Deborah Talmi, Lucy Fellow and Director of Studies (Psychology), has successfully run an academic conference entirely on Zoom
On Monday 20 April, The Cambridge Memory Meeting 2020 was held online using Zoom. One of the first virtual academic conferences of its kind in Cambridge, it has set an excellent standard for online conferences and will encourage others to do the same, reducing the carbon footprint of science.
The keynote speakers were Professor Muireann Irish, ARC Future Fellow, School of Psychology and Brain & Mind Centre, The University of Sydney, and early-careers researcher Ali Boyle, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge, and the Centre for Science and Thought, University of Bonn. You can view the full programme here
The aim of the memory group is to encourage interaction between the many labs working on the psychology/neuroscience of short- and long-term memory, both human and non-human.
The idea is for friendly, informal annual meetings in which students and postdocs present their research in a supportive environment, helping all participants find out about related work taking place locally, and highlighting areas for future collaboration. Because all of the presenters were early career researchers, who are more likely than PIs to suffer from decreased professional interactions due to lockdown, it was particularly important to find a way not to cancel this year’s meeting.
The virtual format of this year’s meeting was of course a necessary requirement in the current situation but it does have advantages. Virtual meetings are known to increase the diversity of participation - people who normally find it difficult to travel, either because of caring responsibilities, financial constraints, or geographical location, do not face these barriers in virtual meetings. Although perhaps less relevant for a local meeting, it did allow some people to attend who were less likely to do so in a face-to-face format, e.g. current and former trainees who work remotely. Virtual meetings also save a large amount of CO2 emissions, and reduce our carbon footprint.
However, virtual meetings also pose some significant challenges. The downside of the freedom to connect form home means that people can be more distracted by their home environment. Technical issues can also be a problem. Although internet connectivity was excellent throughout the day, the Zoom platform was limited in its ability to facilitate personal interactions and networking. A functionality called ‘break-out’ rooms allows small groups to form, but Zoom does not allow attendees to move freely between break-out rooms. This can work well for training set-ups when hosts assign attendees to rooms randomly; but it limited both the purposeful and the serendipitous interactions that we enjoy in academic conferences. This was partially mitigated by the excellent chat functionality which allowed individuals to interact throughout the day, and exchange questions, ideas, and information dynamically even during the talks. This was useful for chairs who could draw out people to speak to the issues they raised during the panel discussion.