We're a little crazy, about science!

The first conference of the year

Today marks the start of the first conference of the year for me. This was the one that was unfortunately named far too similarly to the other conference I was awarded a slot to speak at (here). It’s three days long and is completely virtual (thankfully!) so I won’t be traveling just yet even though things are relaxing (far too early in my opinion). I figure today since I’ll be doing that we can discuss why I’m happy that we made the switch to virtual and why I am angry that it’s going to change soon.

Conferences are a mix of boring and exciting. The ratio depends on the conference and while most are more enjoyable than not, there have been a few times where I wished I could be elsewhere. Those are typically the conferences that are poorly organized or not well thought out. This particular conference isn’t great, I don’t hate it and the organizers are amazing at what they do, it’s just the subject matter is so varied that it’s hard to get excited about it all. There are parts I love, but there are also parts that I don’t particularly care about.

The first conference is a small group who we see on a regular basis. They are all fairly kind and most are really good at what they do. There are a few that take advantage of their time to speak and it always makes me roll my eyes. We’re told in advance how much time we get, so it sort of rubs me the wrong way when people purposefully go over that time limit. Or when told they are out of time continue on anyway. We have exactly one person who does this every time we meet so it’s not a surprise when he does it again, but it’s always a bit frustrating since others end up paying for it by having time taken from their talks to compensate.

Today was no different, but this time since we were virtual the organizers literally stopped him from sharing the screen to continue the talk and cut him off mid presentation because he was already over the time and told multiple times he was over the limit. Which leads me to the first great thing about virtual conferences, you can stop a person if needed after they’ve gone over the time, not something easily done in the regular conference setting.

The other great thing of course is that the dress is much more causal (as in no real dress code). Before it was business, but typically conferences will go one of two ways, incredibly formal or semi-formal and I find that part of that is based on the field your in. For us, we dressed very formally, suits and what not were quite common, sometimes if you were feeling very bold (or it was hot) you went without the suit jacket, but there were only a handful of people who tried that. Since we’ve gone virtual I think the most formal person was my main-PI who always dresses fairly formal and was in his standard outfit. Most if not all of the rest of us were in shirts and whatever was comfortable.

Not needing to dress nicely may seem like a silly thing to get excited over, but there’s more to it than being lazy. It makes conferences more accessible. This is two parts really, the first is that some people who are disabled find it difficult if not impossible to be able to wear formal clothing. That is getting better thankfully, but it bleeds into the second part, money.

There was a time when I was transitioning from living out of my car back into stable housing, before I ever thought I could even buy a home, where I most definitely could not afford dress clothing, much less nice dress clothing. My circumstances have improved dramatically, but I still cringe looking back at some of the first conferences I attended where my dress was, lets just use the phrase not up to par. It’s amazing what a handful of years will do for a person. The memory sticks though so anytime I’m at a formal event I recall how difficult it would be for someone who is in the same position I was. Making it in academia is hard enough, not having money to afford the clothing needed, and it is needed, is just another barrier designed to keep the “wrong people” out.

Lastly, travel! Travel is another money issue. When I travel I need to pay for myself. The school reimburses me later for the expenses, but if I had no way to pay for my trips or no special funding just for me to travel, I would literally have no way to a conference. Being virtual eliminates that barrier and while it isn’t as fun as traveling to some somewhat exotic international location for a conference and sight seeing, it means that more people can attend.

Accessibility matters, I firmly believe that conferences should be accessible to anyone who wants to attend and more importantly should be accessible for people with mobility aids such as (but not limited to) a wheelchair. Often times that is an afterthought, if it’s even a thought at all. Between the financial barriers and the physical barriers virtual conferences just make sense. I would not miss in person conferences at all if it meant that more people could attend and present their work if they wanted. Conferences are usually about sharing ideas and meeting people who share similar goals, it’s about networking and showing off a little so others can see what you’re capable of.

Anyway that’s my thoughts on the matter. In the end we’re going to make the transition back to the old way and while these days I can blend in just fine, I will never forget the days when I could not make such a claim. Maybe if more people had to go through that they would see that things need to be changed.


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