One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.

Walk the talk

By Davide Gaglio

It’s time for the 2nd World seabird conference! I am very excited to be a part of it and luckily it happens to taking place in Cape Town this year. An international conference is an important step for a PhD student, and I get to meet my heroes in seabird research! Researchers from institutes all of the world will be gathering this week at the CTICC in Cape Town.

This conference will give me the chance to make a lasting impression that could make a huge difference to my project and my future career. It will give me the opportunity to showcase my PhD and in particular follow up on my mission to convince everyone that “not only penguins are cute… but also Swift Terns!” (But maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot with this mission — recently I won in the Oceans of Life Photographic Competition with a cute penguin photo…) It’s probably the most important international photo competition on the marine environment, so to be one of the winners makes me feel very privileged and super-excited! And I can’t wait to see my picture displayed at the conference!
I’m starting out right with the photo, but I’m a bit stressed about my talk… So I thought I’d share some suggestions, which I found helpful.

1) Be yourself

Figure out what my “natural” presentation style is, is crucial. Ok, English is not my first language…but I always try to find a way to entertain my audience! I will start my talk with an old Italian say “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are!”… good intro to show a dietary study, right?

you are what you eat

2) Preparing slides

I’ve been told that when it comes to slides, less is more. There is not point to rush through 50 slides in 10 minutes. The bulk of my talk will be 5 or 6 slides, which will be focused on the results. I mean, that’s the interesting stuff, really – who cares about the boring background detail?

3) Be clear and concise

My goal will be to make the audience remember my focal points, trying to highlight my primary message more clearly. I want a broad audience, not just experts in my field, to be able to understand my results. So I won’t ramble and I won’t use overly complicated language.

4) Engage your audience with illustrations

… “I DON’T WORRY ABOUT THAT!” I have plenty of photos!

5) Handling the Q&A

For me, the most nerve-wracking part of a presentation is that after I have delivered my talk and I will be waiting for unknown questions!!…hhmmm… It’s a bit intimidating! Well, people told me “Davide… You designed and implemented the study and conducted the analyses so no-one better than you, can answer the questions related to your project”…Yes, they are right! I should relax…

6) Practice makes perfect!

Perfection is my second name!! ha ha… Allow yourself enough time to practice your talk at least three times before going live on stage, focusing on transitions, eye contact, and rate of speech, which are often problematic when first giving a talk. Practice your talk in front of a diverse audience. Use your lab mates, who probably already know a lot about your research and can give detailed comments. It may also be useful to spend some time toying with any equipment you may use, such as a laser pointer or projector, so that you don’t waste time during your presentation to figure out how to use it. The more comfortable you feel during a talk, the clearer your message will be to the audience.
My preparation for my talk is going well, but I know I will get the most out of the conference once my talk is done. Then I will stop practicing in my head, and actually listen to the other presenters, too. And I am really looking forward to it, especially the numerous social events!! ☺ ☺