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A virtual science conference is nothing like a physical one

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, my scientific life – like many others – changed a lot. I lost my motivation to look for science conferences and had no enthusiasm to attend seminars, since I did not enjoy video meetings.

I love physical interaction between people and virtual meetings made me feel as I was talking to a machine and not really interacting with others. But after my mentor advised me to attend a virtual grand conference my view towards virtual meetings totally changed. 

How virtual conference works

Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology is committed to connecting the scientific community across disciplines and borders by convening open, international conferences on the cutting edge of the biomedical and life sciences.

It is an initiative to bring more science to the global scientific community by leveraging digital media technologies. During COVID-19 the symposium shifted to virtual to hold webinars for science talks, career talks, poster sessions and networking session. 

Keystone Symposia always offers financial aid regarding registration or travel. Even though becoming a virtual meeting, it still offered aid for registration. After submitting my abstract, I was lucky enough to be selected to attend the symposia for free. Here is my experience with the different webinars.

1. Science talks

The science talks are delivered through webinars where moderators are using the chat functions to notify attendees who is going to be the next speaker or for any non-scientific notifications, which resembles the setting of a physical conference. The only difference here was that attendees could not see each other, only speakers’ faces and their slides were visible.

Attendees could type in questions in the chat during and after the speaker’s talk. Not like a physical event where attendees are only allowed to ask questions after the talk and also should wait for the moderator to approve. Here it does not matter if there is no time during the talk for speakers to answer all the questions; they can still type in their answers in the chat so that everyone can see the questions and answers later on.

I believe this is a much better way for the whole audience to learn more about the science talks. With regular conferences, people may focus too much on their own questions with the risk of missing out on other people’s questions and important aspects that may be a crucial for their own projects. 

2. Poster session

Poster sessions have always been my favorite part of a conference because it is a mutual learning process. One can talk to the authors face to face and ask questions directly to them. Besides, it’s a good way to socialize and build connections. The “epost” session is surprisingly the same.

The symposium provided attendees with a virtual poster hall where everybody could see posters together with their presenters. The thoughtful part is that some of the poster owners have their own recordings of their presentations. To me, it’s not too much different from the physical experience.

However, virtual social contacts can never beat physical ones. Sadly, very few poster presenters showed up and very few people attended this session. There might be multiple reasons for this, either because of technical issues or attendees being too busy, since they may still be doing experiments on their benches while attending the conference. But overall, this is an excellent way to present posters in a virtual way.

3. Career talks

The conference also invited experts both from academia and industry. The latter involved biotech, pharmaceutical companies and publishing houses. Here, attendees could enjoy learning about how these experts ended up in their current job titles. I loved this part the most. Since it was a virtual conference, organizers provided opportunities for attendees to make appointments with the experts and to have one-on-one video meetings. I was lucky enough to talk to two editors from two publishing houses. They answered my questions about manuscript processing, shared with me their path to their current positions and also lessons learnt when they were junior researchers themselves. The conversations were very informative and highly rewarding. 

Physical isolation doesn’t isolate science

Despite being virtual, the meetings still brought together global research leaders and rising stars in particular fields to discuss the latest research advances and directions, while broadcasting live to a global audience. In the past, physical meetings could be limited to traveling issues, like needing a visa or a delayed flight. But with virtual meetings, I can enjoy scientific meetings while working on my bench or keeping my family company. Instead of just focusing on COVID-19 cases, vaccination rates, hospitalization, and death rates, I can focus on the brighter side of what the pandemic with new ways of working and gaining knowledge. 

Before the pandemic, when I had to go onsite for a lecture or symposium this meant that I needed to plan my experiments earlier so that I did not miss the lecture. Another thing is that a room holding a lecture sometimes is not big enough to allow for a large audience as virtual meetings do. Basically, one can be on a road trip but still enjoy a virtual meeting. Having fun and enjoying science at the same time, which nobody could imagine before the pandemic. 

Despite all the problems this pandemic has brought on science isolating us from each other the silver lining may very well be a forced digital leap that make science even more inclusive.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay under Pixabay License (CC0).


1. Keystone Symposia:

2. Introducing Keystone Symposia’s eSymposia Conference Series.

3. Lei Shen, Poster session, the Most Learnable Part in a Scientific Conference, a Mutual Learning Mode.

About the Author
  • Lei Shen

    Lei is a postdoc associate studying ATP synthase permeability channels in regular content and also in neuronal diseases and psychiatric disorders. She likes learning languages, oral interpretation between Chinese and English. She also enjoys traveling and exploring Japan.

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