Science is flexible, and since the beginning of the pandemic, scientific conferences have had to take place in virtual settings. While science and its proceedings can come across as a stream of factual calculation and conjecture, the process of sharing its findings and implications has always been uniquely human. Since the 1860s, scientists have held annual meetings in part because they believed these large gatherings would raise public awareness and, by extension, funding. The virtualization of these gatherings affects the Wooster scientific community’s ability to collaborate, connect and form research alliances for students and professors alike.
A more connected society today makes bridging and funding research projects a more seamless process. Conferences bring researchers together and promote collaborations where they otherwise would not exist. However, the pandemic has also shown how interconnectedness can lull the community into a false sense of security while simultaneously robbing it of “impromptu personal interactions,” as Professor Meagen Pollock explained. Pollock is a professor of earth sciences in the earth sciences department at the College; she attends geoscience and higher education conferences. Large gatherings of scientists have always been a centerpiece in the proceedings of its major branches, sometimes taking on a mythos of their own in everyday life and even in literature like “The Mars Trilogy.”
Pollock describes in-person scientific conferences as revitalizing and “an intense period of growing [her] professional network, nurturing established connections and sharing [her] ideas.” She elaborated on this description saying that “it has been impossible for [her] to form serendipitous connections at remote conferences.” In this sense, scientific progress has lost its randomness; the beauty in chaos is that scientific breakthroughs come from bizarre places and chance interactions. Scientific progress is not quantifiable, and how it affects scientists’ ability to make progress in the form of new connections is not lost on Pollock: “I’ve been able to connect and collaborate with people that I’ve been working with already, but I haven’t developed new connections at remote conferences.”
On the contrary, remote conferences have many upsides that often get overlooked as the loss of human interaction weighs heaviest. Remote conferences make science far more accessible to far more people. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars in registration fees and for transportation, students and faculty alike can just open their laptops. This is very challenging for large conferences. For smaller conferences that focus on sharing fledgling ideas that draw only a few hundred people, the virtual setting can be ideal. Professor James West is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, biology, and chemistry at the College. Prior to the pandemic, West “would usually go to two or three meetings per year.” He primarily attended smaller gatherings, but since the pandemic he has “scaled back,” attending two-day-long virtual meetings and a weekly seminar series periodically. West cited a number of positives that he has taken away from his virtual experiences: “remote conferences [minimize] environmental impact and [promote] good public health practices.” Pollock also cited a number of financial or economic constraints that virtual conferences remove automatically. Larger conferences with annual meetings that draw tens of thousands of participants from around the world have always suffered from scheduling dilemmas that remote conferences take care of since talks can be recorded and rewatched in any time zone. The flipside to this argument is that single-day conferences are difficult to facilitate with people from vastly different time zones having to disrupt their daily routines just to attend a single talk.
On the future of scientific conferences, there are varying viewpoints and opinions. Wooster professors, however, seem to hold a similar confidence in the return to in-person conferences. Pollock believes that “the value and quality of in-person interactions is just too high to move to entirely remote formats.” West echoed this sentiment saying, “long-term, [he] envisions fully remote and hybrid meetings will return back to in-person, partly because having virtual options creates scheduling problems for communities that are spread out across the globe.” West added that he gets the “sense that many in [his] community long for the return of face-to-face meetings.”
These ideas seem to be very Wooster-centric, however. Nature published an article that included a survey of 900 scientists on what their feelings were about the prospect of keeping conferences virtual. Of the respondents, 74% said they hope conferences will remain remote. Most cited the “ease of attending from anywhere in the world,” but admitting to missing the in-person networking they would normally get to partake in with colleagues.
On the student front, many are wondering what undergraduate and graduate students alike are missing. For many professors, they believe it’s a lot more than just the experience. West feels that virtual conferences are still very good at getting students to practice pitching their ideas and promoting their work in front of their peers. However, he holds fast to the notion that in-person meetings are more advantageous “from a professional development perspective.” Pollock cited the fact that remote presentations are lower stakes and may allow students to just focus on conveying their ideas. The major disadvantages she sees in remote conferences are that students “have a more difficult time establishing new connections and growing their professional network.” Both Pollock and West praised Wooster students’ resilience in the face of uncertainty, regardless of the setting.
Science is not the cold, calculating fact-checking it is sometimes portrayed to be. Instead, science is just like the humans who conduct it – imperfect and always finding new ways to do the same things that have become embedded in its culture. Whether the return to in-person comes next year or years down the line, the Wooster science community will be ready with smiles impromptu ‘hellos.’