By Sadie Robertson
The European Geosciences Union (EGU) is Europe’s leading geoscience research organisation and each year hosts the largest geoscience conference in Europe. This year, EGU2020 was set to be held in Vienna in the first week of May. Abstracts had already been submitted and presentations/posters allocated before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. After some initial uncertainty, the meeting was scheduled to be hosted online and rebranded as EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online.
As a second year PhD student, EGU was going to be my first large international conference, and I had been scheduled to give a talk. I have previously given talks at NAM (the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting) and at a smaller Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) Community Meeting.
After being informed that the conference and all talks/posters were online, I assumed that I would still be giving a similar presentation and talk, only over the internet – but I was wrong! A couple of weeks before the conference, I was pointed towards some extra information provided on the conference website; presenters had to upload materials (such as a pdf) prior to their session and then there would be a live online text-based chat during the session. There would be no video/audio element to ensure the conference was as inclusive as possible. As my slides would no longer be comprehensive without me talking alongside, I had to rework them to include more information and clearly portray my results. This culminated in a set of presentation slides/poster hybrid that I uploaded as a pdf, which seemed to be the way most people chose to present their work. I found the best presentations to be the ones with sufficient background detail so that I could understand the problem being investigated.
There was also an issue of copyright, which I had not needed to consider in the same way before. The presentation materials were uploaded and remained accessible by anyone for a month after the conference. EGU provided a creative commons logo to put on slides to make their copyright clear. To avoid issues with reproducing other people’s figures, I had to cut out some diagrams I would usually include and reference on my introductory slides – although it is fine to reproduce figures if you get permission.
My session, titled ‘Magnetic reconnection and associated multi-scale coupling in space, astrophysics and laboratorial plasmas’, was scheduled for the first day of the conference. I presented work on electron trapping associated with magnetic mirror structures and magnetopause flux ropes, which I have been investigating using MMS. After a few teething issues with the text-based chat, my session convenors decided to allow each presenter to introduce their work and then take questions for 10-15 mins before moving onto the next presenter. Some presenters were not online, so it was hard to predict what time a given presentation would be discussed. When it came to my turn, I had a few simultaneous questions about my work, resulting in some rapid typing to respond to them. Overall, I think I managed to give sufficient answers to the questions and people seemed interested in my work – although it is much harder to judge than when you are talking face-to-face!
I dropped into some other sessions throughout the conference week. The convenors of each session used slightly different formats, meaning each session was slightly different. I sometimes found the sessions hard to follow when viewing the materials being presented for the first time. Jumping between tabs, reading both the chat and presentations at the same time, could become overwhelming. I think the best results and discussion would come from reading the presentation materials in advance, particularly in the presentations most interesting to you.
The conference was an excellent opportunity to share my work with a large audience and to learn more about a vast range of research. Having not yet attended a large international conference it is difficult to directly compare experiences; however, I did find the social aspects more limited than at in-person conferences. There were very few opportunities to engage in casual conversations, for example in lunch and coffee breaks, which could lead to interesting science discussions. Instead, I felt as though I had to have a specific question to engage in a conversation about someone’s work. Issues such as this may be amplified for students who are new to their fields.
Despite this, adapting to the pandemic has provided us with the opportunity to explore the potential benefits of virtual conferences. Flying is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in academia. Over the past year, I have worked as part of a team alongside Imperial’s Grantham Institute assessing aviation emissions at Imperial. We found that in the 2017/18 academic year 9% of Imperial’s emissions could be attributed to aviation, comparable to those associated with electricity and gas consumption . Virtual conferences could be used to compliment in-person conferences as a way to cut these greenhouse gas emissions.
If you’re preparing for an online conference, some of my tips would be:
However, this advice may turn out to be EGU-specific and who knows what structure future online conferences may take!