Scientific Meetings in the Virtual Age

The last in-person meeting I attended was the 2020 Ocean Sciences Meeting in February 2020. Since then a lot has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way meetings are run will be different for a while. They may be different, but they can still be positive experiences.

Recently I attended a regional meeting on the research and management efforts in the Chesapeake Bay. The experience let me dip my toes into virtual meeting attendance without fully submerging myself, like I will do for the American Geophysical Union’s 2020 Fall Meeting. The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is held annually and is one of the largest conventions of Earth and space scientists. I have attended 4 out of the last 5 years and am planning on “going” again this year. Instead of sitting in rooms with 100+ other people watching speakers, I will be at home or possibly in a small congregation of scientists (pending the ability to hold gatherings of any size by December).

Here are some tips & tricks from my first foray into virtual conferences:

Before the meeting

  • Organize your schedule – Just like an in-person meeting, make sure you know who you want to see giving a talk or poster presentation and when. This way when there are multiple virtual meeting rooms, you know which one you need to be signed into. Since the different meeting rooms will require separate links, make sure you have those readily accessible in a word document or scheduled into your online calendar for easy access. With one click, you are into the talk you want to go to. If the conference provides a pdf or online document with links, then keep it open on your computer the whole day.
  • Minimize distractions/ avoid multitasking. When I attended the small virtual meeting in June 2020, I found that I did best when I turned off distractions and really focused on presentations.

No, really turn off your iPad, phone, and other distractions, if possible.

While some people are now working from home with others, it is not possible to be in a completely quite space. In this case, what if you invite your children/ partner/ family/ roommate to watch a few sessions with you? They can ask you questions afterward about what they do not understand. Use it as a learning opportunity for them and you.

Additionally, if you have a pet that you know will bother you when they bark, meow, hiss, or chirp loudly, think about closing the door on them for at least the sessions you are most interested in. And, definitely keep them out when you present. Fluffy may not find the under-ice generation of methane as fascinating as you.

My office buddy who sometimes is as quiet as a mouse and other times goes bark-heavy over the garbage truck
  • Get acquainted with the software. If the meeting you are attending is using Zoom, WebEx, Go-to-meetings, Google Meet, AGU GO etc., then make sure you have it downloaded beforehand. Also, test your Wi-Fi to make sure it is strong enough to stream video and audio. At this point you may be well acquainted with your internet capabilities. For those of us in more rural areas who still have satellite internet, sometimes the internet will not work during strong storms. Make a back-up plan. Can you use your iPad or phone as a hotspot for a few hours, if needed? Is there a way to work with your university or work-place to assure you better internet capabilities? Or, is it possible during just your presentation to access your on-campus office space to verify that you have the right internet capabilities? Starting these discussions early will allow you the greatest possibilities when the conference happens.

It is even more important to practice your talk or e-lightening poster presentation to make sure technology is on your side. Set-up a practice call with your lab mates or colleagues so you are not flustered before your presentation.

  • Still dress-up. “Dress for success.” “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In high school, I learned that if you dress up for tests then statistically you will do better. The same concept applies to when you are attending a conference from home. I continued to dress up for exams through college and graduate school. Who knows if dressing up helped my grades, but it did make me feel more confident.

During the meeting

  • Do not sweat the small stuff – Give yourself and conveners grace and patience as we transition into the virtual meeting space!
  • Do not worry if it is awkward. Remember this is the first time many academics and industry professionals have attended a virtual scientific conference. As recently said in a Nature Career Feature, there may be moments of technical glitches and issues. It is OK to acknowledge a virtual meeting is not what you want. If you come into it with the mind-set that it will not be like a normal in-person meeting, then that may relieve some of you awkwardness and change your expectations.
  • Do not let your space be messy. Keep the area you are watching talks clean and organized. Then you will be focused on the presentations you are seeing. You will not be focused on the pile of papers on your desk that needs to be filed or the pile of dirty dishes that should be washed. It does not have to be an in-depth re-organization, but enough so you feel calm when you sit at your desk/ couch/ kitchen table.
  • Do not be distressed if you miss a session. As meetings cross multiple time zones, you may miss a talk or presentation you are interested in. While you could wake up at 3 am for a 15 minute talk, you could also check with the organizers to see if the talks are going to be recorded. If so, watch that talk at a later time. You do not have the chance to interact with the presenter, but you can always email or call them afterward to talk about their work. Many people would be very flattered to know you watched their presentation, especially since they cannot see everyone who is watching them during a virtual presentation.
  • Do not overload yourself. This is the same as with any in-person meeting. Sitting in one place for too long is not good for your health. Make sure to schedule in breaks for yourself to walk around the block, grab a snack or cup of coffee from the kitchen or neighborhood coffee shop (if you are able to do that safely in the city you live in), or step away from your computer for a few minutes.
  • Do not forget why you signed up for the meeting in the first place.
    • Was it to network? Reach out to presenters to see if they will hold a 1:1 video meeting with you. It is still important to mark down the contact info of presenters and follow-up by email or Twitter later. You can now be drafting an email minutes after a talk.
    • Was it to find a job? See if there is a virtual job board associated with the meeting. At the end of your own presentation make sure to state that you are in the job market and include your contact information on the final slide.
    • Was it to learn new science? Jump on as many interesting talks as you can! And do not be afraid to ask questions. The Q&A box or messaging features make it easier to ask your question, even anonymously sometimes, and questions are instantaneously presented to the moderators. Moderators during virtual meetings will vet the questions to ask the presenter. In some cases, there may be too many questions. If yours is not asked, then take it off-line and reach out to the presenter separately.
    • Was it to share your science? Make sure you make the most compelling presentation you can. There are lots of tools you can now employ that you may not have used before. Think about imbedding videos, if your Wi-Fi can handle that. Or use interactive audience participation for longer presentations. Be innovative and creative.  

Now it is up to you to make the coffee/ tea for the meeting, but at least you know there will always be enough!


Authored by: Hadley McIntosh Marcek, PhD

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