Staying up all night, eating snacks to keep you awake, sitting in your comfiest track pants lounging around the house sounds like a recipe for a great night in. But what about attending a conference?

Covid-19 has certainly thrown the world a curve ball and every industry is having to reinvent itself to survive. Science is no different. International conferences are a staple in the scientific community. They allow us to communicate with others in our field, make connections, collaborate with those with different skill sets, and learn from fellow researchers. So, regardless of travel restrictions, conferences must prevail. Therefore, numerous conferences from around the world have gone virtual.

So, what are virtual conferences really like and could they take the place of in-person conferences in the future? I recently attended the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, (in New York state) (CSHL) – Genome engineering – CRISPR Frontiers virtual meeting and discovered the pros and cons.


* the cost: As a PhD student from Australia, attending high profile conferences like CSHL usually involves expensive long haul flights as well as multiple days accommodation, food and other expenses. Attending an international conference is special and choosing the right one at the right time is stressful. With virtual conferences, the only cost is the registration.

* more questions: With virtual conferences, questions for speakers are asked in a chat and therefore everyone can ask their questions rather than the few questions that typically get asked after an in-person talk. Whether or not your question gets asked while the speaker is live, the questions can be answered later in the chat, meaning more discussion about each talk

* home: being on your own couch is just plain great! If you’re not speaking, no one can see you which means you can just relax and enjoy learning about some awesome science

* watch talks later: Given their timing doesn’t work for everyone, virtual conferences are recorded giving attendees the ability to watch talks later or even again if they didn’t catch all of the information the first time.

* less time: Travelling for an international conference can be a big time commitment. In the early part of a candidature, this time might not be a deal, but getting towards the end, it is definitely a consideration.


* less collaborative conversation: One of the best parts of conferences is meeting new people and networking, which is difficult virtually. Hundreds of people attend conferences, so knowing who you want to speak to can be very tricky and there is no way for conversations to arise spontaneously.

poster sessions: Are harder at virtual conferences. The poster session at my conference was challenging. Each poster had its own discussion chat and each person at the conference had to sign up to each poster if they wanted to see and participate. There were hundreds of posters and without a specific reason or interest in a poster, perhaps there was little reason to look at it or sign up – or perhaps my work is just too esoteric. For virtual conferences to be the way of the future, poster sessions may have to be revamped!

* engaging with the audience is hard: Speakers talk to a whole bunch of nothing and the audience can only see their slide show. Learning to engage an audience with only your voice is a new skill researchers need to master

* time zones: The timing of conferences in Europe and America is brutal for Australians and watching the recorded talks can leave listeners feeling less engaged

* missing out on travel:  I have heard many scientists say one of the high points of their job is the global nature of science and travelling for work. No one is travelling now but if conferences move all on-line people will be disappointed

All up

my virtual conference was a great experience. Even when in-person conferences come back I hope there will be an on-line component to make them more accessible. But I really hope this is not the end of in person conferences and the more engaging, collaborative atmosphere that they provide.

Sarah Topfer is a PhD student in the Crossley Lab at UNSW


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