouraged participant discussion through the live chat embedded in the conference platform. As a result, attendees could share thoughts and provide live feedback on what the speaker was saying. In addition, it was very easy for the speaker to share links to their work, because honestly, how many of us actually type out the links on the slides we take photos of during live conferences? While I’m normally that person, due to the format of the conference, I actually clicked through links about getting started with graphic recording and the University of Washington’s Engage program.
Unlike live conferences, I really liked that questions could be asked at any time through the ask-a-question feature and then other attendees could up-vote the questions that they most wanted to hear the answer to. For example, during the first plenary talk, the key message was that people view science as hope. Given the current pandemic, many people (nearly 10% of attendees!) wanted to know how to frame potential cures for COVID-19 since saying a cure is over a year away isn’t very hopeful. As a result of this format, the questions asked were of broad interest and there wasn’t a single “this is more of a comment.”
The Potentially Good
Personally, my favorite part of conferences is the poster sessions, as I can pick the posters that really interest me and have discussions with the authors. Unfortunately, with many people presenting at once (hundreds to possibly thousands at a typical conference), having this many sessions going on at once would be overwhelming. At Science Talk, there were only a dozen or so posters, which made it easy to have short poster talks. I found this a very simple way to get a quick overview of many people’s work, but I wish there was an option to connect directly with the speaker through the platform rather than having to find them through some other medium. For example, speakers could upload their posters digitally on the Science Talk online community which offered the ability to connect with the speakers who uploaded posters. For smaller conferences, I think this is a great approach to posters, but I’m not sure it would work well for larger conferences where listening or searching through hundreds or thousands of posters may not be practical. Perhaps something like the recorded talks the American Physical Society did for their virtual March Meeting could work?
A key strength of face-to-face conferences is being able to meet and interact with new people, having interesting discussions and forming collaborations. While this is still possible, it requires much more planning on the conference organizer’s part. For this online conference platform, there was no direct messaging or private messaging of individuals, only the group at large. Thus, any discussions with individuals needed to happen outside of the conference platform, such as Science Talk’s online community or through Twitter.
I did appreciate that there was set networking times throughout the conference (as is often the case for physical conferences). For example, there were multiple empty slots where the conference chat room was open for participants to discuss whatever they wanted without a speaker or session occurring. Additionally, there was a lightning talk session for people to sign up to pitch collaboration ideas or to brainstorm ideas. I and another member of MSU SciComm were able to take advantage of this opportunity to share with the other attendees our upcoming science art show and the Sci-Files podcast. I really liked that there was set time for this type of activity and that nobody needed to “know” someone to learn about the opportunities.
Finally, to facilitate additional networking, one of the participants created a Google Doc for attendees to type their contact information, social handles, and areas of interest. Personally, I thought this was super useful and would be nice for conferences in general since it is nearly impossible to interact with most people at scientific conferences.
The Not so Good
Bandwidth and the Digital Divide
As someone who is currently relying on mobile hotspots for all their work, virtual conferences can take up a significant portion of my monthly data allowance. Luckily, the conference streaming platform worked on mobile to reduce the strain on my data cap. However, having the live discussion open as well as the speaker’s slides at a legible size is nearly impossible on a mobile phone. As I thought the live discussions were a strength of the conference, this often resulted in me having to switch between following the chat and seeing the slides.
Given that working from home seems like it will be the new norm for the next few weeks or even months, many academics may not have the capability to fully participate in these conferences.
For my first virtual conference and Science Talk conference, I was very impressed. In terms of quality, I would say it was just as good as any in-person conference I’ve attended. While I do think there are benefits of having in-person conferences, I would be excited to attend more virtual conferences, even once it is safe to have in-person conferences again.
If you're in our upcoming science art show, make sure to fill out the interest form!
If you're interested in another attendee's experience, make sure to listen to Dr. Karmela Padavic-Callaghan interview with Adam Fortais on the Random Walk podcast.