DEC. 10, 2020 by ADRIENNE WOOTTEN
Every Fall, many of us working in climate science would usually be attending the major end-of-year conferences, meeting colleagues, making connections, presenting our work, and receiving constructive comments and criticism. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how millions of people interact personally and professionally.
One such meeting is the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Like all the major professional scientific societies, AGU changed the meeting format to be entirely virtual to keep attendees safe during the pandemic and to enable attendance amid domestic and international travel restrictions. The virtual AGU Fall Meeting is in full swing (from December 1-17, 2020), with presentations starting as early as 6 am Central Time and ending as late as 11:30 pm Central Time.
I commend the AGU staff and meeting organizers for arranging the technology to be able to translate the thousands of normally in-person presentations to thousands of Zoom sessions with relatively few glitches thus far. I was accepted to present a poster presentation virtually on my recent research, but I have also done poster presentations in person. While the content was the same, there are distinct differences.
iPoster, a system to create and present research posters virtually, is a useful system used by AGU. While your poster appears like a poster, you are not restricted by a 3-foot by 4-foot space. You can include as much content in your virtual poster as you choose (including videos, photos, and links to relevant resources and references). You have unlimited creativity as you build your virtual poster. But that isn’t entirely a good thing because you can cram in material and inadvertently make your poster longer then the audience will be willing to read (I’ve encountered a few of those already). So, the space limitation of an actual poster can be quite helpful to condense your message to your key points. Besides, I found the iPoster editor interface to be quite a user un-friendly compared to the tools I would normally use to prepare a poster. There is quite a learning curve to producing a virtual poster when the interface is not what you are used to.
The differences above are minor, but as I thought about it, a more serious issue came to mind. My poster was available to view all day on December 7, 2020, but for one hour during the day the organizers arranged a “poster walk.” It was a brief time to be “at your poster” and present as you would for an in-person meeting, except you scrolled through your virtual poster. The thing is, this was all done via Zoom (as with any other presentation at AGU). Many of us know by now, it’s very easy to leave a Zoom session running, listen (or half-listen) to a webinar, and be doing other things. Many of us have probably done that at this point. You don’t have to be present for a webinar, you can talk, answer questions, then fade away. However, in an in-person session, you must be prepared to talk with whoever walks up to your poster. You’re there for an hour or more (often your feet get sore if you’re in dress shoes), talking with people, making connections as people walk by and check out your work. You must be present in those moments because you can make professional connections with a smile, an anecdote, and sharing stories and insights in larger conversations. You make a human connection in in-person sessions that you can’t make with virtual poster sessions and walks.
So here is the greatest difference I see between virtual and in-person poster sessions. In one version, you are virtually presenting. In the other version, you are personally present. No Zoom meeting can replace the genuine personal presence that leads to human connections and strengthens collaboration. The simplest interactions reinforce that all of us, with our intellectual diversity, backgrounds, and world views, are all very human. Human connections make for stronger collaboration and understanding of each other as we pursue common goals.
At least to me, virtual conferences are profoundly depressing because they lack human connection. I, for one, look forward to returning to standing around for an hour or more chatting with people again in in-person sessions, because the human connection matters to me, no matter how sore my feet get.