RLI Projects: A virtual conference sharing PhD research with the wider community in MPS

James Van Yperen is a postdoctoral research assistant in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, working with local authorities and NHS partnerships on modelling Covid-19 and healthcare demand and capacity for the Sussex region. Together with Fabrizio Trovato and Hannah Wood he organised PhD in a Pandemic: Festival of the MPS PostGraduate Researcher, a week-long virtual conference for doctoral researchers to talk about their research and practice public speaking in front of colleagues.

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Going into my PhD as an eager, but shy, postgraduate I was uncertain of what PhD life would be like. I had to learn in a completely different manner, reading papers and solving problems as part of a 9-5 job, and then present my findings in front of my research group. Most of the friends I had made at university were now elsewhere, my support group had diminished. This meant I had to network. It’s easy, right? Just talk to people, right? I tried my hand at networking at a few conferences; I mostly ended up ordering takeaways and hiding in my hotel room.

Poster for the PhD in a Pandemic virtual MPS conference. Image: James Van Yperen

For those of you out there who are like me, sitting in their comfort zone because, well, comfort, networking and presenting doesn’t get much easier – but you learn to enjoy the challenge, when you’ve practiced it enough. And so, as I was going into my final year of my PhD and had recently been elected as a PGR representative, I thought I would make a difference – let me plan an event that could help PhD students gain these skills I lacked. At the first student rep meeting in October 2019, I met Fab and Hannah who both asked me if we should plan a conference for the PhD students in MPS. I said: let’s.

The original plan was for a typical day conference. PhD students would talk about their research, there would be a poster exhibition of PhD research, and then we would finish the day by networking between research groups and even across disciplines – you’re always told that you never know where collaborations occur. We had planned the date, we had planned the space, we were on the verge of booking catering, we had the coffee order ready… and then March 2020 happened. The mad panic to get everything, and everyone, virtually present in all aspects of university life took over. We had a task on our hands – how were we going to make this conference an appealing reality?

We originally postponed, citing with confidence that this would all be over in a matter of months – we would be able to host something, in person, in July. We postponed it to September. Then to October. We realised that this situation was not going to change, not enough for an event like the one we wanted.

Initially, we wanted to emulate all the individual components of the conference, with talks, a poster exhibition, and a networking event. However, these require very different platforms to work well. Zoom would have worked for the talks and the posters (utilising breakout rooms), but at the time only hosts could manage breakout rooms. To combat this we would have had to use a platform like Slack, with a channel plus a Zoom room for each poster. Networking would have been almost impossible: networking is done in small-scale conversations, not where everyone is present. So in the end we decided to focus purely on talks, on one platform that we are all far too familiar with, and to get as many participants and attendees as possible.

We split one full day of talks into five themed days – this meant we could group similar topics together, and provide a platform for undergraduate and Masters students to look at what PhD research is like in a field they know, without being overwhelmed by everything else. It meant that attendees could commit to some days but not others, very useful as it feels time moves faster and the days are shorter whilst working at home. We moved the talks to the evening, to give the opportunity for attendees to participate after a day of work or study. We scheduled the conference for the first week of December. It was going to happen.

Daniela Koeck presenting a slide at the virtual MPS conference, during a talk titled Search for supersymmetry in final states with tau leptons at the ATLAS Experiment.
Daniela Koeck presenting a slide during a talk at the virtual conference. Image: James Van Yperen

Despite the pandemic and the trials and tribulations of having a virtual conference at a very busy period of term, we had at least 20 attendees each day with a maximum of just under 40 on Friday. We had 15 presentations spread throughout the week. The conference was well received, from first year undergraduates all the way through to members of the faculty. Organising and preparing the conference was a great experience, and if you are thinking of doing the same I fully urge you to do it – the Doctoral School, the School Office, and all the faculty members who were asked to help out were all incredibly helpful and insightful. People want to see you succeed, especially in times like these.

I am glad we opted to focus only on the talks, as suitable platforms weren’t readily available. However, now we have been in this virtual situation for a while, new platforms have emerged. The Institute of Mathematics & Its Applications uses Spatial.chat, which is as close to emulating a networking event as can possibly be. At the BMC-BAMC 2021 conference we will be using the platform Sococo, which emulates the very essence of being at a conference. Now, more than ever, we can start to run conferences that are accessible throughout the world without the restrictions of physical presence.

As PhD students we are perfectly placed to discuss accessible research with both early career researchers and with learners, bridging the gap between the two. We can demonstrate to undergraduates what research really is, citing content closer to their studies. We can have engaging discussions with our peers in completely different areas of our discipline. We just need the stage to do it – this is what conferences like this are for.

By planning a conference you’ll learn many skills that are applicable to working in and out of academia, that you may not learn otherwise. My word of advice though: it is not an easy task. Be prepared to put in more time than you think, but be prepared also to reap the glory of a satisfying event and hope that it helps you build the skills you need to get out of your hotel room and network.