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Unconferencing During a Pandemic: What One Science Educator Learned

I’m an undergraduate biology educator. In one of my courses, I teach about science communication strategies for biology students engaged in public science activities. As a new academic term began this past January, I was excited to take advantage of an opportunity to attend a professional conference to present my work on this topic and meet others working at the intersection of science, public engagement, and education. After some consideration, I selected Science Talk ’20, scheduled for late March of this year. I was all ready to travel, network with new people across disciplines, and share my work with others on their conference theme of “Building Bridges.” I also planned to present my work at the annual Indiana Academy of Science annual meeting the same month, much closer to home.

Everything seemed perfect. In early March, I began preparing a conference poster for my two events, which I would attend in whirlwind back-to-back weeks. But then, the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and its disease, Covid-19, made its appearance in North America. It quickly became clear that both of my March conferences—and many other large, in-person events—would be canceled. I was disappointed, but as a scientist, I agreed it was the right call.

Then, a surprise. The organizers of the Science Talk ’20 conference shifted their two-day conference to a virtual format. Could I make this work, from my hastily set-up home office, while busily pivoting my face-to-face classes to emergency remote learning? I decided it was worth a shot, and I converted my registration to the virtual conference.

During the event, I was able to connect with and learn from the cross-section of people I’d hoped to encounter in person: journalists, science writers, scientists, science trainees/students, artists, educators, and others.

Special emphasis on science communication about Covid-19 was a valuable addition to the schedule, as well. I presented my own experiences with SciComm in both a “fast-pitch” 60-second, live-streamed personal introduction and a 3-minute, live poster presentation. These sparked new conversations with other participants both during and after the conference.

As I attended my first virtual conference, I did feel a sense of loss, however. I genuinely missed having opportunities to meet and connect with people in person. This important and sometimes informal aspect of attending a conference in person has helped me forge new professional relationships and discover people I might not otherwise have been able to meet. Typing a few words in a chat box isn’t really the same as striking up a conversation with a potential collaborator or an established colleague during a break in the conference schedule.

Researchers have been studying the impacts of virtual technology on fostering collaboration for many years. For example, the RAND National Defense Research Institute explored some of these challenges back in 2004, and more recently the National Academies of Science has considered how technology impacts collaboration in science itself). I also missed having the opportunity to travel to a new place and really immerse myself in thinking about new ideas, away from my workaday responsibilities.

But, the online experiment offered by the Science Talk ’20 organizers felt like a cheerful (if somewhat draining) partial substitute for these missed moments of my planned life, during those hectic and stressful early days of our abrupt separation from face-to-face interaction during the emerging pandemic. After the conference, I fully intended to retreat into my new remote teaching work for the remainder of the semester and attend another conference in person in the future.

Then, another surprise! I learned through the science grapevine on social media that the organizers of the Meiosis Gordon Research Conference (a scientific research conference scheduled for this summer) were creating a virtual replacement, starting in April. Dubbed Meiosis in Quarantine, science presentations were being scheduled weekly online through the spring and summer to showcase new research in this area of biology relating to cell division for sexual reproduction. As a science graduate trainee years ago, my work focused on dissecting the mechanisms of meiosis in fungi, and I still have a fascination with chromosomes. I never would have planned to attend this conference in person, since I don’t do active research in this area and would not be presenting new science.

But the conference organizers opened up the event for free to anyone with an interest in meiosis, so I signed up. I’ve logged in, listened, and learned alongside many hundreds of fellow scientists for a couple of hours a week over the past few months. By updating my understanding of the state of research in this area, I hope to amplify the work of these scientists when teaching biology to students or engaging with the public. When I cover the basics, I will also be able to share what new questions scientists are asking, curated through my own experience.

Likewise, when I learned that the Genetics Society of America, of which I’m a member, moved their Allied Genetics Conference (TAGC) online—for free—I also quickly signed up to take advantage. I was not alone. GSA reports over 14,000 people registered for the conference. Over three days at the end of April, I listened online to keynote presentations and topical discussions of the genetics of Covid-19, genetics education resources, diversity and inclusivity in genetics research and education, and more. I asked questions, connected with new people through their online community and social media, and gained new insights and potential resources for my genetics classes. Scientific poster sessions and interdisciplinary workshops for this conference were spread out beyond the original April conference dates and well into the summer, and most oral presentations were recorded for flexibility of participants to connect at a time that worked best for them.

In general, attending multiple virtual conferences this spring did present some new challenges. Different technical platforms for each event required a learning curve and sometimes resulted in occasional, but usually temporary, glitches and frustrations.

