Research conferences and annual gatherings are opportunities to share ideas, connect, and catch up with colleagues. With such meetings canceled due to the pandemic, these opportunities have largely been put on hold.
UConn Marine Sciences researcher Hannes Baumann left the 2019 Larval Fish Conference, the 43rd installment of the annual conference, with excitement for the 2020 American Fisheries Society Larval Fish Conference which was to be hosted by UConn. The planning and overall experience has been entirely different than he expected and turned out to be a real “lemons to lemonade” situation, says Baumann.
“For over 40 years, this small but important gathering has happily meandered between North American and European locations. The last in-person conference was 2019 in Palma de Mallorca. A treat. For 2020, I agreed that it now was my turn to organize a Larval Fish Conference. We were so excited, but you know what happened next,” says Baumann.
The 2020 conference had to be canceled outright, and plans started for 2021 in hopes it could be held in-person, but those too were later changed.
“We canceled the June 2020 in-person conference, but naively only postponed it by one year to June 2021, thinking then that one year later, we surely would be done with this virus and all the travel restrictions. So much for that. Again, in March of this year, we had to cancel the 2021 in-person meeting, but replaced it with a three-day virtual meeting that myself and a team organized in the months leading up to the conference.”
The ability to shift gears and ensure forward momentum is a valuable skill the workforce quickly acquired as a result of the pandemic. Baumann says the amount of help and hard work provided by University Events and Conference Services staff to make the switch to virtual has been essential.
“The staff has done a fantastic job with this. You can’t imagine how many things can go wrong, but the staff have solved all of these problems. We all have such gratitude for all their help.”
In pulling everything together, Baumann says the process was both exhausting and rewarding as turnout exceeded expectations.
“The virtual nature of the meeting led to a record diversity of registrants. The conferences were always international, but that meant largely European and North American countries, plus Japan, Australia and New Zealand. This year, we had talks and posters from 28 different countries, a record.”
Technology made it possible: the WebEx platform in particular, coupled with another platform called Gatherly to encourage networking, a difficult-to-replicate experience for virtual meetings.
“Here I was sitting in my New England office on Gatherly and a video chat would pop up with a colleague in British Columbia, when all of a sudden a little avatar joined in and popped up a conversation from New Zealand. Another person from Europe joined after that, and we were talking like we are talking right now. That was so cool, and the participants loved that,” says Baumann.
Happy with how everything turned out, Baumann says, “The top reaction is the technology gods were smiling on us as there were no major glitches and we are very, very, happy for that. I’m a little surprised that everything went so well.”
Benefits of the virtual conference included increased diversity of participants, many who may not have been able to participate otherwise, a reduced carbon footprint, and participants being able to see more talks, since all were recorded. However, Baumann says meeting in-person still can’t be beat.
“This pandemic is particularly hard for early career researchers, like grad students who want to share their research. It’s important to start talking about their research and be in front of people talking about their work. Though responses have been positive, all participants agree on the fact that even the best run virtual conference cannot replace the quality of networking or personal contact that an in-person meeting can deliver.”
Going forward, Baumann says efforts will be made to ensure future conferences have some mixture of both approaches to make sure prospective attendees have their needs met.
“Some participants were really frank in saying they would never be able to attend an in-person meeting far from their own countries. Some could not easily afford the fee for the virtual conference, but we were able to help. Anybody who says, ‘Well, now that we have virtual conferences, the world is on an equal playing field,’ is not seeing the reality that much of the world has not the same resources and internet connectivity than we do here in an institution like UConn.”
Baumann says this is something organizers will have to think carefully about to calibrate, but going forward, scientific conferences may never be quite the same.