The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the way academic conferences are usually organised. In the first year of the pandemic, many conferences were postponed, cancelled or forced to move online. For example, AlgaEurope 2020, which was originally planned to be held in Rome, had to move to an online format. I participated as an e-Poster presenter. I was asked to upload a PowerPoint video, and then during the conference, the time was given for people to go and watch the e-Posters. However, I have to conclude that the format used at that conference was not that good resulting in the fact that I did not receive any feedback, nor did I found out how many people watched the PowerPoint video I made. In this case, I think conference participants should be more engaged to give attention to online e‑Poster sessions. During the online conference, I noticed that the organisers opted to schedule sessions starting early in the morning. This was to accommodate presenters from largely distinct time zones as online access is not restricted due to geographical reasons. This was an upside for online conferences as we had guest speakers from Australia, China as well as the United States. However, I also quickly realised that virtual conferences – as in watching presentation slides from your monitor screen – can be quite tiring, as a few presentations in a row already made my eyes tired and it was hard to focus. Furthermore, networking was non-existent as you could not randomly meet people and have a chat. These are some disadvantages that cannot replace offline conferences. To keep the participants entertained, some conferences like the EFFoST 2020 conference had an online food science trivia quiz. Fortunately, I won the second prize in this trivia quiz and won a cookbook “Jerusalem” by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi! I enjoyed and appreciated this effort from the organisers to engage and entertain the participants. The COVID-19 pandemic forced academic conferences to adapt, but it also made me realise that going to scientific conferences is more than just to discuss science.
-Adiguna Bahari (Cargill R&D)
The first presentation at a conference is said to be special. Indeed, it was! Last year, I had the pleasure to present my research results in a poster at the EFFoST 2020 conference originally planned to take place in Tel Aviv, Israel. I was very excited and already nervous when I submitted my abstract to the editors – perhaps my first big conference as a presenter, with an audience of young and experienced researchers. It was a big thing for me, as I am in general not feeling very comfortable in large groups and especially not in speaking in front of many people. However, let’s get out of the comfort zone and accept the challenge!
At the time my abstract for a poster presentation got accepted, the organisers already decided to hold the conference in an online setting due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All poster presentations were scheduled in parallel and repeated three times on the two days. We were advised to open a virtual room and present the poster to the attendees in 30 minutes. To be honest, at first, I was slightly disappointed to not converse in a physical audience, “showing” parts of last year’s progress in a beautiful poster (because visitors could not have been attracted by the poster displayed). Nevertheless, I was very pleased to attend and be a part of the conference, getting inspired from impressing speeches – and sometimes being amused about technical difficulties, for example as of my poster presentation. Unfortunately, technics did not allow some of the participants to join, hear or see my three live sessions. I accepted it with humour. The number of poster presentations was vast, and at the end of the day, I was happy to share my work with very few, yet very interested researchers.
All in all, the organization of the online conference was sound! A mix of scientific to “easy-going” talks from junior to senior researchers, made it enjoyable to attend. Personally, I also really enjoyed the Young EFFoST Day addressing career perspectives despite the situation during COVID-19.
-Katharina Henn (UCPH)
The exceptional situation of the past year made it necessary to reconsider the way scientific conferences are held and to search for creative solutions to preserve the communication among scientists limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each conference I planned to participate in, had to be switched from a physical face-to-face setting to a digital event. On some occasions, the transition from an offline conference to virtual rooms required a new type of participation in the form of pre-recorded presentations to limit technical transmission difficulties. The associated lack of direct in-person interaction with the audience during the talk was elegantly resolved by a chat box that allowed the audience to ask questions. Moreover, this organisation made it possible to access the videos even after the conference had ended, which greatly enriched the experience, as presentations that could not be attended during the event due to time overlaps could still be viewed afterwards. In addition, numerous networking opportunities were granted by social activities such as virtual coffee breaks and online quizzes which enabled me to connect with the other participants despite the physical distance. Overall, these online events proved to be a great way to bring together researchers from all around the world and allow them to share their innovative works. Not only did they reinforce a feeling of engagement but also of normality in these uncertain times while at the same time bringing a new understanding of the use of technology to drive the diffusion of knowledge.
-Svenja Krause (INRAE)
In conclusion, the impression of an online conference for the FOODENGINE fellows is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the fellows feel it limits in-person interaction, networking and provides limited feedback while on the other hand, it eliminates the need for travel and still gathers researchers across the globe. Despite the format, the great organisation and the enthusiasm to participate still makes it an enriching experience.