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Is virtual conferencing here to stay?

As the pandemic forced academic collaborations into new digital landscapes, scholars adapted. Three scientists discuss the promise and pitfalls of building collaborative communities virtually. 


Last year, around the Ides of March, four other WashU graduate students and I were set to travel out of state to a large conference. The morning of our flight, the conference was cancelled due to COVID. As spring rolled into summer, it became clear that in-person meetings were not going to happen for the remainder of 2020. Some of these traditional conferences moved online, but most were cancelled outright. As academia grappled with this new, indefinite normal, I began to see a wave of novel online conferences and seminars pop up. 

As a fifth-year graduate student, I have been an avid conference-goer. These events have allowed me to make countless professional contacts, provided many great social experiences, and always seem to lead to additional academic opportunities. When I first started attending conferences, I was told that, for students, conferences are as important for socializing and networking as they are for research. Within our new normal, it’s been great to have widespread remote access to events, but many of the in-person social aspects have been hard to duplicate in the online setting. I’ve found myself missing unstructured and wide-ranging conversations with other attendees. 

With vaccine distribution full steam ahead, it seems we may be on the heels of tamping down the most extreme consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it would be naive to think that conferencing will revert to traditional in-person practices. We should think critically about whether we want to continue online activities and, if so, at what capacity? To ensure the success of our academic interactions, and that our events are serving our communities to the fullest, most equitable extent possible, it’s worth discussing the benefits and drawbacks of online conferences, how things have changed, and how we’ve managed to adapt to our modern Lyceum. 


Online conferencing certainly has some benefits. Foremost, it seems more inclusive, especially for folks that have a difficult time traveling, for example, due to physical or financial restrictions or demanding in-person responsibilities, like heavy teaching loads, children, pets, or elderly parents. Sophia Hayes, professor of chemistry, agrees that a future with virtual options would be a great benefit as a parent. “I'm constantly trying to find ways to manage my home situation and do my professional work so virtual options are really valuable at times,” said Hayes. 

However, online engagement doesn’t necessarily neutralize these challenges. Elizabeth Haswell, professor of biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Simmons Faculty Scholar, notes that although this might be a positive in the future, many school children are still learning virtually, making it difficult for parents to engage in conferences. “I have a 10 year old child that was home doing remote learning in the spring,” Haswell said. “It was not possible for me to participate in a long meeting — I would have missed tons of it. I would have been distracted.” 

Virtual conferences are clearly more cost- and time-effective than plane rides and hotel rooms. This reduction of travel is also more climate-friendly, reducing travel powered by fossil fuels and the many disposable goods that go into a conference — coffee cups, cocktail plates, napkins, folders with campus maps, talk abstracts, and other things we could easily access online. Haswell and Hayes both agreed that this is a clear societal positive. “From a global climate change perspective, I have a lot of colleagues, especially in Europe, who had already started to dial down their pre-COVID travel,” Haswell said. “Many only travel once a year, or don't travel unless they can go by train — which is great for Europeans, but it's a little harder if you're in America.”  


What about home-turf events that require little travel for most participants? Many departments have moved weekly seminars and colloquia online with relative ease. For speakers, traveling in the middle of the semester can be somewhat chaotic, so one may think this change is welcome and might stick around. However, the benefits of these in-person activities should not be overlooked. Haswell, who leads the biology colloquium committee, says that junior faculty rely on inviting people to give a talk in order to make a personal connection with the speaker, adding that often those speakers serve as references during junior faculty members’ tenure evaluations. Haswell also points to other intangibles associated with the in-person meetings that are especially beneficial to early-career faculty: “People are just more likely to think of you as a reviewer, or to review your paper favorably, if they've met you in person — they can picture you, they've seen you give a talk on that material, so they understand it better already when your paper comes to them, or think of you to review when a similar paper pops up.” 

In the chemistry department, Hayes says that seminars readily moved online, but often at the speaker’s disadvantage. Noting that visitors usually go from office to office meeting with people, they’re now on Zoom calls all day, and then must give a presentation. Hayes says that some visitors have said, “I am just wiped out. I loved meeting with you all, but, oh my gosh, I just have to get away from the screen for a little while.” 

This brings us to several obvious weaknesses of the virtual venue. How long can we spend staring at a screen before going crazy or getting a headache? It is nice to have the comforts of home while conferencing, but they also come with the distractions of home. Luckily, for me, this duality hasn’t compromised focus, but the ‘unmuted participant’ (now arguably a trope) suggests that attention is divided for many. And understandably so, as virus fears have caused an increase in household responsibilities for people who traditionally rely on outside support. 

Possibly the most serious shortcoming in the virtual setting is the lack of genuine social interaction. Coffee, meals, and drinks have turned into short messages between presentations. Although organizers have tried breakout rooms for coffee and lunch, it’s simply not the same as mingling over tea and pastries or sharing a meal at a restaurant. It’s clear we’re getting something wrong here. Said Hayes, “Nobody has really managed to come up with a good mechanism for the in-person pieces — the informal conversations, sitting next to somebody in the audience and kind of nudging them and asking a question. That small talk is an incredibly important part of science. And that just doesn’t happen in the formality of a screen.” 

“Nobody has really managed to come up with a good mechanism for the in-person pieces — the informal conversations, sitting next to somebody in the audience and kind of nudging them and asking a question. That small talk is an incredibly important part of science. And that just doesn’t happen in the formality of a screen.” 

“New collaborations just aren’t happening for me right now,” said Hayes. “Usually I'm regularly churning through work, and talking with others— mentioning things like, oh, you got this new data at your lab, let me send you a sample of mine. Again, those inadvertent conversations lead to real science. I could almost look at my CV and say, oh yeah, this is because I met somebody at a meeting, or this is because somebody saw me at a poster or, you know, talking on the side. Not because of my formal presentation.”

On a positive note, Hayes points out that one upside to meeting online is the ability to give people virtual tours, which can be very informative for lab-based scientists. Although you could walk around your lab and produce a video to show off your tools, Hayes believes the virtual tour offers a better alternative. “Normally we'd be sitting in an auditorium or hotel somewhere,” said Hayes, “but now I can give you a tour and show you around my lab in a manner that allows for two-way communication and enables people to say, ‘Hey, what is that over there? Can you show me how that works?’ My lab is totally different from all my colleagues’ because I have a unique piece of instrumentation. It's important to show the context of instrumentation in a lab, or to be able to show students what a working lab looks like. It’s valuable to get to see that.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted interactions with colleagues and students in numerous ways, Hayes noted. Many of those have been negative. But, possibly, not all of them. Pointing to journal reviews, Hayes said that although reviews are always rigorous, they seem to be less aggressive lately. “I feel like there has been a recalibration on our personal interactions and that there is a bit more generosity,” she said.

I, too, would like to believe this is the case, and that we’re finding new ways to uphold academic rigor while also renewing our ability to extend grace and understanding. As we move forward with conference organization — and our future collaborations in general — this consideration will be important for grappling with nuanced aspects of inclusivity, social interaction, and collegiality inherent to both physical and virtual events. 

“Are you kinder and gentler as a person after coming through this time, or are you more hard-driving and aggressive?” Hayes asked. “For all the frustrations and difficulties, I hope we continue to see more of a recalibration on our personal interactions as we navigate our new academic landscape.”