Organising a virtual conference

Gwyneth Matthews – g.r.matthews@pgr.reading.ac.uk

A Doctoral Training Programme (DTP) provides funding, training, and opportunities for many PhD students in our department. Every year three environmentally focused DTPs: the SCENARIO NERC DTP, the London NERC DTP, and the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) DTP, combine forces to hold a conference bringing together hundreds of PhD students to present their work and to network. As for many conferences in 2020, COVID19 disrupted our plans for the Joint DTP conference.  Usually the conference is hosted at one of the universities involved with a DTP however, this year it was held virtually using a mixture of Zoom and Slack. 

The decision to go virtual was difficult. We had to decide early in the pandemic when we didn’t know how long the lockdown would last nor what restrictions would be in place in September. If possible, we wanted to keep the conference in-person so that attendees got the full experience as it’s often the first time the new cohort meet and one of the few chances for the DTPs to mingle. However, as meeting and mingling was, and is, very much discouraged, making the decision to go virtual early on meant we had time to re-organise.  

Figure 1 – It was initially planned to hold the conference at the University of Surrey campus, which is located in Guildford, Surrey and hosts some students from the SCENARIO NERC DTP. The conference was instead held on Slack, an online communication platform that allows content to be divided into channels, and presentation sessions were hosted on Zoom.

When we thought we were organising a conference to be held at the University of Surrey, the main theme was “Engaging Sustainability” with the aim of making the conference as sustainable as possible. Since one of the often-made criticisms of conferences, especially those within the environmental fields, is the impact of large numbers of people travelling to one place, a virtual conference has obvious environmental benefits. An additional benefit was that we could invite guest speakers, such as Mya-Rose Craig (aka Bird Girl @birdgirluk), who may not have been able to attend if the event was held in person. It was also easier for some participants who had other commitments, such as childcare, to attend, although poor internet connection was an issue for others. 

The pandemic exposed, and often enhanced, many issues within academia and society in general. A questionnaire sent out before the event showed that most attendees were finding working from home and all other pandemic induced changes exhausting and mentally challenging. The recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world and the disproportionate impact of COVID on ethnic minority communities highlighted both the overt and systemic racism that is still prevalent in society. The UK Research and Innovation COVID funding controversy, and an increased focus on the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ researchers emphasised the inequalities and poor representation specifically experienced in academia. Scientists working at the forefront of the pandemic response faced the challenge of providing clear information to enable people and policy makers to take life-disrupting actions before they are directly impacted; a challenge familiar to climate and environmental scientists. These issues gave us our topics for the external sessions which focused on wellbeing, inclusivity and diversity in academia, and communicating research.  

Barring technical difficulties, oral presentations are easy to replicate online, however, virtual conferences held earlier this year often had issues with recreating the poster sessions. Attempting to learn from these snags, instead of replicating an in-person poster session and possibly producing a poor-quality knock-off, participants were asked to create an animated “Twitter poster”. These were required to describe the key points of their research in a simple format that could be shared on social media and that was accessible to a non-expert. The posters were available for comments and questions throughout the two days in one easy-to-find location. Many of the participants shared their posters on Twitter after the conference using the conference hashtag #JointDTPCon.  

Another issue we faced was how to run a social and networking event. We kept the social event simple. A quiz. A pandemic classic with a fantastic double act as hosts. Randomly assigned teams meant that new connections could be made. However, the quiz was held online and after a full day of video calls most people didn’t want to spend their evenings also starring at a screen.  

Fig 2 – Jo Herschan and Lucinda King, members of the SCENARIO DTP and on the conference organising committee, hosted an entertaining quiz on the first night of the conference. An ethical objects photo round linked the quiz to the conference’s main theme.

With everyone having stayed at home and everything being conducted virtually for a few months by the time of our conference, Zoom fatigue was an issue we were aware could occur and tried to counter as much as possible during the day without losing any of the exciting new research being presented. In the weeks running up to the conference we had several discussions about how to encourage people to move throughout the two days without missing any of the sessions they wanted to attend. We decided on two ideas: a yoga session and a walking challenge. The yoga session was a success and not only gave participants an opportunity to stretch in the middle of the day but also linked strongly to our theme of researcher wellbeing. The walking challenge was not as successful. The aim was that collectively the conference participants would walk the distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We did not make it that far; but we did make it out of Cornwall. 

Fig 3 – Using World Walking to track the distance, we intended to collectively walk the 1576km (or 2,299,172 steps) from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This may have been an optimistic endeavour as we only achieved 235km (343, 311 steps).  

Helping to organise a virtual conference as part of an enthusiastic committee was a lot of fun and attending the conference and learning about the research being undertaken (from fungi in Kew Gardens to tigers in North Korea) was even more fun. There is still enormous room for improvement in virtual conferences, but since they aren’t as well established as traditional in-person conferences there’s also a lot of flexibility for each conference to be designed differently. Once we’re through the pandemic and in-person conferences return it’d be nice for some of these benefits to be maintained as hybrid conferences are designed.   

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