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Scientific conferences in the time of Corona

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For a scientist, conferences are not only important and informative, but also always a good chance to catch up with other scientists in the field, like-minded people and friends. It is also a place where scientists can present their research and gather feedback and ideas. So, in spring 2020, many of us were still looking forward to the year's conferences.However, COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown occurred.

The German government restricted all big events in March and completely banned them in April. Freedom of travel was also increasingly restricted until traveling abroad was no longer possible. International travel continues to be partially restricted, especially business travel. So, how should an international conference be organized in pandemic times? The answer is: it should not be organized at all! In lieu of this all conferences and lectures were cancelled or postponed until next year, hoping that the COVID-19 crisis would be overcome by then.

On the other hand, the pandemic crisis also made us more flexible and creative and video-based communication started booming. All of us increasingly used communication  platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype and others to communicate, both professionally and privately. Beside business meetings and lectures, conferences can also be conducted by such programs.

The European Worm Meeting is a great example of a digital get-together and was the first digital conference I participated in. This conference was originally scheduled to take place in June 2020 in Marseilles, France; which, of course, was not possible. Although the on-site event was postponed, a concept for a digital conference to be offered in 2021was developed in parallel. The organization team made of Nathalie Pujol, Jonathan Ewbank and Susan Mango did a great job and organized not only a digital conference, but also a poster presentation and a digital social event.

The two-day virtual conference program was comparable to normal conferences. The scientific part took place from 10:30 to 17:15 and was divided into three sessions per day separated by the usual coffee breaks. The familiar structure of the individual sessions from past conferences was maintained. For each session, a chairperson guided us through the talks and asked the questions that arose. Immediately after the talk there was the possibility for a few questions, which could be asked during the talk using the commentary function. The ‘raise your hand’ and unmute microphone and camera options enabled direct discussions with the speaker and felt similar to a regular conference. In parallel to the lectures and  breaks, separate chat rooms were set up for detailed discussions with the speakers and sponsoring companies via Zoom. After the scientific part was finished virtual chat rooms were opened via SpartialChat, where up to 50 persons were able to join one virtual room at the same time.

The overall atmosphere was very professional, but friendly (as known from the worm community). Participating in the conference was also made very easy: after a free registration and receipt of a password, you could join the Zoom conference.

It was a great and very educational experience to attend an international conference from the comfort of your own home. Although I was sitting alone in my living room, this conference was very inspiring and motivated me to advance my research even in pandemic times.  

I really appreciated the minimal effort the participants had to make, as we didn't have to worry about hotel bookings and travel; and financing was not an issue. What I really enjoyed was the fact that I could follow the conference from the comfort of my apartment. However, what I really missed was not having the opportunity to talk and discuss face-to-face with the other participating scientists. This very important part of a scientific meeting is, of course, not possible with online communication platforms.

The COVID-19 crisis offers us (despite all the negative sides) a completely new view on things in our everyday life and routines. It may have impacted the way we perceive conferences in the future. For example, some events and meetings could continue to be offered online instead of on-site in the future. This would reduce travel costs and time for employees, but also contribute to a lower carbon footprint.

In my opinion, there should be more conferences in a digital form, but the face-to-face meetings should not be completely replaced. It would be feasible to have events where the sessions are streamed live from the conference room and the online audience is involved in the discussions afterwards.

Mirjam Ax

Alternatively, events could be organized either digitally or on-site, in alternation. The pandemic has certainly caused a paradigm shift in our interactions, work situations and reliance on technology. During the next months we will find out where this journey will take us: will we go completely digital or back to completely personal interactions, or something in between. Personally, I prefer the middle road. What do you feel?

Written by Mirjam Ax; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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