Are virtual conferences here to stay?

Young man looks at dog out the window while on a Zoom call

Image credit: Getty Images/ Alistair Berg

Image credit: Getty Images/ Alistair Berg

International conferences look very different in our post-pandemic world.

In this opinion piece, Professor Naomi Wray shares her experience organising a virtual scientific conference – and why she believes online events won’t necessarily replace the real thing in future.


COVID-19 has made us re-evaluate how much we need to meet in person to get our work done.

Each year, many scientists travel to attend global conferences where they have the opportunity to meet colleagues and share new results. It might seem like a luxury, especially when requiring international travel, but these meetings have been a key part of the scientific process for several decades.

My experience hosting the 6th International Conference of Quantitative Genetics (ICQG) this year has shown me there are many benefits to the new world of online meetings, particularly relating to accessibility.

That said, online platforms are yet to capture the social interaction side of conferences, which serve an important function, particularly for early career researchers.

So, unless we can work out how to digitally carry this key function in its completeness, I suspect virtual meetings won’t outlast the pandemic.

Improving accessibility

Most of us now know that being a Zoom presenter is not a particularly rewarding experience: talking to yourself, trying not to watch your unflattering reflection, and with no real way of knowing if your audience is in raptures or asleep.

But there are a lot of benefits to moving meetings and conferences online.

This is something I learned through a crash course hosting ICQG alongside my co-chair Ben Hayes from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation.

For one thing, going virtual has allowed us to more than double participation.

The last conference, in Madison, United States, in 2016, secured just over 500 registrants.


By going virtual, we have attracted nearly 1,200 registrants.

People are ‘coming’ from all over the world, but we are drastically cutting carbon kilometres by everyone staying at home.

But for me, the best thing about going online is that it has allowed more people to join from developing countries. We further supported this at the ICQG by sponsoring some free registrations. I know people have appreciated the opportunity to participate in a conference they normally wouldn’t be able to attend.


Digital assistants

Another thing made possible by hosting the conference online is the ability to use digital tools to help clear up misunderstandings and promote discussions in real time during talks.

This is particularly important at ICQG.

Our conference brings together researchers trying to understand how genetic traits cause differences among individuals. This might involve looking at height or disease in humans, wing length or life span in fruit flies, milk production or meat quality in livestock, or yield or pesticide resistance in crops. We all measure DNA to answer different questions.

Our conference provides an opportunity for people to be exposed to solutions from another subfield that might be novel to them, but completely relevant to their research.


Unfortunately, sometimes we can end up speaking different languages, even when talking about the same problem.

As a junior scientist at my first meeting, I remember feeling quietly overwhelmed because the subject was technically challenging, and people were using buzzwords and acronyms specific to their area.

This year, if people want something cleared up, they can put it in the Q&A box. It’s not a question for the presenter, but some of my team are primed to give points of clarification as people ask. This provides a huge advantage and will help ensure attendees get the most out of the conference.

Image Credit: Getty Images/ Kingwin

A white background with triangular network pattern

The downsides

Not everything is straightforward though. With differences in time zones, running an international conference is a little tricky.

There simply is no perfect answer, but we have geared towards a format that works as well as possible across all time zones.

We have three 1.5-hour sessions per day, spread over two weeks. Sessions start at 7am, 12pm and 7pm Brisbane time.

This means people nearby can capture all three sessions a day, and most people around the world can capture two out of the three. If they miss one, they can watch the recording uploaded shortly afterwards.


The main reason people attend conferences is the science, but conferences also provide a chance for people to mingle and chat, with coffee rooms and meeting rooms helping to facilitate this.

Previous online conferences have tried to set these up, but many miss the mark.

Take virtual poster sessions, for example. Here a researcher, usually a junior one, creates a virtual poster of their work, then waits in a virtual meeting room for a discussion.

I know my students have sat alone by their virtual posters, and no-one has come by.

At the ICQG, we’re letting people view the posters in their own time zone. They can write comments, and if there is someone they want to engage with, they can set that up easily via our meeting hub. It’s not ideal, but may be a better use of everyone’s time.


Tradition tells us the younger folk like to meet and socialise. But importantly, they want to meet senior researchers.

To facilitate this, at our conference we’re organising some Zoom chats with the presenters after each session.

This provides a forum for those really interested in the presentations to catch up with the speakers – just like when members of the audience find the speaker in the coffee break after a session at an in-person conference.

The verdict?

All in all, virtual conferences will serve us well for this year and the next.

But, essentially, the reason you go to conferences is to meet people. A lot of the interesting stuff happens over coffee before a session, or in the bar afterwards. Conferences provide an opportunity for technical catch-up meetings with international collaborators, and allow new collaborations to form.

Because of that, I think people will be keen to resume attending conferences in person once the threat of the pandemic has passed.

However, with these platforms now set up, I hope we’ll see conferences run as a hybrid. With an in-person conference, recorded sessions, and the capacity for people to join in online, we could get the best of both worlds.

For 2020, we do what we can. It’s now over to all of us to make ICQG a conference we will remember.

Image Credit: Getty Images/ Orbon Alija

Arial view of people walking from above. People are connected by lines like a network

The verdict?

All in all, virtual conferences will serve us well for this year and the next.

But, essentially, the reason you go to conferences is to meet people. A lot of the interesting stuff happens over coffee before a session, or in the bar afterwards. Conferences provide an opportunity for technical catch-up meetings with international collaborators, and allow new collaborations to form.

Because of that, I think people will be keen to resume attending conferences in person once the threat of the pandemic has passed.

However, with these platforms now set up, I hope we’ll see conferences run as a hybrid. With an in-person conference, recorded sessions, and the capacity for people to join in online, we could get the best of both worlds.

For 2020, we do what we can. It’s now over to all of us to make ICQG a conference we will remember.

Arial view of people walking from above. People are connected by drawn lines to look like a network

Professor Naomi Wray
NHMRC Leadership Fellow - GL
Institute for Molecular Bioscience
Affiliate Professor
Queensland Brain Institute

Professor Naomi Wray smiling

E: naomi.wray@uq.edu.au
T: +61 7 3346 6374