More notably, for me, attending a virtual conference didn’t have the separation in time and space from other work responsibilities that traveling to a physical event creates.

I had originally set aside several days to travel and present work at two in-person conferences. Attending three virtual conferences, on the other hand, happened concurrently alongside all my other responsibilities without any obvious physical or mental separation from work and home life (which was already in disarray because of disruptions from Covid-19 restrictions). I did have some flexibility pre-arranged in my work schedule this spring specifically for professional development opportunities. But, without that buffer in future academic terms, I plan to be very cautious about spreading myself too thin with the lure of many “conference-from-home” opportunities that seem to be on the horizon for the next year, as Covid-19 continues to make its presence known.

Even if the registration cost is reduced, as some might be, there may be personal costs to attending events without carving out appropriate time to participate. Carefully considering the value of a virtual conference may become one important factor in reducing work-from-home or remote work burnout, as well as the emotional effects of  Zoom fatigue, feeling worn out from too much time with screens and too many faces on our virtual video interfaces.

The virtual conference format also presents both new science communication challenges—but also new opportunities—for participants. What originally was supposed to be a person’s live presentation and discussion among a small group of people in a room at a conference now potentially could reach hundreds or even thousands of (mostly invisible) people online. Targeting a presentation to a new and mostly invisible audience may become much harder. What story can you tell about your research or work that will engage experts in your discipline, but that also potentially has a broader reach to curious listeners who may be outside this area? How will you engage your audience using only a camera on a computer, rather than in person? (What if your cat walks by? This has happened in some presentations I’ve seen.)

Under the circumstances, I have been mostly excited and energized from attending these events online over the past few months. Being able to present my work and connect with different people directly through the Science Talk ’20 conference gave me new opportunities for professional growth and collaboration. Meanwhile, the generosity of the organizers of the two formal scientific conferences in welcoming broader participation into a virtual setting has been inclusive and useful in ways I didn’t expect. Simply being allowed to attend as a listener, and not a research presenter, gave me access into scientific spaces I wouldn’t typically find myself in these days.

Over the course of a few weeks, I have been able to put on my “scientist hat” again and think about new data from the sidelines, but alongside other scientists who enjoy thinking about the same questions I do. I’ve been able to think about advances in fields in which I have training, which will undoubtedly trickle down to my work with classes of undergraduates at the most fundamental levels of my discipline. The special sessions and workshops devoted specifically to undergraduate education have also been an important resource as I plan future courses in my discipline.

In the long term, virtual conferences have the potential to create a more inclusive environment to foster communication and participation among a more diverse group of participants.

People who might not be able to fund a trip and conference fees because of economic circumstance or by career level are able to listen and participate in interactive spaces. Even before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, discussions had already begun about whether online conferences with potentially lower registration costs, eliminated travel expenses, and more flexible online offerings might provide new opportunities to open conferencing up to more participants than in the past, while potentially lowering the carbon footprint for participants at the same time. Of course, access to digital technology is a requirement to participate in a virtual event, and the online interfaces may present logistical or accessibility challenges to some participants. Conference organizers are starting to think about the new potential—but also potential pitfalls—of future online events, and how they can be made equitable and enjoyable for as many people as possible.

Overall, I can see a blend of both virtual and in-person science and science communication conferences continuing into the future for many events, to break down barriers for participation in sharing ideas and discoveries. Especially when coupled with other online community spaces (e.g., Slack shared workspaces for teams), online conferences still allow people to discuss their work and receive feedback from others. Already, conference organizers are starting to share their strategies to create better virtual conferences for the future. However, I think the opportunity to meet people off-line has intangible social benefits for informal discussions that can’t be captured as well (yet) in the online environment—as we’re learning through the months of online meetings and pandemic “social distancing”—and so in-person conferences will likely still have an important role in bringing professional scientists and science communicators together.

Perhaps the theme of the Science Talk ’20 conference, “Building Bridges,” was more apt than I imagined when I signed up for it at the beginning of the year. I’ve now “attended” three very different conferences and have new ideas and more professional connections, though in a different landscape of interactions. The pandemic has given us all pause and a lot of new scientific questions to figure out. It looks like it will also prompt us to consider new ways to think about how we connect over scientific discovery and communicate about science with each other moving forward.

Edited by Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, PhD, IUPUI & Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Erin Gerecke

    Erin Gerecke, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at Butler University. Trained in fungal genetics and molecular biology, she teaches undergraduate biology courses in genetics and cell/molecular biology, as well as non-majors’ biology, a senior seminar, and a biology-themed community engagement course. She is certified as an Editor in the Life Sciences from the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) and is passionate about science communication and informal STEM engagement. Find her on Twitter @mulledscience.

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