Attending conferences during the pandemic: Reflections on going virtual

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have attended four research conferences—all of them remotely. Initially, they were planned to run as usual, with large gatherings of researchers, networking activities, exhibitions, and so on. But then 2020 happened, and everything was turned up-side-down and conferences were either cancelled or transformed into virtual arrangements.

Attending virtual conferences has definitely been a new experience and I am very impressed with all the organisers who have managed to reform their conferences to provide an online platform instead. As it turns out, presentations, workshops, discussion panels etc are all possible to take part in from the comfort of your own home/office. One conference even arranged for joint lunches and coffee breaks. Virtually, of course.

Long hours in front of the computer is not without its difficulty, and I have found that it takes some serious effort to stay focused at the conference and to keep away from checking emails and other things that may lure your attention away. To successfully navigate in between virtual rooms has also proven a bit challenging, especially for the very large conferences with multiple sessions taking place simultaneously. (This is nothing, however, compared to the physical effort it took to run between rooms, as during the days of physical conferences.) Overall, I would say that attending conferences during the pandemic works well and that there are a lot of creative ways for exchanging research ideas, inspiration, and networking.

In these times, we are surrounded by bad news and therefore I want to focus on things that are beneficial with virtual conferences. One of the first and most obvious thing is the environmental aspect. Less travelling is good for the planet. Another perk is that you can reach more people than what is possible in a crowded conference room. Everyone in the virtual room can hear you loud and clear and if they want to initiate contact, they can send an email or initiate a chat conversation. For some people I think this is a more comfortable way to network and establish contact with others.

Virtual conferences also allow you to play a bit with the content you are presenting. I am especially thinking of two creative examples. One of them was a pre-recorded presentation and the presenter changed outfit several times during the presentation and used a change of clothes to mark transitions between different parts of the presentation. The other example was something similar, but this time is was not the presenter’s clothes that changed but his background. This was not pre-recorded but by repeatedly changing the background settings to show images representing what he was currently talking about, he definitely maintained my attention throughout the talk. I think this was also an interesting way to emphasise the main message.

This pandemic has forced us to be creative and find new ways to spread our research and to foster discussions and collaborations. In the future, I hope that we can continue on this path, enable conferences to be more inclusive, require less travelling but still maintain a fun and interesting way to share our research results and connect with new potential collaborators.

Rebecca Cort

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