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Tips and Tricks for Virtual Conferences

An illustration of a man using a desktop computer to chat with friends over video.

A few weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) — my first virtual conference. Originally scheduled to take place in San Diego, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to go to California, but also excited about the new possibility of attending a conference while in pajamas.

I began ASHG 2020 at 10:30 a.m. on the sofa, armed with a bowl of family-size honey barbecue chips. My cat kept me company as I listened to the Presidential Welcome and Address and live-texted thoughts about the speech to my labmate. Presenting a poster was a wholly different experience than for other conferences — all I needed to do was record and upload a presentation spiel, which was capped at the incredibly short time limit of three minutes! This format meant that I didn’t need to stand at a poster for two hours, making awkward eye contact with other attendees (something I didn’t miss), but I also didn’t get to chat with people about my research face to face (something I did miss). Throughout the weeklong conference, I received great advice about career development from colleagues in the online chat rooms, tried my luck at the various trivia games (I won a prize from NanoString!) and, of course, I listened and learned about cutting-edge science from posters and presentations.

Here are a few tips and tricks that I learned from my experience:

1. Read the emails carefully!

For conferences in the past, I usually finished my posters a few days before the event, so that I could include last-minute analyses. I had only skimmed my poster acceptance email for the ASHG virtual conference, and was unpleasantly surprised when I received a reminder email informing me that I only had a few days to upload my online poster before the deadline.

2. Log in ahead of time.

If possible, log in and explore the conference platform before the event. That way, when you attend the conference, you won’t be trying to learn how to navigate the platform on the spot.

3. Take advantage of the networking sessions.

ASHG had a number of online chat rooms for participants to discuss trainee and early career development, current topics in genetics, emerging technology and innovation, and diversity and inclusion. These chat rooms offered a low pressure way to connect with colleagues and ask for advice.

4. Minimize distractions.

It was much easier for me to get distracted during the online conference, especially when I was surrounded by laundry that needed to be done, dishes that needed washing, 20 other Google Chrome tabs vying for my attention, and Instagram open on my phone. Taking care of chores beforehand, closing all my other tabs and putting away my phone definitely helped me focus on the talks going on.

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