The Virtual Conference Experience is a Mixed Bag
Elizabeth Anderson, PhD

The Virtual Conference Experience is a Mixed Bag

The AACR organizers did a great job with this year’s meeting. I hope we won’t have to do it again.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused global cancellation of travel, conferences and other meetings in person. The annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer (AACR), due to be held in April, was one of the earliest casualties. AACR 2020 was expected to be the largest ever with more than 7400 proffered papers, approx. 24,000 delegates from 80 countries and more than 500 exhibitors (including Charles River Laboratories). Rather than skip a year, the AACR did what so many other organisations and businesses had to do and went “virtual”.

The AACR 2020 organisation must be congratulated on re-organising the annual meeting into 2 separate virtual conferences at very short notice. AACR Virtual Annual Meeting I was held on April 27-28th and featured select presentations comprising the results of a number of high profile clinical trials and first disclosures of innovative small molecule and biological entities. These were considered time sensitive and potentially practice changing so were prioritised and made available at the time of the original meeting.

The AACR Virtual Annual Meeting II, held between June 22nd and 24th, featured thousands of the remaining proffered papers arranged into mini-symposia, educational sessions, workshops and e-posters.

So, was it a success? As a virtual event, the AACR 2020 meeting was a triumph but as the annual get together of a very large and very active research society, not so much.  What were the high and low points of going virtual?

The AACR waived the registration fee for the virtual meetings making them accessible to any oncologist or cancer researcher with an internet connection. This had the positive effect of attracting a much larger and more diverse audience. The meetings became available to post-graduate and post-doctoral students who might not have been able to attend at all. All presentations and discussions were recorded and made available to everyone who registered for the virtual meetings as were all the e-posters. These recordings overcame some of the issues associated with differences in time zones with the additional benefit of allowing you to stop a presentation at any point, to read and digest the slides fully or to skip forward to presentations of most interest. The speakers participated mostly from their homes or offices offering glimpses into their interior lives. Ken Anderson has a football helmet with the logo of the American Society of Hematology on his office window ledge, Philip Sharp has a nautical theme going on in his kitchen and Pat Steeg had an adorable dog as her audience. I don’t know who co-ordinated the IT aspects of the virtual meeting, but they deserve a medal; every live session that I watched went smoothly despite speakers, chairpersons and panelists being scattered around the globe.

It is fantastic that all the posters have been put on the conference site in an electronic format. In previous years not all posters have been made available for post-meeting inspection. Whilst the daily poster session marathons fueled by coffee, biscuits and chocolates scavenged from the exhibitors’ booths have not been missed, the opportunity to talk to the presenters and to bump into colleagues old and new, has. The prospect of deciding which of the thousands of posters are most relevant to your work and how to get to them is still as daunting as ever but at least we have more time to go through the e-posters and there is a facility to email questions to the presenters.

As an exhibitor, CRL prepared a “virtual booth” comprising short, recorded presentations from some of our oncology scientists and links to oncology resources such as our 3D virtual booth and the Tumour Microenvironment Explorer. Recording a presentation for the booth via Skype was definitely an experience not to be repeated! I’ve no idea how TV news presenters manage, but trying to read a script whilst maintaining eye contact with the camera and speaking slowly and clearly is much harder than it looks

In some respects, the virtual booth was a great success and we had thousands of virtual visitors. On the down side, a virtual conference can never replace the annual meeting of a large, very active, international society dedicated to the study and treatment of cancer. To borrow the title of a Broadway musical, the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd was sadly missed. To a large extent, it is the face-to-face interactions with other people, whether they be friends, colleagues, collaborators or clients that determines whether a conference is a success or not.  Remote presentations, good as they may be, cannot generate the same frisson of excitement as a live presentation in front of hundreds or thousands of delegates. There is no instant feedback on the significance of the findings and no-one with whom to discuss the day’s findings over a beer or three in the evening. This feeling of “detachment” was not helped by differences in time zones which meant that the live sessions continued late in the evening if you were watching from Europe. The recorded sessions did mean that we could watch the presentations at our convenience, but they also meant that we could not participate in the post-presentation discussions.  

The symposia were much shorter than usual in terms of the numbers of speakers and there seemed to be more educational sessions and workshops. There were no sessions of proffered papers where many younger researchers get the chance to give a short presentation on their work. Presumably this was because the logistics of having many short presentations in a single virtual session were insoluble.

In conclusion, going virtual was the only way that the AACR could rescue the annual meeting this year and give at least some of the participants the opportunity to present new and important data. In this respect, the AACR did a great job and I hope that we won’t have to do it again.

Check out Eureka's other coverage from AACR2020 here.