September 8, 2021, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

One of the highlights of my PhD studies this far

Fiona Smith, a second year PhD student in the School of Pharmacy, reflects on attending an online conference with help from the Researcher Academy’s Online Conference Fund.

~ Fiona Smith

Attending my first international conference sat in my front room, often with a cat on my lap, is not how I expected it would be.  Yet, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all had to adapt to new, sometimes odd, ways of working.  Even so, I was unsure of just how well an online conference would work.  In this blog I will be sharing my experience of attending and presenting at an online conference, which turned out to be one of the highlights of my studies this far!

My name is Fiona, a second year PhD student in the School of Pharmacy and part of the CDT for Transformative Pharmaceutical Technologies.  My research focusses on developing a new way to administer insulin to diabetic patients, an area of pharmaceutical science often referred to as formulation and drug delivery.  As soon as I saw the Controlled Release Society’s 2021 annual conference advertised I knew I wanted to attend.  To many people researching within the pharmaceutical field this is the conference to attend.  As I read the description for the conference I saw that it was being chaired by one of the world-leading experts in my field with the theme of ‘breakthrough delivery science’, aligning perfectly with my PhD and fuelling my desire to attend even more.

Me being me, I also thought it would be cool to have the opportunity to present at this conference, although really I thought there was very little chance given I was only coming up to the end of the first year of my PhD.  On looking into this a little further, I found that the CRS were accepting ‘visionary’ abstracts, for research which hasn’t been completed yet, alongside traditional abstracts.  Deciding I couldn’t miss this opportunity, I wrote my visionary abstract and submitted it, expecting, at best, to be asked to submit a poster for the conference.  To my surprise, the abstract scored highly and I was asked to upload a 10 minute pre-recorded presentation based off my abstract.  Whilst I did find the idea of recording myself presenting a little awkward at first, this was a great way for me to approach my first conference presentation without having to face a live audience, which I know would have been even more nerve-wracking.  It goes without saying this was a highlight of the conference for me, allowing me to reflect on how far I have come since the start of my PhD (and how much further I have to go…).

As I mentioned earlier, I think everyone who has considered the idea of an online conference wonders how something that usually heavily relies on human interaction could work successfully in an online environment.  I have to say, it is clear the organisers of the conference also wondered this as it very quickly became clear that a huge amount of time had been put into the organisation of this event to ensure the high quality of the conference was maintained.  A huge variety of technical talks, workshops, plenary sessions and presentations were scheduled across a broad variety of formulation and drug delivery topics, giving you the option to pick and chose sessions as you would at an in-person conference.  I also have to say that the virtual event hall they designed was really something else!  It was described by one colleague of mine as being just like google-maps for a conference and I cannot imagine any way that this could have been made more lifelike and simultaneously remain online.  Even the opportunity to network, which many people have said is one of the experiences which is lost in an online conference, was well thought out with a platform made to imitate how you would sit at a  table and chat to other attendees back in the pre-pandemic era.

Overall, as you may have gathered, I thoroughly enjoyed attending the CRS 2021 annual virtual conference.  As a PhD student it is easy to get bogged down in the daily grind of collecting data, analysing data, planning your next experiments and considering how you will write all of it up into the ever-looming thesis but the opportunity to attend a conference focussing on my area of research reminded me of my passion for research and that many of the great scientists and researchers who I saw present were once in my position too!

So, if I have convinced you to attend an online conference, or perhaps you already have one booked, here are a few pieces of advice I would like to share with you:

  • Firstly, once you have identified your conference of choice, you may wish to consider applying for the Researcher Academy online conference fund. I was lucky enough to secure funding to attend this conference, which was the cherry on top for me!  The application form isn’t too lengthy and applications are reviewed periodically so keep an eye out for emails mentioning this.
  • Plan ahead by taking a bit of time to figure out the itinerary, including which talks you want to attend. For the larger conferences there may be multiple talks at the same time so this should help you avoid missing anything important to you.  You may also need to consider differences in time zones (CRS repeated talks so you wouldn’t miss anything no matter which side of the world you’re on).
  • Put aside some extra time to read through submitted posters or watch pre-recorded talks. I found there were a lot more posters than I had expected.  Putting a bit of extra time aside to go through these means you can look at topics which might interest you more generally as opposed to just those which are specifically relevant to your work.
  • If you get the opportunity to go to a meet up session I would definitely recommend taking part in this! Whilst starting a conversation over an MSN-type messenger at an international conference might seem a little daunting, the meet up sessions were an excellent way to get talking to a small group of like-minded researchers.
  • Thinking of submitting an abstract? Check out the relevant webpage first. Whilst this might sound obvious, the CRS conference offered submission for two different types of abstract, one of which suited the current position of my research very well.  Making sure you apply for the right thing will probably help with the chances of it being accepted.

Finally, whilst this may sound a bit cliché, I would say remember to enjoy the experience!  Chances are you will be listening to field-leading researchers share their work with you and you with them.  Take the opportunity to be curious and ask questions whilst the authors of the work you’ve been studying are in the same ‘room’ as you.  And who knows, by the time the next conference roles around we may actually all be in the same room!

You can find out more about the Online Conference Fund here.

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