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When conferences go virtual – a PhD student's view

May 22, 2020

Like so many societies during this challenging year, the American Chemical Society (ACS) was forced to cancel their spring annual meeting, which was to be held in Philadelphia in March. Committed to providing their attendees with a robust digital alternative and the opportunity to widely disseminate their findings online, ACS partnered with Morressier to launch virtual science sharing platform SciMeetings. Ryan Larder, a 3rd year PhD candidate in polymer science and nanomaterials from the University of Nottingham, provides his firsthand experience as an early-career researcher utilizing the SciMeetings platform.

To start off, as a 3rd year PhD student, are there requirements for you to present your work?

Ryan Larder: There is definitely a need at this stage to present and publish. I have been lucky, as I’ve been able to travel to conferences and had opportunities to present my work.  But we are pressured at this stage in the PhD process to present. It’s why I looked to attend the ACS meeting. It’s very international and provides a lot of exposure for me and my research.

Through SciMeetings, you submitted a digital poster for ACS Philadelphia. How did this experience compare to presenting a physical poster?

Larder: It was really easy to put up my presentation. I only started making the presentation after the conference was canceled. It was easy to take the PowerPoint and convert it into something I could post for viewing in SciMeetings and then have it available for others to view. It would also be great if we could contact people who posted and comment around posts too (Editor’s note: this functionality was released shortly after this interview took place). That’s very useful – like when you give a physical presentation and you get questions from the audience. It helps improve your presentation and findings when you get questions from others and have to think about how it challenges your work.  

What were the advantages and disadvantages of presenting your research virtually?

Larder: I definitely found it easier to post it online. I can do it at my own pace, and I also have an opportunity to look through everyone else’s presentations as well. The downside is that we’re not networking in person. You don’t have the coffee breaks, for example. You lose that part of the in-person meeting. But this is a good substitute right now and definitely a good addition going forward. I can review the information when I have time -  fit it into my own schedule. 

I have definitely had problems before where you go to a conference and are very dedicated and take lots of notes, but then you come back and look at your notes weeks later and you forgot what you saw. But having a digital resource is really useful; you can always go back to review and refresh.    

How do you think conferences may change or should change going forward? 

Larder: As a post grad, I am also organizing a conference myself – small-scale though. It was supposed to be in June, so now we are looking at ways we can host it digitally. Virtual conferences offer a lot more opportunities than hosting a conference in person. There’s a lot of time and funds spent on things like securing rooms, catering, etc., for in person events. Now moving to online, the cost is minimal and we may even be able to offer something to delegates for free. It does take a lot of pressure off organizers. Conferences should be about sharing information and building collaboration but you have to put a price tag on that when the conference is in person.  But when you use virtual tools for a conference, it can be less expensive, and you can also expand to include more people as well.


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