Virtual Science Conference Coming Up? Three Addgenies Share Their Experience

By Jennifer Tsang

As with many aspects of our lives that have gone virtual, scientific conferences have followed suit. Two Addgenies, Susanna Bachle and Yijun Zhang, recently attended virtual conferences (TAGC and ASGCT, respectively) and Addgenie Angela Abitua hosted a virtual Reproducibility for Everyone workshop at TAGC with the three other organizers. We asked them about their experiences as they navigate the new norm in scientific conferences.

Plan your sessions, not your walks between sessions

Like many large conferences with multiple sessions happening at once, virtual conferences may have apps or interactive calendars that you can use to help plan your conference experience.

One of the biggest differences: you don't have to build in time between sessions. “At big conferences, you could walk 20 minutes between one session to another,” Bachle says. “Now, the physical location didn’t matter. I didn’t have to consider that aspect and I could plan more with regard to my interests.”

Use the chat box and upvote

If the thought of walking up to the mic and asking your question in a large conference room puts butterflies in your stomach, the virtual approach might be less stressful. For both conferences, there was a Q&A section in the interface where you can type in questions for the speaker. “I think a lot more questions get answered this way and the hurdle of getting up and asking in front of many people is lower,” says Bachle. (For presenters, there’s also less stage fright!)

And depending on the conference, the audience can help decide which questions get answered. “You can upvote a question and the host will see the highly voted questions,” says Zhang. “Usually the moderator starts by asking the speaker the highly upvoted question.”

If the Q&A session ran out of time, the speaker could continue to answer questions in the chat box. That’s another benefit to note-taking: you can revisit the Q&A in the chat box.

Presenting? Make it interactive!

As a presenter, it can be difficult to keep the audience engaged through a computer screen. For the Reproducibility for Everyone Workshop, Abitua and the other organizers found several avenues to keep the audience engaged. They first sent a pre-workshop questionnaire to the participants to learn about what they were looking to learn in the workshop so they could steer their content. In the middle of the workshop, the participants took part in a protocol drawing exercise. The workshop also used a shared note-taking doc where participants could share their notes together.

This interactive exercise gave participants directions for drawing Spongebob as seen on the top. On the bottom are the six drawings that look completely different
Figure 1: Can you draw Spongebob from these instructions without knowing you're suppose to draw Spongebob? The Reproducibility for Everyone Workshop included this interactive activity during their session. Image from Reproducibility for Everyone

While this type of interaction might not work when you are giving a research talk, there are still other ways to make your session more engaging, for example, by using short animations and visuals, or asking questions using the polling feature or the chat box.

One key thing to remember regardless of the type of session you’re presenting is eye contact. “It’s important to keep your video on and look into the camera to make it seem more like you’re connecting with the people,” Abitua says.

Poster sessions

The poster session from conference to conference can be wildly different. There can be no presenter at their poster, they could be hosted in breakout rooms, or even on social media.

Zhang was able to view posters without presenters “there,” but was able to get in touch with the author. “In the app, you can write a message to the author of the poster,” he says.

Viewing a poster on a screen is challenging, requiring you to zoom in to different parts of the poster. Conferences, such as Photonics Online Meetup, hosted their poster session on Twitter where each poster presenter had four “slides” to use for their poster, eliminating the need to zoom and scroll around the poster (Reshef et al., 2020).

The Twitter format meant that the posters could be viewed publicly and stored in one place if the participants used the conference hashtag after the conference was over. Depending on the conference, organizers may make the poster available after the conference is over on the website or in the app.

Technical difficulties?

Attending a conference virtually means getting to know the app or virtual platform and making sure you stay connected. If possible, test out the technology before the conference begins.

“There were some concerns of having a stable internet connection,” says Abitua about her workshop. “We made sure that we had a backup plan in case someone’s internet cut out. “

On networking

Networking can be more difficult in the virtual format than in-person. You might miss out on the short chats between sessions or waiting for a session to start. “There was not much time to network,” Zhang says. “The schedule was pretty busy, but after the meeting, I received a lot of LinkedIn invites.”

Bachle pointed out that networking at virtual conferences requires you to take more initiative. “You have to actively reach out. It’s more proactive versus organic networking,” she says.

Depending on the meeting, there may be a “place” for networking within the app. For example, the NeuroSymposium had virtual tables that you can join to connect with others.

Final thoughts on virtual conferences

Virtual conferences remove many barriers of participation in terms of travel, costs, and time away from home. You can choose your level of involvement and how much time you want to spend with the conference. “If you want to have the same experience as an on-site conference, you really have to make space for it,” says Bachle. “On the flip side, you can attend conferences for just a little bit. You can just go to sessions that you find interesting and not go to the rest.” Having an on-site conference canceled may be disappointing, but there are many creative ways to adapt and take advantage of the new conference format.

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Topics: Science Careers, Conferences

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