Looking back on ESISyNC 2020
ESISyNC is the highlight of the academic year at the ESI, which everyone at the ESI is looking forward to long in advance. During the small, intensive conference, researchers at ESI have the privilege to invite leading neuro-scientists to the institute. For three days, everything revolves around discussing and gathering inspiration. A great opportunity to frame one’s own research into the bigger picture. Cancel the event because of Covid-19? That was out of the question for the organization team. Instead, the postdocs, PhD students and technical assistants in charge starterd from scratch, called off the catering and purchased an online conference tool - ESISyNC, the online edition.
27 Aug 2020
Frederike, Ben and Rasmus, you were part of the organizing team. Initially you had prepared for a “regular” on-site conference. How was it to suddenly reschedule and plan an online-event?
Frederike Klein: It took a lot of creativity, I would say. And a lot of work. The conference is organized every year by different scientific and technical staff members. To avoid that everybody makes the same mistakes, there is a kind of manual that is always supplemented and passed on to the next generation. But for us of course that didn’t help at all. An online conference needs completely different ingredients. So we had to cancel the hotel rooms we had already booked for the speakers, cancel the catering and also say goodbye to some of the really nice ideas we already had come up with to make “our” ESISyNC a special event. Instead, we had to think a lot about stuff like what the right software is, how to make a time-schedule that works for someone in Japan but as well for someone on the west coast of the US, what to consider in terms of data protection, and how to make sure that it will still be the social and interactive event we were all looking forward to.
You are not the only ones who decided to go virtual. Instead of cancelling all together many scientific conferences this year were rescheduled to online events. Had you joined a virtual conference before and did that experience help with organizing ESISyNC?
Benjamin Stauch: Oh yes, absolutely! Starting from what conference software to use to the best way to run a poster session, we all got this from other virtual meetings. In some cases organizers of previous conferences had put their experience online, which was extremely helpful for us. Also we were lucky in that some of us had helped to organize an online lecture series, the “Mainhatten Lectures” and through this they already knew a lot about virtual talk dos and don’ts. I think if ESISyNC had taken place in March right after the lockdown, we all would have shied away from organizing it as an online conference. But after seeing: Okay, it actually does work, it was a lot less scary to jump into the cold water.
Frederike Klein: I think it also helped that most of our speakers already had given virtual talks before. We only had two speakers who asked to test the procedure beforehand. All the others found online presentations somewhat of a routine thing to do.
Yesterday was the last conference day. Everything worked out just fine. What was the absolute highlight for you that made all the work worthwhile?
Rasmus Roese: To be honest, just in itself that everything worked out so nicely is a huge highlight. I mean, none of us had ever done things like for example an online moderation before. But everything went super smooth and without major glitches. Another thing I liked a lot was the contact with the speakers. It was so friendly and personal, it couldn’t have been any better with coffee and face-to-face conversation. And by going online, ESISyNC got a completely different reach. Almost 200 people were registered. That’s double of what we had last year. Probably there would have been even more registrants if we hadn’t put up a deadline. Of course, not everyone was always present at every talk, the record was around 110 people. But still, our conference room at ESI would not have been large enough for this many people.
Frederike Klein: Yes, that was really a very nice aspect. We had many registrations from students who wouldn’t have been able to attend the conference on-site, simply because there is no way they would get their travel expenses covered. For our online-ESISyNC we had registrants from the Arab world and from Africa. Looking at it like that, it really seems virtual conferences help to disseminate knowledge more equally.
Benjamin Stauch: I agree that this is one of the great advantages of moving conferences online. I noticed before and I did noticed again now at ESISyNC: Students and PhD students are more likely to ask a question during online lectures than when they are in a room full of established researchers and have to speak into a microphone. Personally I also felt that the discussions at the posters were much more active. At physical conferences, I have often waited forever until someone comes to ask about my poster; online this somehow works better. And then we shouldn’t forget, that from an ecological point of view, it is so much better if we don’t travel around the world for a few days of conference.
Next year it’s somebody else’s turn to organize ESISyNC. What advice will you give those colleagues? Assuming the Covid-19 situation is more relaxed by then: online or on site?
Rasmus Roese: A mixture of both would be brilliant. The personal interaction, the little talks during breaks, the networking – all of these things are a lot harder to do online than face to face. Especially small conferences like ESISyNC live from direct contact, and we want to have that back again. But maybe not everyone has to be on site. Maybe speakers who want to avoid flying around the globe or students who can’t afford to come could tune in virtually.
Frederike Klein: Personally, I prefer on-site conferences, but of course it would be great to combine the advantages of online and offline. However, the organization of this online edition of ESISyNC alone has given me grey hair. So, I think one of either - virtual or physical - is already more than enough to do.