Take Me Back to Conference Week

I remember my first time. I was the newest member of my dissertation research group. The others had been to one before and seemed to be laser focused getting ready for the event. I was going to be a co-author on a poster and I felt like I was moving in slow motion compared to them. I had to wait and work towards my turn for my first presentation based on my research project. For now, I needed new clothes. I bought some professional wear that was a far cry from my customary sweatshirt and jeans. I did not need to travel for this conference. This was coming home to Miami but just being in the hotel where the conference was being held felt like a whole new universe.  That was 15 years ago.

I have attended many scientific conferences since. As a student, as a researcher, as a mentor to students, and as an organizer. The preparation, anticipation, and discomposure have not waned.

The preparation begins months in advance when the presentation abstracts are due. I either write one myself, write one in collaboration with another colleague, or more often, press my students into completing research worthy of an abstract. Once the abstract is submitted and accepted, the urgency to get the data into presentation-quality or, better yet, publication-quality begins. Posters are different from oral presentations. I obsess about both. My students would tell you I nitpick at everything. Twice. The preparation also includes travel plans, time away from work, perhaps a travel extension to sight-see and enjoy a different city. So much must be done before the conference nears.

The anticipation lies in the knowledge that you will be in the same space as your community- your scientific family. The meeting of old friends and the sparking of new connections. I eagerly wait to see how my research will be received. Perhaps somebody would run into me and bring up something I wrote or presented. That it would have sparked some interest in somebody. That my work, my words, or the way I carried myself made a difference. If my students are presenting, then I pray so hard for them to succeed and to have the joy of experiencing the depth and breadth of their scientific discipline. I know I will learn new things and strengthen my understanding of what I already should know. Oh, and the exhibitor hall! Do not get me started about that. I look forward to “conference week”!

Here I am writing about I enjoy large gatherings of members of a scientific family and I am simultaneously going to tell you that I am uncomfortable in a group! I thrive on one-on-one conversations and building relationships. You would rarely find me in a social gathering. As much as I enjoy being at a conference, I need to mentally prepare myself for it. No matter how many times I give a presentation in front of people, the butterflies seem to come back anew. They are there, right there in the pit of my stomach, reminding me that something is at stake and that the spotlight is on me. I find myself going over possible reactions to my research and what my response would be. Even if I manage to tame all that, my equilibrium has shifted and it will be unsteady until I get back home and conference week is done.

This year, 2020, I did not attend a single conference – in person. I have already attended 3 and will be attending a couple more before the year ends. But they would have all been from the comfort of my home and in front of my computer screen. I was not organizing anything so there was no agonizing over details. I can imagine, and have heard firsthand, the complexities of organizing these remote conferences for the first time. I applaud different organizations for undertaking the monumental task of continuing the scientific tradition of a healthy public discourse on the progress in a discipline even under these circumstances.

There were so many things that were different. The preparation, the anticipation, and the discomposure were non-existent. I did not take off from work. No. I replied to emails while listening to a session, attended a meeting in between sessions, cooked lunch, recorded a lecture for the courses I teach, and did a million other things that I would do on a non-conference week day. I did not travel so I did not get a vacation day in the conference city. We are still in remote-learning mode so I did not even leave my front door. I walked downstairs and into my office where my laptop resides. I did not meet my people. I did not get to know new people or become known. I did not get to see my students get wide-eyed and all at once desire something bigger for themselves. I contributed to 3 presentations. I did not talk to anybody about them. Nobody talked to me about them. I did not do much as a member of the committees that I am on now. I did not learn much from the sessions I attended. I was too distracted. I could walk out of a session whenever I wanted to. The speaker would not mind. Neither would the audience. In fact, I could be singing loudly while in the session and nobody would mind as long as my microphone was muted. The remote conferences took so much away from the experience.

They are creating a new experience. An expanded opportunity. Remote conferences do have their benefits. I have attended more conferences this year because the funds needed are minimal. You pay for the registration fees and any workshops you choose to attend. I did not have any travel costs. So many other costs that add up to participating in a conference were all together removed with everything being remote. All the stress of leaving home and providing for whoever is going to be staying behind for that week was not there. Work did not pile up or need to be covered by another colleague. I did all my classes without missing a beat. For academics like me with limited travel funds and limited opportunities to take off classes, these remote conferences are great. I can make more of my students attend because I only need to pay for their registration. And student registrations have been so generously low this year. My students enjoyed the conferences. They are savvy at this. They engage better online. Remote conferences have opened up a new avenue of outreach. It is no longer the same group of people attending. International attendees and other busy professionals can attend as little or as much as they can. You do not have to miss sessions. You can only be in one session at a time during in-person conferences. In remote conferences, if there are two talks scheduled for the same day, and the organizer chooses to make them available on demand, you can view all posters or presentations from the previously recorded sessions. For all these reasons, I believe remote conferences are here to stay.

I have been thinking about my experiences with the remote conferences and I need to make some changes. I am journaling here some of the things I want to put into practice and that some of you might find useful too.

A word of caution. We all have Zoom/ Teams/ Adobe Connect/ Name your meeting platform fatigue. What I would not give to reduce one more minute of virtual meetings! The strategies below that I want to employ work against this desire to walk away.

The preparation will look different but there must be a preparation phase. If I or my students are presenting, the conference presentations for an on-demand (pre-recorded) session will be required much earlier than the actual conference dates. That leaves the conference duration open for learning and interaction. But I need to set some boundaries and goals and be intentional about them to make the most of that time.

Little things prior to the conference will add up. I need to finish recording my lectures and completing other tasks that would be due during the conference timings. Should I put an email signature that I am away at a conference and that certain delays in response are to be expected? How would that go over in a time where constant communication via email is the norm? I need some inducement to plan my days better. I will make a commitment to set aside a one day sabbath from work and spend it with my family. No computers or headphones allowed! It will be something to look forward to and reenergize me for work.

How do I handle the conference days? Little things again.  Remember the buying of new clothes? Not that I present myself disheveled to a routine work day. But is there not something to getting ready for a conference? I want to prepare myself physically so my mind aligns itself appropriately. I need to have only one browser or App allowed while in a session. Email, browsing, and all other tasks are to be put on hold while listening to a presentation. If I have a research presentation, then I will invite people to attend. I need to check in on the online discussion boards. If I do to not have a presentation, then I will make it a point to ask questions of other presenters in the discussion boards. I need to converse with researchers with overlapping interests. I will try to attend the live sessions as much as I can so I can interact in live conversation in addition to the delayed discussion boards. I will check in with friends that are also attending so we can discuss our common experience and connect in some fleeting way.

What an optimist I am! The reality is these are my best intentions. So many things will set themselves up as obstacles. There will be emails that will need answering. Unexpected things at home will take precedence and my classes will be done just in time. I will try though. This is a long list but it is small steps. I will not do all that I intend but I will apply some of these to one presentation. Not an entire conference. Just one presentation. I can then graduate to a session and then I can entertain the idea of a conference day. The work sabbath after the conference? It is surely coming whether I follow through on the rest of the list or not.

*Monica Joshi is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests are in forensic analytical chemistry with focus on the analysis of drugs of abuse and trace evidence. Forensic science education and mentorship energizes her and she routinely participates in conferences looking for creativity in these areas.

Monica Joshi